A couple weeks ago, at the East Portland Arts and Literary Festival, dozens of poets, craft makers and hip-hop artists were showing off their best. Most of the artists were young, and most of them were people of color.
At one table, Cesar Ramirez and his partner were showing their zines.
“Mine talks about my experience,” Ramirez said, “and my parents' experiences navigating what it means to be a first-generation Mexican-American” in his hometown of Long Beach, California.
Along another wall, Georgina Brooks had laid out her silkscreen prints and watercolors, featuring vintage-style illustrations of animals and natural scenes. A few tables down, the textile artist Kolodi was selling a colorful range of fabric bags and showing off her grandmother's elegant dressmaker’s square.
The crowd was representative of where the city’s cultural scene is headed. Portland is growing, and those moving to town are younger and more diverse.
And yet, the bedrock of the city’s arts administration is a middle-class, largely white institution known as the Regional Arts and Culture Council, or RACC. Its broad service menu includes taking care of public artwork, coordinating workplace giving for the arts, and administering millions of dollars per year in public funding.
A search committee has spent the last eight months laying the groundwork to replace Portland’s top arts administrator, Eloise Damrosch, who retired in June. The conversation about her replacement has been heavily seasoned with calls for change.
Andre Middleton does community engagement for RACC. He’s also spent time trying to identify new all-ages spaces for performance.
“I think they've got a relatively strong board of engaged people,” Middleton said, noting it was “a relatively diverse board.”
Middleton gives his former coworkers high marks when they’re set to the task of supporting diverse art and audiences.
“But I also think that there needs to be an examination of the distribution of resources and wealth,” he said. “Heretofore, a lot of those resources have been fairly concentrated among the usual suspects, so to speak.”
This can’t help but have an effect, he said, on the next generation of cultural tastemakers, to say nothing of the people who may come of age on the burgeoning east side, with little cultural space for coming together.
In the late 2000s, when Sam Adams was mayor of Portland, he wrote provisions into RACC’s city contract, insisting that both RACC and its major beneficiaries emphasize equity: more diversity in audiences, staff and boards of directors.
Source: U.S. Census, 2011-2015
RACC’s board of directors has become noticeably more diverse in recent years. Nearly half — 43 percent — of board members identify as people of color.
The staff is a different story. Thirty-four people work at RACC, and three quarters are Caucasian, including all four top managers. Statistics from RACC show this year’s grant panelists came closer to representing the region’s racial diversity, but they still looked geographically lopsided. Of 56 panelists, only two live east of SE 82nd — a dividing line between the have and have-not neighborhoods of Portland.
Source: Regional Arts and Culture Council, 2017
Jeff Hawthorne has served as RACCs interim director since Damrosch stepped down. He said the agency is working on its own internal composition.
“More than 50 percent of our hires over the last three years have been people of color, and we are still working on more strategies to recruit and retain those workers, to advance folks within the organization,” he said.
As far as programming, Hawthorne said efforts are afoot to retool RACC’s granting process, making grants more accessible to arts groups that are too small to staff grant writers. Some arts tax money, Hawthorne said, is being used to help culturally specific arts groups grow and expand grants for the larger groups doing equity work.
“We are trying to be more flexible,” Hawthorne said, “because the end goal is not to fund an arts organization. The end goal is for citizens and residents to participate in the arts.”
Equity stats were conspicuously absent from RACC’s last three annual reports to City Council, even though a 2013 equity plan said it would report yearly.
Seven years after Adams broached the subject, RACC has been unable to come up with metrics or best practices for gauging progress among its major beneficiaries: the Oregon Ballet Theatre, the Oregon Symphony, Portland Art Museum and 45 other groups from the top- and middle-tiers of the arts ecosystem.
Some institutions have definitely made shifts in programming, but with no measuring stick in place, it’s hard to say who’s delivering on taxpayers’ investments.
RACC Board Chair Mike Golub said the organization is making progress on equity. (Note: Golub is also a member of the board of OPB.)
“The scope and breadth of RACC’s programs are incredible,” Golub said. “I think many people out of the center of that circle don't realize all that RACC does.”
He said equity has surfaced as a major focus of the executive search.
The committee seeking RACC’s next leader has been active for the better part of eight months now, but no one has seen a job description yet. And, it turns out, equity is part of what’s taking so long.
About a dozen young, mid-career arts staffers and artists from around Portland — mostly people of color — have been meeting for a couple of years to talk about social issues including the normalization of audiences and institutions. It’s called Arts Workers for Equity, or AWE. AWE went public last spring with concerns about the search.
Where was the transparency, its open letter asked, and would the search committee’s parameters attract anyone other than upper-middle-class white candidates?
Candace Kita of APANO, who’s part of AWE, said almost everyone in the group has had radicalized experiences working for or with mainstream arts groups in town. They wanted to make sure the language and ground rules for the search weren’t cutting out people of color who might be qualified.
“How are you framing this job description?” she said. “Are you calling it something very academic that people might not be able to access in the same way?”
Kita, and another AWE member, Roya Amirsoleymani, explained that once they got in the door with RACC’s board, progress started happening.
“They really shifted their own trajectory,” Kita said. “There is now an AWE member who is on the search committee.”
“I was also impressed by some of the shift in the composition of the committee,” Amirsoleymani said, “adding people who did represent other perspectives, provide other perspectives and viewpoints.”
The committee has severed its relationship with a traditional search firm, Aspen Leadership Group, which has worked with the Oregon Symphony and Portland Art Museum. It’s now working with a Los Angeles company, Koya Partners, that specializes in finding nonprofit executives — with diversity as one of its guiding values.
Golub said the committee just needed to do some more internal work, and might have engaged Aspen a bit too early in the process.
Steve Rosenbaum, a tech marketing executive who stepped in to head the search committee this spring, said he thinks the process is on the right track. While AWE may not get everything members want from the hire, he predicted they’ll be happy overall.
“Some of the type of equity leadership we’re looking to do is somewhat cutting edge,” Rosenbaum said. “It’s one of the reasons I think it’s going to be an attractive position to candidates. I think there are a number of qualified candidates both locally and nationally who could fill the role.”
A few established arts players have asked the search committee to think about other priorities — like finding a strong advocate for arts funding. Cash from the city general fund is never a sure thing. Plus, the city’s arts tax is underperforming.
But it seems clear the committee is in agreement with advocates: Portland’s arts ecosystem can’t go forward without a leader who can engage beyond conventional museums, galleries and shows.