"Vera Katz", 2006, Bronze, 53" x 18" by 18" on Portland's Eastbank Esplanade.

“Vera Katz”, 2006, Bronze, 53” x 18” by 18” on Portland’s Eastbank Esplanade.

Bill Bane/Courtesy of the Regional Arts and Culture Council

The late Vera Katz, in her three terms as Portland mayor, worked hard to make sure art would be part of Portland’s identity. Art wasn’t so much an item on Katz’s priority list as something to be incorporated in all facets of city business.

Eloise Damrosch was the longtime head of the Regional Arts and Culture Council. Linda K. Johnson is a dancer and choreographer, who has taught in many environments, including Jefferson High School in Portland. We asked them to come in and share with us what they remember about living, working and making in Vera Katz’s Portland.

1 | Building With Art 

As a state legislator, Vera Katz pushed to pass Oregon’s Percent for Art, which mandated construction budgets include cash for art and design as part of each capital project. (Multnomah County, Portland and other jurisdictions would follow suit.) When Katz took on ventures as Portland’s mayor, such as the Eastbank Esplanade and the Portland Streetcar, these mechanisms were critical to putting public art front and center. Damrosch said, “We were able to afford some big pieces that we couldn’t normally, with smaller projects.”

2 | Finding the Money 

Arts are a secondary consideration in city budgets. But amid the flux, Katz generally raised arts’ slice of the pie. She also initiated a 1995 gift of $1 million each to the Portland Art Museum, the Oregon Symphony, Oregon Ballet Theatre and Portland Opera, with another million for the city’s Arts Stabilization Fund. The Mayor’s Challenge for Excellence, as it was called, sowed a climate of haves and have-nots among arts groups, but it also allowed those who benefited a higher degree of stability and freedom to take on their own capital projects.

3 | Mentoring Her Successors 

While Katz did oversee the arts portfolio, she didn’t dedicate a staffer as an arts liaison like her colleague Mike Lindberg did. However, Damrosch said Katz made a huge impact by mentoring her chief-of-staff, Sam Adams — who was himself elected to council in 2004 and mayor in 2008. Adams’ laser-focus on arts issues led to a deepening of the city’s commitments and funding. “He was truly what you can call an arts mayor,” Damrosch said.

4 | Supporting Individual Artists 

As Katz was preparing to leave City Hall, her staff — knowing Katz’s love for a work she saw in Venice — commissioned artist Dana Lynn Louis to create an installation for Portland’s City Hall atrium. “Suspended Migration” is a breathtaking construction of glass, velvet, mica and other materials. Katz’s supporters raised money to make the installation permanent.

5 | Laying the Groundwork for a Creative Portland 

It’s impossible for any mayor to have their hands on every aspect of city life. But Katz’s example and leadership paved the way for work by artists like Linda K. Johnson. “So many of the things I made in that period were big public projects,” Johnson said, “where I needed help from city bureaus and transportation, and there was no closed door. I was living in a ‘yes’ city.” Johnson went on to start an artist residency in South Waterfront — a neighborhood Katz worked to transform from industrial wasteland to shining field of high-rises. The budding creatives she brought in, from Horatio Law to Adam Kuby, went on to spawn dozens of inspiring projects.