Madison Cario, a Georgian university administrator, is about to become the fifth executive director in the history of the Regional Arts and Culture Council.
A self-described “artist, alchemist, and interrupter” (via a LinkedIn profile), Cario wasn’t available to talk at the time of the announcement, but shows a portfolio of arts and administration work across several disciplines. They’ve spent the past four years leading Georgia Tech’s Office of the Arts, an arm of the university that oversees a performing arts venue in midtown Atlanta and commissions projects with campus and community artists. Previous posts include work at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania, as well as a playwriting fellowship.
There’s no small amount of relief surrounding Cario’s appointment. RACC has been headless since June 2017, when longtime executive director Eloise Damrosch retired. In the interim, there have been changes in leadership on the RACC board: a city audit critical of lax oversight of RACC and the agency’s accounting of its work, a public acknowledgment that the region is hemorrhaging the affordable space that makes art possible and reboots to the executive search in response to concerns about equity.
RACC’s staff size and budget are several times larger than Cario has handled before, but some of the agency’s constituents are optimistic they could start to heal the problems of the last few years.
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, Portland City Council’s arts liaison, was not available for comment on Cario’s hire. Roya Amirsoleymani is Artistic Director & Curator of Public Engagement at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA). PICA is one of several dozen arts groups that receives city cash through RACC, and Amirsoleymani was part of the cohort of community members who came to the RACC board with equity concerns. Amirsoleymani says she has not met Cario, but took their direct, on-the-ground artistic experience and engagement work as positive signs.
“It’s time to shake things up and imagine new possibilities,” she said. “At a time when making connections across art, politics, and social change is especially critical. Madison seems like someone who will help lead that charge.”
Cynthia Fuhrman is managing director of Portland Center Stage, the largest theater in Portland, and one of the largest arts institutions in the state.
“Coming from a university setting, there are parallels to working in the bureaucracy — having to walk that fine line at RACC, a combination of a public agency and a private nonprofit,” Fuhrman said. “There are obviously a lot of stakeholders to respond to and to work with, and I think that that’s not unlike the situation in academic environments. She added she’s glad to see someone with arts producing and presentation experience in the job.
Linda McGeady, RACC’s board chair, said Cario is the right candidate because of a mix of credentials and style.
“They are just a factory of ideas, and they exude a real taste for the mechanics of the job: the development of staff, for the funding, for all of those really essential behind the scenes elements that aren’t the most glamorous but really are so essential to using public funds wisely to developing a clear strategy.”
Portland’s arts ecosystem might be characterized by a sense of unease. While the city is still home to internationally recognized talents in music, literature, contemporary art and design,
the need for reassurance about RACC and its future goes beyond city hall. It’s as if the next generation of leadership in the arts has yet to emerge, due in part to scarce resources.
Oregon Symphony President Scott Showalter has yet to meet Cario, but observed that there’s been very little high-level public discussion about what role the arts have to play in the city.
“If more elected and business leaders would actively promote our vibrant arts scene as much they do other aspects of our culture,” Showalter said, “doing so costs nothing, and everyone in Portland would benefit.”
Cario will visit Portland several times through the holidays, but will begin the new job in mid-January.