Sam Adams will use arts as a major theme in the Portland mayor's race

The energetic city commissioner minces no words about how important the arts should be and how unsustainable the current method of funding has become. He spells out plans for Stumptown in this Crosscut interview.
Portland Mayor Sam Adams

Portland Mayor Sam Adams City of Portland

Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams today announced his candidacy for mayor of Stumptown, USA, amid a flurry of press attention - much of it mixed due to a recent mud-slinging flap courtesy of another potential candidate, developer Bob Ball.

But at a planned press conference this afternoon, the focus will be on Adams' strengths and his passions: safe and sustainable communities, affordable housing, education and job opportunities, a strong public transit system, and one other thing - a vibrant and well-supported arts and cultural community.

In a city where the much-touted "creative class" is growing at an ever-rapid pace, Adams has managed to connect with the thousands of artists, arts leaders, and other working creatives with an electric energy and charisma. There's hardly a major cultural event - or even a minor one, if the invitation is sincere - that Adams passes up. Nearly a year after first meeting me, he could remember the cultural venue and event at which we were first introduced. That's one mark of a good politician.

Adams has been flexing his political muscle on a few focused arts initiatives these past few years, including increased support for the Regional Arts and Cultural Council's ambitious "Work for Art" program (which has seen staggering increases since it first began two years ago) and helping to channel one-time special project support to worthy arts groups in town. For example, he helped to steer a sizable grant to Oregon Ballet Theatre for a Kennedy Center debut performance next June.

His two current arts projects are, like Adams himself, ambitious and far-reaching. The first is Milepost Five, a live/work condominiums, rental and arts space project in Northeast Portland built exclusively for working artists. The second is a large-scale arts funding and advocacy project, which may take years but which Adams is pushing ahead with considerable strength and vision. Called Portland's "Creative Capacity" initiative, it aims to funnel more capital - both financial and other resources - into Portland's cash-strapped creative sector, and to tie in for-profit innovation with non-profit cultural initiatives. Adams held an open Arts Town Hall at Portland's new Gerding Theater at the Armory last June and began a series of creative roundtables at City Hall in late September.

Recently I had a chance to sit down with Adams and his right-hand culture man, fresh-faced senior policy director Jesse Beason. We met in Adams' office, furnished with works from the studios of local artists, in Portland City Hall.

You have been putting a lot of political muscle into this Creative Capacity initiative - could you speak specifically to tangible, practical outcomes of this initiative?

Money. I want more money for science and creative efforts, organizations ... more arts and music education, especially in the elementary schools, more public support for nonprofit arts organizations, more business assistance for for-profit arts companies, and more services for artists, helping them market themselves, sell their wares, not just in Portland but outside of Portland, and assistance with affordable live/work space.

What businesses would you say are doing well in supporting creativity, and thinking creatively?

Umpqua Bank, Safeway, The Standard, The Big Five, there are a number I would say are the top-ranked givers.

What sort of message will it take to get the rest of the business community on board in terms of increasing their support?

Part of it is they need to feel a partnership. We've had a lot of luck with the workplace-giving campaign, "Work for Art," where we said we would match dollar for dollar up to $200,000 and the number of contributions went off the charts. I think what we hear back from companies is a couple of different things: number one, they like the public-private aspect. Two, they want to know that their money is going to organizations that are well run. They don't like to give money to debt: we've got organizations operating here under a lot - a lot - of capital and operating debt. The big five [arts organizations in Portland: Oregon Ballet Theatre, Oregon Symphony, Portland Art Museum, Portland Center Stage, Portland Opera] are in a combined deficit of what ... it's at least $30 million. That's a lot of debt.


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