RACC Blog

Notes on Surviving in Portland

by Paul Susi

I am a Portland native, the son of immigrants and a person of color. I am the Co-Chair of the Multnomah County Cultural Coalition; I am the Artistic and Executive Director of Portland Actors Ensemble / Shakespeare in the Parks; I am a Conversation Project Facilitator for Oregon Humanities; I serve as the Transition Support Manager for Transition Projects, with responsibility for the seasonal winter shelters that we operate on a temporary basis. And I am an independent theater artist in my own right, devising and producing my own work as well as performing in the work of others.

I mention all of this because, to be candid, this is the kind of multi-tasking, variegated career that an artist of my generation and ability must engage in, simply to survive in this community now. Portland is an immensely inspiring and nurturing cultural environment, in many key ways. But as we all know, we are beset with challenging social, economic and political obstacles that limit the viability of this arts ecosystem.

We have gentrified not only the core neighborhoods that once nurtured artists, but even the very cultural resources and institutions that catalyzed those changes. Artists and arts organizations that were leaders a generation ago, are now ossified, diminished, lacking in vision or hobbled by institutional pressures. The cultural leadership of Portland responds to our historical struggles with diversity and equity, by showcasing token leaders or works, without any lasting or meaningful contextual discussions or ongoing relationships. We begin the work, but we mistake these beginnings to be adequate compensations for the generations’ worth of systemic oppression and ignorance that we’ve inherited.

So many Boards of Directors, so many Executive Directors or other leaders, reflect in their identities or their programming decisions, the same myopic, short-sighted and anodyne sensibilities that got us here in the first place. We continue to reward or accommodate established hierarchies at the expense of newcomers and new perspectives. (Says the guy who leads a Shakespeare-in-the-Parks company.)

I have never experienced a “Golden Age” of Portland cultural life. Every year, every era of my career, I’ve engaged in conversations with peers, audiences, donors, patrons, and other stakeholders, and those conversations have always identified the same obstacles: lack of institutional support; lack of a robust donor / patron culture; lack of affordable arts performance and studio spaces; lack of public funding; an inadequate print media / arts criticism community; a tattered and desperate arts education environment, too unstable and too vulnerable to other priorities to compete for limited time and funding; grant and foundation support that is difficult to obtain, onerous to administer and ultimately an inadequate resource that hasn’t kept up with escalating costs. Political and corporate leaders are reluctant to engage with the arts communities because they misunderstand our purposes, or they simply use the community-building rhetoric to sustain their own priorities.

My peers and I are not without responsibility in this. We’ve responded by devolving into ever more mercenary, fragmented and ephemeral sensibilities. We produce work that exists in a vacuum, often more solipsistic and self-referential, rather than connected to a cohesive discipline or body of work. So much of our creative energy is expended in simply self- producing—applying for grants, seeking out donors, cultivating audiences, generating publicity materials and relationships, wrangling rehearsal / studio / performance spaces—that oftentimes this work devours the majority of the time and resources budgeted to begin with, mortgaging the actual creativity we’d originally set out to achieve.

We are so busy sprinting from crisis to crisis, that we have no opportunity to put down roots, to consider the infrastructure of our community, to make intentional and sustained efforts that truly last. Policymakers and funders operate from strata of privilege that radically underestimate and misconstrue the experiences of artists now. For example, only now, after opening my 4th temporary homeless shelter for Transition Projects, am I able to access affordable health care, for the first time in over 17 years. At the same time, if I earn more than $30,000 per year, due to tax-credit-funded income restrictions, I am in danger of losing my housing.  Confusing as that is, nevertheless, I am a 37-year-old, cis-gendered, heterosexual male person of color, occupying several positions of visibility and responsibility, and so I am what passes for an artist with privilege in this community. When I have a conversation with policymakers or funders, very seldom do I encounter anyone who can relate to these privilege circumstances. Their eyes glaze over when I attempt to explain, with any specificity, the challenges facing myself, my peers, or my organizations. By the same token, audiences and donors express bewilderment, and offer their best intentions, but do not have the capacity for more in-depth conversations.

We all have agency in these issues. None of what I have described is new, nor will any single policy initiative or community organization address this comprehensively. Doubtless much of my circumstance is my own responsibility, the result of artistic and professional choices I’ve made and the merits of my own work. Nevertheless, I do believe that more candid, transparent relationships between policymakers, leaders, and other stakeholders, and the artists and audiences whom we serve, would help with these issues. We need to actively ensure that our leadership and power-sharing positions are filled with folks that are truly representative of the diversity of perspective and experience that we possess in this community.

For example, boards of directors should be staffed not just with major donors and corporate representatives, but also people of color, LGTBQIA, different socio-economic and educational backgrounds, and others, with specific and detailed board position responsibilities that empower these advocates to carry the same authority and influence as their more-privileged colleagues.

We can also work to de-mystify the decision-making processes that fund the arts in this community. We should be discussing artist compensation, and the interplay between how we value artist’s time and labor, and why ticket prices or funding sources won’t sufficiently support the arts ecology as it’s currently structured. We should be discussing these issues openly, and across the different arts disciplines.

In all events, please know that I do appreciate and see the work that you and our collective forebears have done to bring us to where we are today. There is much that I’m proud of, and much that contributed to bring me to these positions of privilege that I now occupy. I’m honored to be of the same community as all of you.

 

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

Paul Susi is an educator, activist, arts administrator and a performing artist based in Portland, OR. He has appeared onstage with Boom Arts, Profile Theater, Shaking the Tree, Push Leg, Anon It Moves, String House Productions, Action/Adventure Theater, Los Portenos, Cerimon House, NW Classical Theater Collaborative, and Portland Actors Ensemble / Shakespeare in the Parks. Paul has appeared regionally and internationally with Shakespeare Santa Cruz, Vermont Stage Company, Island Stage Left (San Juan Islands, WA), Boom Arts/Teatro SOLO (Argentina), and Stacja Szamocin (Poland).

Paul serves as the Co-Chair of the Multnomah County Cultural Coalition, the grass-roots re-granting arm of the Oregon Cultural Trust. He is a Conversation Project Facilitator for Oregon Humanities, where his Conversation Projects, “This Place” and “Does Higher Education Matter?”, have connected with communities from Astoria to Grant’s Pass.

Paul serves as the Executive and Artistic Director of Portland Actors Ensemble / Shakespeare in the Parks, Portland’s oldest continuously performing professional theater company, founded in 1970. He serves as a Manager for Transition Projects’ emergency homeless shelters in downtown Portland, and is a former Program Leader and Assistant Site Supervisor for the Multnomah Education Service District Outdoor School, where he goes by the camp name “Badger.”

He is currently touring a solo performance, “An Iliad,” directed by Patrick Walsh and with live original music by Anna Fritz, to 15 prisons and other facilities throughout this state.


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.

 


Portland Falls Short When Investing in Artists of Color

by Celeste Noche

Almost five years ago, I moved to Portland because it was renown for its creative community (and it’s cute af, but that’s neither here nor there). I wanted to brave a career in photography, and after years of failing to connect with other artists in San Francisco, I thought Portland would be a better way to go about it. On my visits thus far, everyone had been so welcoming and nice. Seeing alternative art and flourishes of creativity throughout the city made it feel smaller in a more intimate, inspiring way. Maybe Portland could be a place to grow and learn within a community of artists.

Two years later, I found myself with endless acquaintances but no friends or mentors within the arts. I learned that while everyone was nice, not everyone was open. The creative communities I’d touched upon were limited to friendly greetings and nothing deeper— tight-knit also meant tight-lipped.

The isolation I felt in navigating this career was compounded as a person of color— not only was I sending cold emails looking for any connections, I was also usually the only person of color at the events I went to. I was isolated both on and offline, until I happened upon an online group dedicated to artists of color.

The immediate acceptance and support was astounding. Perhaps the community is strong because we need each other so much, but the contrasts within this community and outside were striking. Where small, white-owned businesses were eager to collaborate on pro bono or “for exposure” projects, this POC community regularly discussed the necessity of compensating artists for their work. Where local shops were quick to capitalize off “#feminist” and “the future is female” merchandise, this POC community was hosting fundraisers to support groups that benefit marginalized communities and artists with chronic illnesses. Where other artists were secretive about their contacts and workflows, this POC community shared their leads and resources, hosted regular meetups and workshops, and stressed the importance of showing up physically and/or with monetary support— the key to sustaining safe spaces for artists of color.

Today I wonder how Portland can still be known for its creativity and progressive ideals when there has been such limited support and investment in these communities. Beyond the secretive, tight-lipped competition I experienced during my first few years, I wonder about the monetary and accountability investment to guarantee that diverse art has a future here.

The current climate means that we’re narrowing gaps on representation, but representation is just the beginning. Now that people of color are the token melanin on magazine covers and brown bodies in ad campaigns, Portland needs to go deeper in supporting artists of color financially.

Systemically, institutions are overdue to follow through on the values they claim to guide them. In a recent event sponsored by multiple Portland-based organizations whose websites state their commitment to arts accessibility (RACC included), this event boasted Asian-inspired themes, required $100+ tickets to attend, and included no people of color as featured artists or organizers. When community members expressed their concern about the lack of POC and the inaccessible pricing, the organizers deleted their comments then blocked the people who left them. This situation exemplifies the systemic dismissal and inequity for the marginalized to not only participate in the arts, but Portland’s continued habit of silencing the people they’re profiting from.

It wasn’t just the cost of the tickets, or that the organizers erased the voices of people of color, but that a very specific demographic of artists are continually given the platform and funding to engage in the arts without accountability. When will artists of color receive the same funding, the same platform, the same opportunities as those profiting from their culture? This event and the situation that unfolded is the perpetuation of classism, racism, and the idea that the arts are only a safe space for a select few. Furthermore, its proof that organizations who declare their commitments to “diversity” and “inclusivity” are not thorough in ensuring these values are reflected in the artists and art they sponsor.

For everyday Portlanders, investing in artists of color means buying their art and not just sharing it. This means hiring outside of your social circle and making opportunities accessible and equitable for artists of all backgrounds. This means paying the models/poster people for your campaigns and hiring artists of color to create the work. This means paying artists for magazine features and speaking events, because sharing our experiences is still grossly underpaid labor. Investing in artists of color isn’t simply giving them your money (though that’s a huge part); it’s also knowing where your financial support goes. Who else is benefiting from your spending, and are those people doing their part to ensure safe and equitable spaces for other artists of color? We are long overdue for Portland— institutionally and personally— to follow through on their performative speeches. It’s time to dedicate both our time and money to support marginalized artists and organizations because without these investments, we fail to invest in the best version of Portland.

 

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

Celeste Noche is a Filipino American food, travel, and portrait photographer (and sometimes writer). She advocates for diversity and inclusivity, seeking to share stories of underrepresented communities. She is a regular contributor to Street Roots and a 2018 RACC-grant recipient for Portland in Color, a series dedicated to highlighting artists of color in Portland.


Fluid State(s)

by Roya Amirsoleymani

To be asked to address the “state of the arts” in Portland is a welcome invitation, and at the same time an arguably flawed frame of reference and impossible task. No single individual can be in comprehensive or equal relationship to the breadth of formal and informal organizations, institutions, cultures, and communities that produce, engage in, and contribute to arts and culture in our region. Nevertheless, articulating one’s perspective on the present and future of our arts ecosystem is a valuable exercise in remembering why we do what we do, and in evaluating what’s working, what isn’t, and where we go from here. In turn, those of us active at the cross-section of arts and other social spheres–including education, policy and advocacy, neighborhood involvement, community organizing, and justice movements–have a stake in art’s inextricable connections to civic life, and part of our job is to advocate for the value of arts and culture to the public and to those with influence over the distribution of shared resources.

It goes without saying that Portland’s rapid growth and skyrocketing cost of living pose an unprecedented challenge for the city, its residents, and its electeds–an ideological challenge, in that it forces us to take a position, make a stand, declare and demonstrate what matters to us socially, politically, economically, and in perpetuity. At a time when the security of so many communities in our city is precarious or vulnerable, it would be easy to dismiss the arts and culture as an add-on, supplemental rather an integral to community well-being. Indeed, we are frequently paid lip service through proclamations of support with no public funding to back them.

Yet these days, complaining about a lack of investment in arts and culture feels desperate, tiresome, like a broken record for those both repeating and receiving it–not because it isn’t warranted, but rather because it might finally be time for new arguments, tactics, and outlooks.

Thus, rather than calling, asking, or appealing for sustained or increased arts and culture support as a form of validation, I am instead going to remind myself and all of us that culture and creative expression cannot be “provided” by a city or arts council as a human service. Arts and culture precede government. They are inherent to communal living. The people make culture, the people are the culture, and the people will continue to produce art, its spaces, and its methods of distribution in the absence of national cultural policy or substantial public funding. And yet, the democratization of arts access, the capacity of arts and culture to support and advance other civic goals, and the extent to which arts and culture thrive do depend upon healthy and robust public recognition and resources, something we still lack in Portland.

Artists and creative communities are remarkably responsive and resilient. They have created their own interdependent structures of support, survival and mutual care despite being perpetually undereconomized and faced with both internal and external systemic injustices and invisibilities, including deeply ingrained inequities within the established “art world” itself that mimic and mirror those calculatedly upheld by social systems at large. In short, artists and most arts nonprofits and cultural spaces have learned how to persist despite a lack of public resources–especially those by, for, and of historically marginalized communities, who have long had their own strategies for support and survival counter to the mainstream.

As someone whose professional practice, commitments, and interests span artistic disciplines as well as legacy, alternative, and grassroots realms of the sector, I do a lot of code-switching. I work closely with a diverse spectrum of artists, peer organizations, community partners, Black and Brown youth, students and faculty in higher education, and advocates for racial equity in the arts. This intersectional movement in the field both demands and provides a multifaceted perspective on our arts and culture landscape, one that reveals its depth, breadth, and immaterial richness, as well as its deep exclusions, inequities, and homogeneities. From this viewpoint, I am confident that Portland is experiencing the most vibrant, dynamic, responsive, relevant and vital “state of the arts” of our time as Black and Brown, Indigenous, queer and trans, non-binary, Disabled, poor, womxn and femme, immigrant, and youth artists, audiences and communities–who have always been active–claim and create alternative economies and spaces for cultural production and presentation. It is devastating to think of a future Portland that neglects the expansiveness of arts and culture in our city, and equally heartening to imagine a city that begins to commit to it.

 

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

Roya Amirsoleymani is an arts administrator, educator, and Artistic Director & Curator of Public Engagement with the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA). At PICA, she concentrates on critical, contextual, discursive, educational, community-based and socially engaged programming in connection with, and independent of, exhibitions and performances, as well as access, equity, and inclusion for contemporary and experimental art and its institutions. She is a founding member of Arts Workers for Equity (AWE), which works to advance racial equity in the local arts and culture sector. She is also a faculty member in the Art & Social Practice MFA Program at Portland State University. She has been invited to speak at multiple conferences in the arts and culture field nationally and locally, and has participated in numerous national, regional, and local grant panel and award selection committees. Roya holds a B.A. in Contemporary Visual Culture & Gender Studies (Johnston Center for Integrative Studies, Redlands, CA) and a Masters’s in Arts Management (University of Oregon). She is most inspired by the inquiries and possibilities that arise when artists, audiences, activists, and academics come together to critically and collaboratively explore our current cultural moment.