OAC Executive Director Brian Rogers and the commission delayed a full discussion of the cuts until later this summer when the budget is signed, but we sat down with him last week to get a sense of where the discussion of cuts is headed.
Q&A with OAC Executive Director Brian Rogers
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
April Baer: What were you hearing from [the Oregon Arts Commission’s parent agency] Business Oregon and budget writers about what the situation was going into session?
Brian Rogers: I think it’s the same thing everyone else has been hearing — it’s an extremely difficult state budget session with a number of deficit problems being sorted out. The message we heard early on in the process, which starts about a year-and-a-half ago, was that general funds were being looked at in every nook and cranny of state government.
Baer: Tell us about the cuts the arts commission had to absorb. Were they commensurate with what other agencies had?
Rogers: Yeah, at the beginning of the process, each agency was required to provide a 5 percent, a 10 percent and a 15 percent reduction plan. And that worked through the process with the Department of Administrative Services and the governor’s office and the legislature. Those plans are looked at by a number of different people and sources.
Baer: It appears the arts commission was asked for a 14 percent reduction in its budget. That can mean different things depending on how those cuts are absorbed. What did you and the staff decide to do about this?
Rogers: Right. So that’s about a $600,000 reduction in our general fund budget for the arts commission. The plan we’re going to present to our commission soon is to try to minimize the impact of that reduction as much as possible. It still has a big impact on our agency, but our goal is to try to be as positive as we can and minimize the impact, especially on arts organizations and the grants we make across the state. … We’re trying to really look closely to the arts organizations we serve — school programs and community programs — and try to minimize that impact.
Baer: Is there a way to do that? It’s difficult for a lot of organizations to come up with a Plan B when operating support disappears.
Rogers: In our operating support program, we fund 126 organizations across the state. … They use that wherever they need — salaries, or keeping the lights on, whatever the case may be. Our review process is pretty rigorous to make sure that organizations have reach in their community; that they’re producing a quality project or program; and that their management is sound. So a reduction in operating support means not only the arts commission but 126 organizations will have to tighten their belt a little bit.
Baer: Does that mean cuts will be applied across the board?
Rogers: Cutting across the board is one option, but we’re really trying to create parity in our funding support for organizations. What that means is organizations of like fiscal size and like panel assessment — we have peer review panels that review organizations — so if their fiscal size and score are the same, then they should receive the same amount from the arts commission. We’re trying to move toward that parity and equity, if you like, between our funding amounts.
Baer: There’s not a good way to avoid causing pain in a situation like this. Are there relative merits to doing it that way?
Rogers: Yeah, [in the case of that option] we’re responding to the peer review panel process. We probably have one of the highest degrees of citizen involvement in our decision-making process. We bring in folks from all over the state to review and adjudicate organizations. We want to do the best we can to honor their assessments. And the fiscal size of organizations is important. The largest organization in the state receives the smallest percentage of their budget from us. It might represent 0.1 percent of their operating budget, but the dollar amount of the grant is the highest [that we award]. At the other end of that spectrum, the smallest organization might receive, like, 7 percent of their budget.
Baer: Was the commission at any kind of disadvantage in the budget process because of what the balance sheet looked like at the end of the last biennium?
Rogers: No, I don’t think so.
Baer: Was there grant money that didn’t get spent out?
Rogers: No, we spent all of our grant money.
Baer: As you look at needs within the agency and what this means for staff, it looks like you were able to get through this without letting people go. But what does this mean for day-to-day operations at the commission?
Rogers: Well, it means our capacity to serve organizations at the level we have in the past will diminish. Things might take longer and some projects will have to not get done. We implemented a long-range strategic plan about two years ago. It’s a five-year plan. We’ll work with the commission and staff closely to look at what things we could do later on in the time frame, or is there anything we could abandon to serve organizations the way we have.
Baer: Does it feel like there’s a discrepancy between the state of the economy and what you’re able to do?
Rogers: Yeah, I think government support for the arts is, obviously, extremely valuable — coming from me, of course — but the National Endowment for the Arts is also under a lot of scrutiny, as you know. We receive about $730,000 from the NEA, and they also [award] about that amount directly to arts organizations in Oregon. That helps not only support us and our organizations. It also encourages local government to support arts.
Baer: The leadership did offer some help for arts organizations needing capital projects. What does it mean, at a time when everyone’s trying to expand capacity?
Rogers: The fund you’re talking about is managed or processed with the Cultural Advocacy Coalition. They run a process to collect any capital construction projects that are occurring, then take a priority list to the Legislature for their review. A number of upcoming projects were funded across the state, from the Portland Art Museum’s new construction to the Eugene Ballet, the Liberty Theatre, the High Desert Museum, to name a few, will receive some new capital money. You think of the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts, their theater they have down there is pretty amazing. It’s a huge resource in the community, used for performing arts, of course, but also for arts education, and the community uses it as a resource.
Baer: Several laws pertaining to the arts came and went. Rep. Knute Buehler’s, R-Bend, bill regarding the regional difference in arts commission granting — can you shed any light on whether that’s going to make big differences in how staff looks at their granting?
Rogers: Sure, that really supports a direction that the commission and staff have been thinking through: Our reach and impact across the state. We are a state agency and we consider regional differences very seriously. If there’s an arts organization we are not funding pro providing services to, I really want to know why. Are they not applying? Do they not know about us? We recently created an operating support category for small organizations to further expand our reach. We’re working with our commission to do an analysis of organizations across the state, to see if they’re accessing our programs. Some of them are volunteer-run. Sometimes applications don’t get filed. Our community arts coordinator and one of our commissioners stepped up to help out! We’ve been calling all these organizations to make sure they apply.
Baer: An advocacy group recently worked with Oregon in specific, targetted communities to talk about exactly what the arts brings. What did you learn from that?
Rogers: Yeah, Americans for the Arts is a national organization that advocates for the arts. Every couple of years, they do a study called “Economic Impact of Arts Organizations” across the state. I think it’s 300–400 communities across the country participating. In Oregon we had 11 different studies conducted, and we did a statewide study.
Baer: Is this the biggest data gathering of its kind?
Rogers: Absolutely. The last time the study was done, [it looked at] only two communities: Eugene and Portland. We’re excited about that, and we’ve been promoting some of the information coming out of it. The arts and cultural industry in Oregon is a $364 million impact. There’s 13,939 people who work at arts and cultural organizations. The total attendance at arts organizations was 8,533,000. And excluding the cost of admission, an Oregon resident going to an arts organization spends on average $31.52 for things like transportation, meals and the average for people who travel in is $111. That includes hotels and meals. The economic impact of the arts is pretty tremendous.
We constantly have to work around the perception that we’re a nicety. What we’re really moving peoples’ thinking to is it’s necessary part of everyday life.