Portland Commissioner Nick Fish goes way back with the arts. Even before he moved to Portland from New York, more than 20 years ago, he was active in arts and cultural causes. While not on the committee searching to replace the director of the Regional Arts and Culture Council, he has a strong stake in making sure the right person is hired to replace Eloise Damrosch, who retired in June. We spoke with him about priorities for the search.
Q&A with Nick Fish
Nick Fish: One of the glamour jobs in the city is being the arts commissioner. It has a terrific history, going back to Mike Lindberg. Sam Adams was a terrific arts commissioner. It’s role I love to play. As a city commissioner, what I’ve learned is arts and culture is not just the soul of our city, it’s our competitive advantage. We attract so many people because of our creative reputation.
April Baer: I’ve heard you speak about the kind of arts you’re naturally drawn to and art you had no particular reason to love.
Fish: In New York there’s kind of a snobby arts scene. It’s clear who the big patrons are and who the little people [are]. Here, everyone gets to experience the arts. I’ve become passionate about modern dance. I can’t explain to you why. All I know is it moves me. I think one of our challenges is to make sure it continues to be accessible.
Baer: What do you see as Eloise Damrosch’s chief contributions?
Fish: We’ve had public support of the arts at the federal level for about 50 years. Eloise Damrosch has been a leader in the arts community for 30 of those 50 years. Would there have been an arts tax without Eloise? Maybe, but she was pretty instrumental. Would we have made the progress around Right Brain and arts education in the schools? Would we have been successful getting workplace giving programs going, like Work for Art? I don’t think so. My takeaway is deep gratitude. We live in a time when the whole idea of public service has been degraded. I think we can all agree she did something important: She dedicated a good chunk of her adult life to the cause of arts. And she was an energetic, passionate, collaborative person. And I think she’s left a pretty strong foundation. Now we’re going to build on that foundation.
Baer: Why did you and Mayor Ted Wheeler ask for an audit of RACC?
Fish: It was really about timing. RACC has never had a performance audit. We have a normal rotation for most city bureaus, but RACC is not a city bureau. [RACC is an independent nonprofit governed by a contract with the city of Portland.] And here’s the logic: Facts are friendly. By the time the audit comes out, they’ll have a new leader. The audit may say, here are the things you’d doing well. Good — you can build on that. The audit may say here’s some areas that need improvement That’s exactly what a leader needs. Either way, the timing was right. Here’s another part of my thinking. The city of Portland gives RACC about 70 percent of its resources. Over the Adams years we significantly increased our public support. We’re continuing to think of ways to expand public support. The best way to make a case is to document the successes we’ve had.
Baer: What’s on your mind right now as the search committee moves forward?
Fish: In some ways this process is a little destabilizing. Eloise has been there for so long, people are wondering what’s next. And there’s a lot of urgent questions about the future. While we have a lot to celebrate, we cannot afford to became complacent. From my point of view we’re looking for a strong leader, someone who has a record of building strong community partnerships. We need a cheerleader. We need someone who’s an effective communicator, who can get up in front of any setting, a business group, a visiting delegation, a student group, and make the case for art. And make it so compelling that everyone takes out their checkbook and writes a check. And the search committee and the city have been clear: Our next leader has to have a deep commitment to equity. That’s not to say RACC hasn’t made progress. But we’ve been clear that has to be a cornerstone part of the search. One of our future challenges in supporting culturally-specific, community-based organizations which are necessarily struggling in today’s Portland and costs go through the roof.