Critics, deal with it: There's good news about the arts in Oregon

The Oregon Cultural Trust seems to be fulfilling its mission, dispersing $1.36 million this year. So how 'bout we stop rehashing the early days of underachievement?
Crosscut archive image.

The Oregon Cultural Trust license plate.

The Oregon Cultural Trust seems to be fulfilling its mission, dispersing $1.36 million this year. So how 'bout we stop rehashing the early days of underachievement?

Whenever good news comes along about the arts, specifically arts funding, the reporters, critics, and commentators face a tricky question: to gush or not to gush? No one wants to sound too gullible or, god forbid, too optimistic. Questioning spin-heavy reports and press releases on the arts isn't bad. Number-crunching reports about per-person arts spending in Seattle and Portland, released in June, got sliced and diced here on Crosscut, as a matter of fact. But clear-eyed reporting shouldn't rule out some big ol' happy headlines when deserved. Case in point: the recent news from Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski's office that $1.36 million in grants from the state-run Oregon Cultural Trust will go out to a very wide range of arts-nurturing proposals. Whenever the Oregon Cultural Trust is covered in the news, and this round is no exception, boilerplate is included about early failure to meet too-lofty fundraising goals. Maybe it's time to let that history lie, because even taking into account inevitable press-release spin, and even though there is still not enough money in the Oregon arts-funding pot, dear reader: The news is good. That grant figure Guv K trumpeted is almost 20 percent higher than in 2006. The trust, founded five years ago, can pile up dough for the arts in three ways: sale of fancy vehicle license plates that are slightly cooler than the fir-tree basic issue, donations from supporters, and sale of surplus state properties. (That last thing has not borne fruit.) This year, endowment funds are also way up: 38 percent to $8 million-plus, and 42 percent of that can be spent. Oregonians who give money get the benefit of a clever tax break, adopted by the Oregon Legislature back when the trust idea got traction. It can be a bit confusing to the uninitiated – and the Oregon Culture Trust Web site falls short on explaining it clearly. Eugene-Register Guard reporter Randi Bjornstad summed it up best in a January 2005 article (sorry, it's not online): Here's how it works: Taxpayers who donate to eligible nonprofit arts groups within the state and then give an equal gift to the Oregon Cultural Trust get an extra boost for their charitable buck. They get an itemized deduction for the direct donation, or donations, to arts groups. Then they get a tax credit for the matching gift to the Cultural Trust, a credit that comes right off the bottom line on their tax bill. This latest round of money means $453,000 to each of three groups of recipients who use funds to start or support community programs and institutions: Oregon cultural not-for-profits; some 45 county and tribal groups; and five statewide "cultural partners" – Oregon Arts Commission, Oregon Council for the Humanities, Oregon Heritage Commission, State Historic Preservation Office, and the Oregon Historical Society. The list of supported projects is worth a peek. There's a bit of everything getting boosts here, from historic artifacts in Estacada to Baroque music in Portland, with indy films, Native-American folklore, old churches, and new slide projectors in between. If you only had one document to read to grasp Oregon's incredibly diverse art scene, this list would do nicely. (Here's a Word file of the press release and list of recipients.) I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the Oregon Cultural Trust should also be commended for an open process. I trust an indignant reader will comment at the end of this story if I've missed some huge flaw in the trust's housekeeping. I'll repeat the one obvious beef: There still isn't enough money for the arts. Yes, true. Oregonian arts writer D.K. Row, as usual, does a good job covering this. His piece also demonstrates one of the big pluses of critic blogs running alongside news stories. Row uses his blog to reprint a series of cogent 2002 stories by senior writer Bob Hicks, who pretty much owned the subject of forming the Oregon Cultural Trust. The inclusion of Hicks' thorough work serves readers well on two counts. First, it is close to impossible to find anything in the Oregonian's online archive, and Row has saved his readership that trial. Second, the Hicks pieces give a full picture of the original thinking, planning, and worrying behind this approach to arts funding, proving also that legislative process is not always just sausage making. Sometimes, even in Oregon, process creates something that reflects what taxpayers want, in this case to have music, dance, films, theater, paintings, sculpture, and historic spaces to enjoy, along with our bottle bill and the pleasure of staying in the car while someone else pumps our gasoline. A couple of days before the official 2002 launch of the Oregon Cultural Trust, Hicks had this to say: In the meantime, a round of applause. Whatever happens, the Oregon Cultural Trust is a genuine accomplishment against daunting odds. May Friday, when people from around the state gather at the summit, be the start of something big. Good point. And, not too gushy.


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