Portland’s Creative Culture Depends on its Artists Thriving

by Roshani Thakore

As a student in a Master’s of Fine Arts Program focused on art in the public spheres, the accessibility to the various arts communities within Portland has been extremely welcoming and exciting since I landed here a year ago after 18 years in New York City. The most invigorating, inspiring, and complex work that I’ve been able to experience and see is from the artists who have been creatively pushing issues of race, class, sex, sexuality, indigenous rights, immigration and migration through their work within this city. These artists in Portland are actively shaping the cultural landscape and they need to be heard, supported and invested in. They are our neighbors, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, cousins, friends that are surviving on a day-to-day basis in a city with a very recent history of policies and actions shaped by white supremacy and systemic oppression. Opportunities like My People’s Market, the Inaugural South Asian American Arts Festival, 2018 Art & Power Conversation Series, and APANO’s East Portland Arts and literary Festival (EPALF) offer important public platforms for artists of color to contribute to the nuance of perspectives and experiences within this city.

Institutionally, I have been impressed with the active community engagement leaders Humberto Marquez Mendez at the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) and Roya Amirsolyemani at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) for their thoughtful programming and for their practice of putting artists first. For example, the exhibition Latinidades at the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber organized by Marquez Mendez centered the working Latinx artists in Portland and opened up a space for one of the communities facing challenges of representation, inclusion, and ownership within in the city. Additionally, I found the expansive programming centering the voices of people of color, LGBTQ, and Indigenous artists, locally and nationally, at this year’s Time Based Arts Festival (TBA) to also be extremely valuable.

Along with these platforms, the position of Creative Laureate, currently held by Subashini Ganesan, makes visible the ways working artists and the city intersect, and opens up the possibilities for advocating for artists and art workers. I could imagine other positions within city government as Public Artists in Residence where artists are proposing and leading creative solutions to civic challenges, similar to the recent model in New York City developed by the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, Tom Finkelpearl.

In our current state, what concerns me, as an individual investing in my practice through further education is the future instability for artists practicing in Portland and the inability for the city to keep their creative capital. Job and housing security seem bleak considering the limited stable opportunities in academia. In seeing more and more housing development and new construction, I continue to ask to myself who these are homes for? Will Portland become another tech city displacing the working class and the working poor? Are there influences in city planning that could actually encompass social support and care for the people living and working in the city equivalent to the progressive ideals that materialized with the urban growth boundary? I am hopeful with the fact that Portland artists are raising a social consciousness, but I worry that the movements aren’t occurring as quickly as the opaque conversations and actions of those who are in power and who have been in power for generations as they continue to plough ahead.

We all know that Portland is rapidly growing. In that growth, I envision a Portland where the cultural fabric represents and supports Portland artists living in a just way. I envision mentorship programs led by and for artists of color and immigrant artists, affordable housing for artists and families, access to funding sources in multiple languages, active support in application processes for arts funding, transparency on decision-making processes in arts funding, active accountability processes for those in power, artist-in-residence positions in city agencies, and more. It seems that some progress is being made, but there is still much work to be done. I appreciate the platform to be able to envision the future of a city that I just moved to a year ago, but there are talented artists I have met in this short amount of time that have already been pushed out. If Portland wants to  thrive, its leaders need to step back, listen, and implement the needs and wants of the artists on the ground that have been barely surviving. Portland: show up for your artists; show up for communities of color; show up for the communities that have been displaced. Let them know a new era is coming where Portland is where they will thrive.


This article was written as part of our State of the Arts series, where we asked artists, arts administrators, and creatives to share their thoughts on the “state of the arts” in Portland. What is their experience? What makes them anxious? What makes them hopeful? What issues do they and/or their communities face as the city continues to change? What is their vision for the future? Read more 2018 State of the Arts articles here

Roshani Thakore is interested in using collaboration with artists and non-artists to examine, redefine, and envision new identities and environments through relationships, inquiries, and experiments. She uses tools such as drawing, painting, photography, video, movement, walks, storytelling, protests, dance, design, and more. She is completing her time as the Jade District Artist in Residence through the APANO and Division Midway Alliance Creative Placemaking Projects Grant with her project 82nd + Beyond: A Living Archive, and collaborated with Anke Schüttler and the Free Mind Collective for the project Answers Without Words, funded by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Precipice Fund. Through the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA program, she is the lead artist at the CRCI Comedy School, a project within the walls of a minimum-security men’s prison located in North Portland partially funded by the Regional Arts and Culture Council. Additionally, she is exploring the South Asian experience in Portland through its restaurant kitchens and is developing a mural with the owners of Big Elephant Kitchen on North Williams through the support of the Robert and Mercedes Eicholz Fund.