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

Sam Adams.

Portland Mayor Sam Adams Credit: 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.

Why is it that in Portland these flagship institutions, which have taken on such ambitious programming initiatives and capital campaigns, are all struggling?

We have a far more robust array of arts and culture opportunities in this city in terms of quality than we deserve when you look at how much public and private money is spent on arts and culture. Especially public. This is a city that’s ranked as the sixth-most-creative city in a recent poll, but we’ve been almost last as a state and about 21st as a city in terms of giving to the arts. It’s financially unsustainable. It is what is going to make or break this city, to a larger degree as a city: we will succeed or fail as a city based on how creative and innovative we are. The arts and culture in this city is viewed by too many people as a luxury. In terms of quality of life, what are we going to be, some hollow, soulless city that has beautiful trees and lovely sidewalks and nothing that is challenging us? Arts are the mirror of the city; they let us see things that we otherwise wouldn’t necessarily get to actually see or accept. They teach us lessons about ourselves, and allow us to grow and change as a city in ways that the news can’t do or anything else can’t do.

Let’s talk facilities. There are a number of small to mid-sized arts venues in the city that are really struggling. How does the city government bring resources to the table for cultural facilities?

I got an opportunity to spend a good couple of hours with the cultural commissioner of New York City, and we talked a lot about facilities. They spend a lot more money on facilities, and they partner so that they leverage their dollars with these public-private or public-public partnerships. A lot of their support for the non-flagship organizations is in helping around facilities. And we don’t do any of that (laughs). Part of what we’ve talked about is to have a creative hub or two in every part of the city, and to create an alliance of these creative hubs, that has the blessing of the city and a program to assist in issues of maintenance and facilities.

Best cultural success story in Portland?

P:ear, big success story.

Why?

Adams: The charisma of the founders and leaders, and filling a niche in terms of services to homeless and transitional youth, in a creative way that really speaks to them. And I think Oregon Ballet Theatre has really come on strong; They’ve risen up nationally in terms of their prestige. Artists Rep, really strong. Portland Art Museum in terms of the amount of money they did raise for their facilities – never before has Portland seen anything like that.

Who are the magnetic, forceful arts leaders leading the way here?

You know, it’s interesting. This is the “indie arts center,” and it’s reflected in the fact that we have this sort of magnanimous leadership approach. Eloise Damrosch is definitely a leader, but she’s definitely facilitative. Liz Leach among the galleries. Definitely the three Chrises [Chris Mattaliano, Christopher Stowell, Chris Coleman] are leaders. Gavin Shetler at Portland Arts Center – scrappy, sophisticated. Since we’ve got this good indie cultural vibe going, let’s embrace it.

Top thoughts coming out of your Artists’ Town Hall last June and the roundtables last week?

One of the “aha’s” – and I mean this in the most respectful way – is that there’s too much “me” and not enough “we.” It’s a lot about what “I need” as opposed to what “we need.” There’s a lot of that. That’s really symptomatic of a lack of community, of true community. And the pushback that we get is that “it’s not all about money, I’m too busy surviving on my own stuff to give back to the community.” We’ve got to break out of that. The creative path that we are on now is not sustainable.

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