Category Archives: Cities

Tom Coburn and his wilderness of ideas

UPDATE, 1:55 p.m. Friday, Feb. 6: MISCHIEF WINS, “SMALL POTATOES” LOSE: I didn’t think he could do it, but he did. Today the U.S. Senate, by a ridiculous 73-24 vote, passed Sen. Tom Coburn’s amendment to the economic stimulus bill to bar anything with even the faintest whiff of culture from getting any stimulus money. Here’s the requisite passage from Congressional Quarterly:

“Lawmakers also voted 73-24 to adopt a Tom Coburn , R-Okla., amendment to place tighter restrictions facilities that can be built with money from the bill. The Coburn amendment would bar spending on casinos, aquariums, zoos, golf courses, swimming pools, stadiums, community parks, museums, theaters, art centers, and highway beautification projects.

“That’s broader than prohibition in the House-passed bill, which applied only to casinos, aquariums, zoos, golf courses and swimming pools.”

The vote is astonishing, and preposterous, and I can only guess that the amendment was passed with so little thought or debate simply because the Senate is in a pedal-to-the-metal rush to get this thing off the assembly line and onto the streets. Coburn may be a fool, but he’s a canny fool — he knows how the system works, and he knows how and when to manipulate it. This ugly bit of mischief could still disappear from the final bill, of course, but now it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of ruckus-raising. It’s officially time to get mad, get on the horn, bug your congressional delegation and get something done about this.

Timberline Lodge, funded by the WPA/Wikimedia Commons

News flashes from all sorts of fronts today about the latest Molotov cocktail from Sen. Tom Coburn, the Republican from Oklahoma known for his quixotic attempts to deliver America from the clutches of common sense. It was Coburn, Oregonians might recall, whose threat of filibuster scuttled last year’s otherwise certain passage of the Lewis & Clark Mount Hood Wilderness Act. That act finally passed the Senate last month, as part of a broader wilderness bill, on a 73-21 vote — over Coburn’s objections.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OklahomaThis time out Coburn’s tackling the omnibus economic bailout plan — surely a target for some tough critical thinking: How many Dutch boys with their fingers in the dike does it take to keep the thing from bursting, anyway? Unfortunately, it’s not just Coburn’s finger that’s all wet. His Amendment No. 175 to the economic stimulus bill is tough, and it’s critical. But it’s utterly lacking in thinking.

Here’s how Coburn proposes to guard your pocketbook:

“None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, arts center, or highway beautification project, including renovation, remodeling, construction, salaries, furniture, zero-gravity chairs, big screen televisions, beautification, rotating pastel lights, and dry heat saunas.”

Note that. No money for museums, theaters, arts centers, aquariums, zoos, highway beautification, apparently any sort of beautification at all.
I’m not really sure what a rotating pastel light is, but none of that, either. Fortunately I don’t golf. But I do like a good sauna now and again.

It’s easy to laugh this off as just another crackpot amendment that’s going nowhere — except that Coburn has a history of making this sort of thing stick, at least temporarily. I doubt it’ll work this time, because with the Democratic gains in the Senate from the last election he’s lost his biggest tool, which was his ability to forestall a 60 percent Senate vote to halt filibuster. His power has always been the power to make mischief, not the power to actually create anything.

Still, it’s a very good idea to call your senators (the Capitol Switchboard number is 202-224-3121) or zip off an email to them. If you live in Oregon, that means Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. If you live in Washington, it means Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray. If you live in another state, check here for contacts. The danger isn’t that anywhere near a majority of senators agree with Coburn. The danger is that, in their eagerness to get some sort of broad-stroke stimulus package passed as quickly as possible, a majority will be willing to horse-trade away this “small potatoes” stuff. In D.C., that’s how mischief’s made.

It seems silly to even have to bring it up, but here goes: Museums and theaters and aquariums are part of the economy, too. And they’re a potentially multiple-payoff part of the economy. They don’t just create jobs for themselves, they feed tourism, hospitality, construction (which means such things as logging and mining and steelmaking). Increasingly, in our information-driven society, the arts play a big role in driving entire regional economies: People move to cities specifically for their arts scenes. That’s certainly true of Portland. Oh: And all that “beautification”? It creates good, lasting things. The picture at the top of this post is of Timberline Lodge. It’s on Mt. Hood, and it was built during the Great Depression as a project of the federal government’s Works Progress Administration.

The WPA was good to the arts, and in return the arts were good to America.
From murals in small-town post offices to architectural treasures like Timberline Lodge to theater and dance and music projects to photographic documentation of the Depression to the wonderful, sadly unfinished, collection of writings about American foodways, our previous mass economic stimulus package had the good sense to recognize that an “economy” is only a financial blueprint of a whole society.

Am I nervous about the economic stimulus plan? You bet. But I’m a lot more nervous about the Tom Coburns of the world than I am about helping a museum keep from falling into the abyss of economic failure. Keeping our shared culture alive, I’m confident, is a very good idea.

We’re No. 1 with a dart! (pass it along)

Actually, it’s a multiply shared No. 1, a sort of pay-it-forward No. 1, a chain-letter pat on the back that feels nice and warm and fuzzy.

From somewhere out of the blue (OK, it was from our cyberspace friend Rose City Reader, the literary omnivore who in the real world hangs out just a few blocks away) comes to Art Scatter the Premios Dardo Award.

It’s not the Nobel, it’s not an Oscar or even a Pulitzer. But neither is it a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. No money changes hands (isn’t that just life in the blogosphere, though?). The Premios Dardo robs no one of their dignity or life savings. It’s simply a way of saying, we like what you do, and we’d like you to tell us whose work you admire on the Web. Fair enough. A lot of wheezing takes place on the Net, and one good way to get to the fresh air is to listen to recommendations from people you trust.

We haven’t been able to track down where the Premios Dardo Awards began or who’s behind them, but it really doesn’t matter. By this point it’s a crazy quilt stretched loosely across the globe, and we’re happy to add our few stitches to the pattern. (As near as our feeble translating abilities can figure out, by the way, “Premios Dardo” means roughly “Top Dart.”)

Here are the rules:

1) Accept the award, post it on your blog together with the name of the person that has granted the award and his or her blog link.

2) Pass the award to another 15 blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgment.

3) Remember to contact each of them to let them know they have been chosen for this award.

So, here goes. Here’s our pick of 15, listed in that boring-but-still-useful old alphabetical order. If you haven’t already, give ’em a look. You might find some new friends:

Bunny With an Art Blog

Charles Noble’s Daily Observations

Culture Shock

Dave Allen’s Pampelmoose

Dramma per Musica

Little Red Bike Cafe

Mark Russell’s CulturePulp

Mead Hunter’s Blogorrhea


Portland Architecture

Portland Spaces/Burnside Blog

Reading Copy Book Blog


Third Angle Music Blog

TJ Norris

Scatter links: A beer with Henry James, a bail-in for Detroit, why NOT sell off some art?

Cool things to read in other places:

— Laura Grimes, charter member of Friends of Art Scatter, has a delightful piece in the Sunday Oregonian’s books pages about reading Henry James‘s The Ambassadors (or trying to read it) on the bus, and whether James was quite the sort of fellow you could sit down and have a beer with. Read it here.

— Also in The Oregonian, on Monday’s op-ed page, is a bell-ringer by Tim Smith on how to “bail in” the reeling auto industry instead of bailing it out. Smith, a principal at SERA Architects in Portland and a Detroit native, suggests: “(L)et’s reorganize GM to replace it. Why not fund a conversion of General Motors from a purveyor of private transportation hardware to a planner, fabricator and supplier of a renewed, nationwide public transportation system?” An elegant, provacative piece, with some historical sting. Read it here.

— And, in case you missed it in the New York Times the day before Christmas, this intriguing piece via Art Journal about the brouhaha over deaccessioning art at museums to raise bucks, a move that’s recently put New York’s cash-strapped National Academy Museum in hot-to-boiling water. Is it an idea whose time has come? Maybe so, maybe no. Author Jori Finkel talks with, among others, former Portland Art Museum director Dan Monroe, now at the Peabody Essex Museum in Masachusetts. Read it here.

Architecture notes: Doyle’s demise, Sam’s folly

At the risk of making Art Scatter look like an architecture and planning blog (we’re deeply interested, but others cover the territory fare more systematically) a couple of things are sticking in our craw. Well, my craw, at any rate.

First, the Riverdale School District’s decision to tear down an A.E. Doyle-designed elementary school in Dunthorpe, a move that’s far from surprising but depressing and exasperating, nevertheless: You get the feeling that the board never took the preservation case seriously; it just bulled ahead and did what it wanted to do. Noblesse, you might say, without the oblige. We wrote about this a while back. Now, we can’t think of any response better than those from Scatter friends Tim DuRoche, on his Portland Spaces blog, and Brian Libby, on his Portland Architecture blog. Read ’em and weep. Or get angry. Or both. This 1920 school building isn’t major Doyle, but it’s a model of how to do a modest building the right way — and after all, aren’t most buildings in most places modest? If you get the modest buildings right, the major buildings will follow suit.

Second — and not wanting to pick on Mayor-elect Sam Adams, who has a lot of energy and a lot of ideas — but what in the pluperfect hell is with his insistence on building that white elephant of a convention center hotel?
I thought Metro had finally stuck a silver spike in this 600-room monster’s heart, but no: Sam just won’t let it die the death it deserves. This truly seems to be a case where money interests are overruling common sense and good public policy, which really ought to go together.

Let’s be clear about a few things.

— First, the chances of this $227 million project ever paying for itself are about as good as Bill O’Reilly’s shot at acing out Hillary and becoming Obama’s secretary of state. And let’s not even get into how much that estimated $227 million would actually end up being.

Continue reading Architecture notes: Doyle’s demise, Sam’s folly

A scatter: Museums, bridges, noses, money

Some things just must be cleared up by the New Year, yes? Like what’s happening at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which threw up its hands last month and cried out for help as its financial position (or at least its endowment) withered away to next to nothing (well, $7 million or so).

The New York Times’ Edward Wyatt reports that the MoCA board will decide today whether it will merge with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or go it alone with “help” from Eli Broad, who has offered MoCA what amounts to a $15 million matching grant to rebuild its endowment and funding for five years of exhibitions (at $3 million per year).
Continue reading A scatter: Museums, bridges, noses, money

Gil Kelley and the height of the Skidmore district

Many days, I find myself Max-ing along First Avenue, once we ramp down from the Steel Bridge, and I have come to enjoy it immensely. It’s the buildings. There’s nothing quite like them. Two or three stories, mostly, elegant and tastefully restored, they are an instant invitation to consider the very beginnings of Portland as a city, because First Avenue, and the rest of the 20 blocks north and south of Burnside as far as Third, was the heart of the city’s first downtown.

It’s now the heart of the Skidmore historic district (or the Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood — they have overlapping, though not quite congruent, boundaries), far from the center of town and far from the major development activity that has re-made the Pearl and is now remaking the West End. Thanks to certain accidental economic forces and planning “failures”, around one-third of the original wonderful cast-iron facade buildings in the Skidmore district have been preserved, enough for it to have earned recognition as a national historic preservation district.

These aren’t the only old buildings in Portland, not by a long shot, but they are the greatest collection of cast-iron architecture still standing in the country. More importantly, they are beautiful — I love the human scale, the almost whimsical details, even the brickwork. And the renovations that have kept them “alive” as buildings have shown them to be deserving of more centuries of life, meaning simply that they can adapt to new circumstances, new technologies, new generations of tenants.

So, that’s how I enter the territory of two recent columns in The Oregonian, one by Steve Duin in ardent opposition (along with the preservationist community) to raising the height limits for new buildings in the district from 75 to 130 feet on five specific sites at the district’s edge, and one by Anna Griffin (online it inexplicably suggests that Renee Mitchell is the author; it’s Griffin) about how Mayor-elect Sam Adams’ reorganized planning director Gil Kelley out of a job and what this might mean. The two are related, because Kelley is the one who proposed changing the height restrictions, pending approval from the national historic district people.
Continue reading Gil Kelley and the height of the Skidmore district

Critic face-off: Brad Cloepfil and the battle against kitsch

The primary piece of writing on my reading list this weekend was Inara Verzemnieks’ profile of Brad Cloepfil, which was a hybrid of sorts, marrying facts about the architect and his buildings, but also offering an account of life on the ground inside those buildings and an approach to thinking about his work. It even gets, gulp, philosophical. I was a little too close to the process of this story to supply a full-fledged analysis of it, let alone a “judgment”, but it is the jumping off point for the rest of this post.

Lurking within Inara’s story is a debate between Ada Louise Huxtable and Nicolai Ouroussoff, and not just over Cloepfil’s renovation of the Museum of Arts and Design at 2 Columbus Circle, either. About everything. I’ll start with Huxtable just because she’s just the best. She puts Ouroussoff on notice immediately in the lead of her review in the Wall St. Journal: “the reviews have set some kind of record for irresponsible over-the-top building-bashing,” she writes, and she must be referring to him, because no one was quite as vitriolic as he was (that I’ve found in print, anyway).
Continue reading Critic face-off: Brad Cloepfil and the battle against kitsch