Tag Archives: Barry Johnson

Comings and goings, farewells and hellos

Odin, slayer of the Frost Giant, riding Sleipnir. 18th C. Icelandic, Danish Royal Library/Wikimedia Commons

Three days before Christmas and a day past Winter Solstice, our lives are a crazy mixup of anticipation and loss. The longest night has given way to the rebirth of light. Summer’s a bare blip beyond the horizon, but we’ve turned the corner. Old Father Time is creaking toward New Year’s Eve, when that perky bouncing baby takes over with all the foolish optimism of inexperience. Christmas presents? Yup, we’re looking forward to ’em. Midwinter indeed, but hope is on the rise.

It’s a season for goodbyes and hellos and reinventions, and as we say a few farewells we suspect the people involved are like the seasons: This is a passage to something invigorated and refreshed.


Fifty-two Pieces, one of Art Scatter’s favorite blogs, is about to enter its fifty-second week, and for its authors, Amy and LaValle, that will mean an ending and a beginning. They started their blog on Jan. 1, 2009, with the express intent of continuing it for fifty-two weeks and then letting a good thing go.

Each week this year they’ve chosen a single artist in the collections of the Portland Art Museum and explored his or her life and work in all sorts of fascinating ways. We’ve enjoyed the journey immensely, and now it’s almost over. We can hardly wait to see what comes next. God Jol.


Father Christmas riding a goat; origin unknown. Wikimedia CommonsOur good friend Barry Johnson, the original Scatterer, who had the idea for this blog and brought it into being before parting amicably to pursue his own arts column and Portland Arts Watch blog for The Oregonian, has come to another parting. Friday, Dec. 18, was his final day with The Oregonian: He took one of the buyouts that have become business as usual in the newspaper racket, following Mr. Scatter’s example from two years ago. Time to reboot, Barry said in his final column. Out with the old. In with new ideas.

Some of the newest ideas he’s packing with him. We welcome Barry with open arms into the outside world, where we’re sure he’s going to have a key role in reinventing arts journalism for the post-print universe. Have your people call Mr. Scatter’s people, Barry. We’ll do coffee. (Lunch, in the post-paycheck economy, is a rarer commodity, but hey, we might spring for that, too.)


As newspapers continue their freefall toward what every sane observer hopes will be a soft landing spot of shrunken but lively equilibrium, a lot of other former colleagues from The Oregonian have accepted their walking papers, too. Informed opinion has it that the 30-plus in the newsroom who accepted the latest buyout aren’t enough, and next time around, for the first time, it’ll be layoffs — maybe as early as February. Oh, yes. It’s midwinter, all right.

A few from the class of late ’09 (there was a spring class, too; Mrs. Scatter got her diploma then) I don’t know, or barely know, or in a few cases, such as photographer Olivia Bucks, don’t really know except through their often exemplary work.

Let me mention a few I have known and admired and enjoyed as colleagues. As the song says, the best is yet to come:

Inara Verzemnieks, a wonderful storyteller whose stories are only going to get bigger and better. We swapped ideas and talked about writing. I even learned how to spell her name without looking it up.

John Foyston, a terrific feature writer and a good amateur painter who was a bracing antidote to journalism by Ivy League degree. Not many newspapermen are also experienced motorcycle mechanics. Fortunately he’ll continue writing his yeasty beer column for the O.

Don Colburn, a damn fine poet; Jonathan Brinkman, who knows how to make business writing lively and engaging; Abby Haight, a model of journalistic flexibility; Gordon Oliver, quiet competence and all-around good sense incarnate.

Ralph Wells, an articulate gentleman and former cab driver (and husband of Carol Wells, a freelance theater critic who’s brought some sparkle to the O).

Copy editors Jan Jackson and Pat Harrison, who on many occasions quietly saved me from myself. Copy editor Ann Ereline, an Estonian who gave me good advice about visiting there 10 years ago. And copy editor and old friend Ed Hunt, who was at the O and its late sister the Oregon Journal even before I was, and who helped me through a post-merger crisis when a long-departed editor was gunning for me. Ed’s advice was stunningly simple and practical: Go over his head.

Photo guy Mike Davis, who fought for visual storytelling.

John Hamlin, who moved from news and design (he was once a managing editor) into the strange new world of computerization and ably helped the rest of us do the things we needed to do.

The brain drain in the newspaper industry has been swift and barely fathomable. While a few nitwits in the blogosphere celebrate this, it’s creating a crisis for the great American experiment in representative democracy.

But the days are getting longer. A whiff of hope is in the air. Some of these people will be finding solutions to the newsgathering crisis. All of them will move into fresh new lives. It’s cold, but it’s also kind of exhilarating.

Goodbye and hello, my friends. And thanks.



  • Top: Illustration from an 18th century Icelandic manuscript of Odin riding his steed Sleipnir after defeating Ymir, the Ice Giant. In the midst of darkness, let there be light. Danish Royal Library/Wikimedia Commons
  • Inset: Father Christmas riding a goat; origin unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

On mendacity, Earl Blumenauer and the free Web

Burl Ives as Big Daddy and Paul Newman as Brick, from the trailer for the 1958 film version of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Wikimedia Commons

“What’s that smell in this room? Didn’t you notice it, Brick? Didn’t you notice the powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room?”

That’s Big Daddy stating the unfortunate obvious in Tennessee Williams’ great American play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and although we all know Big Daddy had some pretty serious problems of his own, being mendacious about the widespread rot of mendacity was not among them.

More and more, American politics has become a particularly noxious form of theater: Mr. Scatter commented on the subject a while back when Joe Wilson, an obscure congressman from South Carolina, gained momentary celebrity by shouting “You lie!” at Barack Obama as the president was addressing Congress on health care reform. In that post, we traced a little of the history of a form of American theater that has in its time been literally a blood sport. (And also a curious concocter of doublespeak: Mendacifiers cry “Mendacity!” to reframe the public perception of truth.)

So this morning’s recommended reading comes from Earl Blumenauer on the opionion page of The Oregonian, where the Democratic congressman from Portland talks about the craziness of the “Death Panels” he most emphatically did not create and how his uncontroversial proposal for the health-reform package was twisted into an utter fabrication in an attempt to scare voters witless with visions of the Big Government Swamp Monster sucking out grandma’s brains.

Blumenauer’s proposal was for insurance coverage for discussions with a doctor about end-of-life care decisions. In the hands of the Tea Party crowd and their congressional enablers, that quickly morphed into government “death panels” deciding who would live and who would die — a particularly cynical, yet frustratingly effective, Big Lie. And it was notable for one scary fact: The charge was ludicrous and ridiculously easy to refute, yet people believed it anyway.

It’s old hat to compare the making of legislation to the making of sausage, and what we’re watching as health care reform winds slowly through Congress is a classic view of the sausage factory. It’s about compromises, a little bit of pork (naturally), political tradeoffs, industry pressure, vote-counting, and all those messy aspects of the process you’d rather not think about when you’re slathering mustard on your frank.

But what Blumenauer is talking about is different. It’s the hijacking of the entire discussion for the purposes of a rank power play — an attempt to bypass, and so destroy, the rational discussion and implementation of governmental process. It’s the anarchy of a new Monkey Wrench Gang.

Blumenauer speaks remarkably candidly for a man familiar with the artful evasion that has become the default language of elected officialdom, which relies for its continuance on its ability to offend as few people as possible and seem to stand in many corners at once. The congressman lays a good share of blame for the “death panel” debacle on the mass media, and I’m inclined to agree with him. When you breathlessly cover the wrestling match without emphasizing that the fight is rigged, you are legitimizing the illegitimate and further shredding the rags of your own reputation. What if the mendacifiers gave a press conference and nobody came?


And what if information was free? It’s a state that poet, academic and prodigious blogger Kenneth Goldsmith, in a post titled If It Doesn’t Exist on the Internet, It Doesn’t Exist, proposes is already beginning to happen. A provocative read, and many thanks to LaValle of Fifty-two Pieces, an inveterate devourer of the virtual library commons, for passing it along.

On the same front but more locally, a new group called We Make the Media is organizing a potentially exciting new home for online journalism in Portland, possibly with a nonprofit funding base.

As our mainstream news sources crumble, the need for new organizing engines for information becomes more crucial. Among We Make the Media’s organizers: Ron Buel, founding editor and publisher of Willamette Week; original Scatterer Barry Johnson; Jay Hutchins, vice president of news at Oregon Public Broadcasting.

The group will hold an all-day conference from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. this Saturday, November 21, at the University of Oregon’s Turnbull Center, 70 N.W.  Couch St. in Portland. Check the Web site for registration and details. As the song says, this could be the start of something big.


Photo: Burl Ives as Big Daddy and Paul Newman as Brick, from the trailer for the 1958 movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Wikimedia Commons

Original Scatterer Barry Johnson takes a flying leap

… into the next great adventure of his life.

Barry, who had the idea of Art Scatter in the first place and was the doctor on duty who slapped it on the bottom in the delivery room and sent it off squawking into the world, has told his many friends and followers he’s leaving The Oregonian as of Dec. 18.

Barry JohnsonHe made the announcement today on his Portland Arts Watch blog, where for the past year or so he’s, well, kept watch on the arts in Portland. Lots of terrific ideas and elegant writing have spun out of PAW in its print and online versions.

Truth is, though, Barry’s been doing this sort of thing for the past quarter-century at the O, where he and I worked together pretty much all that time until I left two years ago. There are still a few editors there who can’t tell us apart. The biggest difference: Barry did a better job of keeping his cool when bureaucratic insanity struck.

Sometimes he was my editor, sometimes I was his editor, sometimes he rolled up his sleeves and cooked up a big pot of Kentucky burgoo. Always we were friends and colleagues, talking things over, parsing the paper and the arts scene, coming up with plots to Save the Journalism Business that never got out of the batter’s box, much less to first base.

Barry wrote — continues to write — about art, theater, dance, architecture, planning, music, books and other things with wit and insight. Art Scatter readers have seen plenty of evidence of that in his many posts here: Just click his name under “categories” at right and you’ll get a sense of the breadth and insights of his vision.

This is a big loss for The Oregonian, which like most newspapers continues to shrink precipitously. A lot of gloating’s going on about that in a lot of corners of the blogosphere, but in fact it’s an American tragedy. Without the good, hard, basic reporting that newspapers for all their flaws have done better than anyone else, this fragile experiment called the American Democracy stands a much lesser chance of thriving or surviving. And without the newspapers, where will all the blogospheric pontificators — me included — get our raw material?

Barry’s departure is also a big loss, at least temporarily, for Portland’s arts scene. But this is no retirement. It’s a recalibration. Barry has ideas — plenty of ’em — and we’ll let him spin them out himself when he’s good and ready. Who knows? Maybe he’ll even post something on Art Scatter!

Welcome to the outside world, Barry. The water’s fine.

Ulsh is out, Stowell gains leverage at OBT. Now what?

A day before the season opener, the turmoil at Oregon Ballet Theatre has taken an unsurprising turn.

Photo: Lambtron, distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.Jon Ulsh, the embattled executive director, is out. Artistic director Christopher Stowell picks up some of his role, and chief operating officer Doug Wells will assume day-to-day management. The Oregonian’s Barry Johnson has the story on his Portland Arts Watch blog.

The ballet’s board says its decision isn’t a response to the overwhelming vote of no confidence in Ulsh by staff and dancers. But once the company’s letter of concern to the board became public, something had to be done — and this seemed the most likely outcome.

Development — read, fund-raising — apparently will become mainly the board’s responsibility. How it handles that task will be crucial to the company’s success.

Stay tuned. This story isn’t over.

Oregon Ballet Theatre: Can this marriage be saved?

UPDATE: Barry Johnson of The Oregonian has posted this new, vigorous counter-argument on his Portland Arts Watch blog to Nigel Jaquiss’s Willamette Week story about OBT’s shaky financial history (link to WW story is below). The gist of Barry’s new take: Bad weather during “The Nutcracker” WAS a major setback; nothing nefarious was going on; the company has radically revamped the way it does business and has a drastically reduced budget for the coming season. So where’s the scandal?

Ballet shoes, in fifth position

Ballet shoes, in fifth position. Photo: Lambtron, distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

The internal dissension at Oregon Ballet Theatre just keeps spilling over. Willamette Week broke the story of staff and dancer dissatisfaction with executive director Jon Ulsh, and now WW’s Nigel Jaquiss follows up with this report,which suggests a longstanding financial shambles. The Oregonian’s Barry Johnson followed up on the original story with a couple of good reports in his Portland Arts Watch column. Art Scatter posted its own take a week ago, and that commentary stirred up some impassioned responses in the comments section.

I hate this kind of story. People’s livelihoods and reputations go on the line. But you can’t sweep this sort of thing under the carpet. The newspapers need to keep hitting the stories; the organizations need to respond openly; the rest of us need to sort it all out and decide not just where the truth lies but also what it means.

The ballet world is an especially complex and partisan one that all too often seems to thrive, and sometimes impale itself, on divisiveness. Like classical music it gets caught up in the great-man or great-woman syndrome, for better and for worse. And when trouble hits — as it has in spades at OBT, where 41 of 56 employees signed a letter to the board questioning the executive director’s ability to carry out his job — the result can be a public relations disaster at the least and a crippling, even life-threatening blow at the most.

I don’t envy the ballet’s board, which has the difficult task of sorting the truth from the innuendo and anger, and then following the truth wherever it may lead. But it has to be done.

A couple of points:

The artistic/business alliance

Any arts group, and a nonprofit one especially, has to do a creative dance between artistic ambition and financial reality. The theoretical division is this: The artistic director pushes for the moon, the executive director or general manager says, “Let me grab my ladder and my butterfly net.” In reality, the partnership has to be vastly more collaborative. The general manager has to be committed to the artistic director’s vision, and the artistic director has to be willing, if reluctantly, to work within the financial realities that the general manager and her development staff can realistically provide.

It has to be a mutual give-and-take. What do we want, what do we need, what can we afford? If we can’t afford it now, what steps do we take so we can afford it later?

The general manager who nods and says “I’ll get you the moon” when in fact he lacks a ladder does the group no favors. The artistic director who refuses to believe the ladder doesn’t exist and keeps demanding green cheese also can do severe harm to his organization.

A question to the board: Have artistic director Christopher Stowell and executive director Ulsh been playing in the same ballgame? Have they been in agreement, or at cross-purposes? Have their expectations been unrealistic, or did they truly just have the bad luck to be steamrollered by an economy run amok? Sometimes good leaders make big mistakes. Sometimes they get caught by circumstances out of their control and their enemies shout, “Aha! Told you so!” Sometimes they’re just not up to the task. Parsing the differences, which OBT’s board must do, is perilous and essential.

Stowell is a special kind of artist — the kind of smart, aesthetically astute, nationally connected person a city the size of Portland doesn’t see every day — and the impulse inside the company, I’m sure, is to want to give him everything he needs to push the company as far and as fast forward as he can. He’s done a remarkable job of that. But has the ballet bought a house when it could only afford the down payment? I don’t know. The board needs to figure that out.

Is the partnership irreparable?

If leadership has made mistakes — and that includes the board as well as Stowell and Ulsh — does that necessarily mean it can’t learn and improve? Or is it truly too late in the game? The astonishing vote of no confidence in Ulsh by three-quarters of the staff will make any attempt at reconciliation daunting.

Did the staff and dancers make a mistake in going public with their concerns? Did they realize the letter would be leaked to the press? Did they leak it on purpose, figuring that was the best way to force Ulsh out — and if that’s the case, is it all over but the shouting? This is the sort of genie that’s impossible to put back in the bottle.

Again, I don’t know the answers. I’m not inside the company, and although I hear a lot of things, it’s difficult to gauge what’s accurate and what’s the understandable result of deep frustration.

If part of the problem is the way that Ulsh and Stowell work together, can that working relationship be improved? I don’t mean, do they get along personally? I mean, is each able to understand his own role in the business relationship, and are they able to separate reality from illusion? Is the partnership between equals? Do they trust each other — and themselves — enough to tell each other the truth, and to understand it themselves? Can they talk clear-headedly about limitations?

It’s a tricky balance. You can’t spend yourself into oblivion, but if you accept the status quo, you can shrivel artistically. Still, growth has to be real growth, without artificial stimulants. And if the bucks aren’t being hauled in, why is that?

I won’t presume to tell OBT’s board that it should hire, fire, or retain anyone. (Well, I will say it needs to hold on to Stowell as long as it can, even if that means getting him some training on collaborating with the executive side. This is, after all, his first artistic directorship, and even if you’re a natural at it, which I think he probably is, there are things to learn.) But the board can’t just hope the trouble will go away. It has to deal with it, and it has to act swiftly — but with careful, hard-nosed consideration.

Can this marriage be saved?

Should this marriage be saved?

We’re all waiting nervously to find out.

‘La Boheme’: glorious, conspicuous consumption

Alyson Cambridge is party-loving Musetta in La Boheme. Photo: Portland Opera/2009

Let’s have a party: Alyson Cambridge fires up the menfolk as flirtatious Musetta in Puccini’s “La Boheme.” Photo: Portland Opera

Art Scatter remembers a time in Portland when the cornucopia of performance was overflowing and Friday evenings confronted culture-hoppers with the sobering reality that despite theoretical breakthroughs in physics and mathematics, mere human beings can still be in only one place at a time.

Oh, wait: That time appears to be now.

Last night saw the openings of the rich American musical Ragtime at Portland Center Stage, the smart playwright Steven Dietz’s comedy Becky’s New Car at Artists Rep, The Indie Concert with leading contemporary dancemakers Mary Oslund and Gregg Bielemeier at Conduit (this one has just one more performance, tonight), acerbic comedian Lewis Black at the Schnitz, Alfred Uhry’s Tony-winning The Last Night at Ballyhoo at Clackamas Rep, and the return of Stephen Sondheim’s modern classic Company at the Winningstad Theatre. Plus some other stuff.

Where to go? What to do?

Kelly Kaduce as Mimi and Arturo Chacon-Cruz as Rodolfo in La Boheme. Photo: Portland OperaWe went for the guts with Portland Opera’s season-opening performance of Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme, and came away with the glory, too: a lovely, funny, moving production of one of the most glorious operas ever written.

There are those who declare loudly that the 19th century came to a close in 1924 when Puccini died at age 65, and that for all practical purposes opera died with him.

That’s turned out to be a gross misunderstanding of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, both culturally and musically. (When I told a prominent but somewhat ossified classical critic many years ago how much I’d enjoyed the Bartok I’d heard the night before, he snorted and replied: “No, you didn’t. Nobody enjoys Bartok. They only say they enjoy Bartok because they think they’re supposed to enjoy Bartok.”)

Portland Opera’s production, directed by Sandra Bernhard and featuring the gorgeous-toned Kelly Kaduce as the beautiful consumptive Mimi, reminded me that classics are of their own time and place: Boheme, which debuted in Turin, Italy, in 1896, revels in a romanticism and a deep love for melody that simply don’t exist in the contemporary arts vocabulary.

Continue reading ‘La Boheme’: glorious, conspicuous consumption

Oregon Ballet Theatre: Showdown at the No-K Corral

UPDATE: Barry Johnson takes the story further on his Oregonian blog, Portland Arts Watch, with this post on Friday. This appears to be very much a hot issue. Keep watching Portland Arts Watch.

Oregon Ballet Theatre's version of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker

Ever since last spring’s remarkable bailout from its equally remarkable tumble down the financial rabbit hole, Oregon Ballet Theatre has been trying to assure everyone that things are really OK now — and rumors have been rumbling that they most decidedly are not.

Bet on the latter. Willamette Week’s Kelly Clarke reported online Thursday that 41 members of the company — including many of the dancers, highly respected school chief Damara Bennett, ballet master Lisa Kipp and artistic director Christopher Stowell’s executive assistant, Rebecca Roberts — have signed a letter to the board asking for reviews of the leadership of both Stowell and executive director Jon Ulsh. Our good friend Barry Johnson joined in with this report on his Portland Arts Watch blog for The Oregonian. Do read them both to understand the background.

Although Stowell’s name is mentioned, it seems clear that Ulsh is the focus of what amounts to an anguished cry from the ballet’s rank and file — a mutiny, almost, in a business that takes its traditional hierarchy as a matter of fact.

“Either (Ulsh) does not have the skill set” to deal with the multiple challenges of his job, the letter stated, “or he does not have the capacity to handle all of them at once. It seems to me that if he did, we would not be in such deep difficulty after three years under his leadership.” The letter, composed by company historian Linda Besant, continues: “… I do not feel that the organization can afford to be a training ground for its executive director in this very crucial year.”

OBT dancers Gavin Larsen and Artur SultanovHarsh words. And it seems odd that they were written by someone as relatively on the sidelines as the company historian. You could dismiss it as internal grumbling except that so many major players took the extraordinary step of signing it, potentially putting their own jobs on the line.

I want to make it very clear that I haven’t talked with Ulsh, Stowell, or any member of the board about OBT’s administrative troubles since the letter was sent. My thoughts are based on the news reports I’ve read, past observations, and second-hand reports from people close to the scene. I’m hoping to start a conversation here, not end one, and I hope people inside the company will feel free to respond openly.

It seems telling that while the actual artists in the ballet company are underpaid and thus prone to unrest, so are the musicians in the Oregon Symphony — and from what I can tell, most of the symphony musicians, who have accepted stiff pay cuts and reductions in benefits to help cope with the orchestra’s own fiscal troubles, are solidly behind their leaders, music director Carlos Kalmar and and president Elaine Calder.

So what’s the difference?

Hard to say, except it appears that while the symphony musicians have faith in Calder’s efforts to rethink how the orchestra presents itself to the community, a significant and perhaps majority percentage of the ballet dancers and staff have no such faith in Ulsh’s abilities. The letter, in fact, amounted to a vote of no confidence in Ulsh’s ability to carry out his duties.

Is there an element of scapegoating here? I don’t know. Maybe. I do recall that after the ballet’s emergency call last spring to raise $750,000 to keep it from folding (an astonishing outpouring of generosity brought in more than $900,000) one person extremely close to the company told me, “There’s going to be a scapegoat for this, and it’s going to be Jon Ulsh.”

And here we are. I’ve heard other theories, as dark and murky as a Dan Brown book plot, circling: Ulsh has stacked the board with his own supporters, and Stowell will take the fall. I see no evidence of that. I’ve known Ulsh casually for several years, and he seems both an honorable and an earnest man — and as even Besant notes in her letter, a man committed to the company’s success. Stowell has gained deserved recognition nationally for transforming this small company into a rising force in the American ballet world, and if the board doesn’t understand that, it ought to just give up the ghost and disband. Boards aren’t social clubs. They have strict duties, and the first is to understand the nature of the organization they oversee. The nature of this organization is this: Stowell has reshaped it into one of the most exciting small ballet companies in the nation. Period.

So what’s the trouble? M-O-N-E-Y.

No surprise there. Nonprofit organizations across the country, from museums to major universities, are in deep trouble, and sometimes because they got caught up in the go-go Wall Street frenzy themselves, as Stephanie Strom reported in the New York Times today. That’s surely no problem in Portland, where no nonprofit I know of has enough money in reserve to play the market. Arts groups here are in trouble (partly) because of the market, not because they play the market.

OBT spent some months last year without a development director — a crucial position in a company of the ballet’s size. I asked a board member over the summer how the company was approaching fund-raising. It wouldn’t have a development director, he told me: That was one of the positions cut in the ballet’s budget belt-tightening. Then how are you going to raise money? I asked. Ulsh and Stowell will do it themselves, he replied. Most big donors want to talk with the artistic director, anyway: It’s a big part of his job.

True enough. But the artistic-director shmooze is supposed to seal the deal, not start it. He’s the artistic director, after all, and while pragmatics dictate that he or she has a role in bringing in the bucks, other people (including the board) have to do the major hauling.

I noted with both optimism and pessimism that when the ballet raised more than $900,000 in its emergency drive last spring, no single donation was over $25,000. That meant a huge number of people were sending in their $10, $50, $250 checks. It also meant the big-bucks crowd was keeping its pockets buttoned — and no arts group can hope to thrive in the long term without some deep-pocket supporters. Where are OBT’s deep pockets? And if they don’t exist, why not? I don’t know.

This maybe-divorce proceeding is also significant because, in a sense, OBT has seemed reborn since its emergency bailout in the spring. The company seems to have rediscovered that it’s part of a local community, and that that’s a good thing. OBT dancers have been all over town, taking part in events by other companies, dancing and choreographing in fund-raising events for the beleaguered contemporary-dance center Conduit. Stowell’s been everywhere, shaking hands, giving talks, supporting other groups, being part of things. People have begun to feel that the ballet is connected, and they’ve appreciated it. Why risk that good will? Apparently, because so many members of the company feel it’s necessary.

On a personal level, I want to be very clear here. The rise of OBT to its current level of performance has been one of the most encouraging and thoroughly pleasing arts stories that I’ve covered in the past 15 years. I would be devastated if this gutsy, talented, polished, personality-laden company lost the momentum it’s worked so hard to achieve.

In July I was talking on other matters with Paul Nicholson, executive director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which has seen a steep decline in its own endowment but has maintained its institutional stability. The subject of OBT’s recent bailout came up.

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” Nicholson told me. “And it would be a shame if Oregon Ballet Theatre did not take this and use it as a springboard to build those stronger relationships with those donors. If they just said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and that was the end of it. … Think of the incredible data base they’ve now compiled. There’s not much more signal that those donors can send to the theater that they care.”

A whole lot of people care, deeply. Can we now please try to solve this thing?

Lookin’ for a religious experience over here …

 Luca Signorelli - "Resurrection of the Flesh" (1499-1502). Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto/Wikimedia Commons

Luca Signorelli, “Resurrection of the Flesh” (1499-1502). Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto/Wikimedia Commons.


Labor Day’s gone. School’s on. Summer’s over. First day of fall. Just like that.

With renewed academic rigor now that classes are in session, we turn to more serious matters. We turn to Heaven above and seek the answers to the really big questions.

To do that, we’re resurrecting a conversation we had here on Art Scatter more than a year ago. And adding a little juice that’s been specially blessed.

The original post and comments were in July 2008. I wrote a comment but was too timid to post it. I stashed it away and let the great scroll of blog parchment roll up and pass me by.

But come the wee hours of Christmas eve/Christmas morn, Mr. Scatter and I were hangin’ in the living room sipping wine with family and the same topic came up. We started throwing around barbs and I fetched my laptop, called up the post, read through the comments and we laughed and laughed. And then I said, “You know, I have something I wrote that I never posted here.”

"Salome With the Head of John the Baptist," Caravaggio (157-1610), from Web Gallery of Art / Wikimedia CommonsI called it up. And read it aloud. We laughed some more. And everyone urged me to post it as a comment. I still wasn’t sure, but the wine was flowing and the tree was sparkling and the company was cheery and did I mention the wine?

So I copied it into the comment field and clicked. It was comment No. 26. I told everyone that nobody would see it anyway except a pingback e-mail would go to the original poster: Barry Johnson. Remember him?

And then I realized it was Christmas, the comment was sorta about religion, and it was perfect timing. Merry Christmas, Barry.

The big question: If we raise our kids in a secular household and they grow up in public schools with no exposure to theology, how are they to understand the very basics and historic underpinnings of culture? Sure, we’re laughing here, but it’s a serious question. Please help us answer it.
Continue reading Lookin’ for a religious experience over here …

A Very American Breakfast with Sojourn

home_image_onthetableHere’s the thing. Arts people have been around a very long time, and no matter how hard you kick ’em around, they keep popping back up.

In Portland recently, people ponied up $120,000 in a single week to save the annual summer Washington Park music festival. They tossed in more than $850,000 to keep Oregon Ballet Theatre from folding.

In the middle of the worst recession/depression since the 1930s, people are somehow helping to pay for things they believe in, and they just keep going to shows. Maybe they’re looking for bargains. But they’re looking, and they’re going.

It’s an ingrained human need, as John Noble Wilford suggests in this morning’s New York Times. Wilford, the Times’ fine science writer, reports on the discovery of a five-hole bone flute in a cave in what’s now southwestern Germany. It’s a sophisticated instrument, apparently with harmonic possibilities not too far removed from a modern flute’s. And it’s at least 35,000 years old — maybe 40,000. It was discovered, Noble reports, “a few feet away from the carved figure of a busty, nude woman, also around 35,000 years old.” As the researchers keep digging I’m hoping they’ll discover the remains of an ancient flagon and complete the Ice Age trifecta: wine, women and song.

So, yes, right now a lot of artists have their hands out. And what’s amazing to me is that so many people are pausing among their own economic problems and doing what they can. Another example: The Portland Ballet, the “other” classically oriented dance company in town, has collected $15,000 from a public drive specifically so it can have live music for its annual performance of the holiday-season ballet La Boutique Fantasque. I don’t know if this is exactly what Barry Johnson meant in his recent Portland Arts Watch post about democratizing the arts, but it’s sure active and participatory.

So just for fun, let’s make the argument that art is as much of a human need as food — or, if that’s too rash, that the urge to make art is as ingrained in the human psyche as the necessity to eat is imprinted on  the human body. Sure, you can survive without art. But the artistic impulse is there, I’ll suggest, in your heartbeat. Everyone’s got rhythm.

And that link between food and art brings me to Sojourn Theatre and its upcoming benefit, A Very American Breakfast, which is happening 7:30-9 in the morning on Wednesday, July 1, at Disjecta, that big inviting space for all sorts of things in the percolating old Kenton neighborhood of North Portland. (Disjecta is having its own first-anniversary party for its Kenton home from 8 to 11 Saturday, June 27; no cover, cash bar.)

Eric Bowman, Oregon Farm, 2007/Froelick GallerySojourn is a Portland-based company that tours the country, developing and performing community-based plays that usually coalesce around specific themes. For the last year, among a myriad of other activities, it’s been working on a new piece called On the Table that looks at food, and how it’s grown and distributed, and the choices we make about it, and the impact it has on various communities. A lot of field reporting (in this case, literally) goes into a typical Sojourn show, and that takes time and resources. Company director Michael Rohd figures the project has another year to go: “The show will happen Summer 2010 simultaneously in PDX and a small town 50 miles from PDX, and explores the urban/rural conversation in Oregon, culminating with a bus trip for both audiences and a final act at an in-between site,” he says.

The benefit breakfast costs $50 (you can make a reservation here, or if that’s too much or too little or you’re going to be out of town, make a donation) and will feature food from Phresh Organic Catering. Disjecta is at 8371 N. Interstae Ave., Portland.

Sojourn doesn’t make a habit of putting its hand out, but there comes a time and place. Here’s part of what Rohd had to say when he spread the word:

“So, we are busy.
And we don’t have a building.
And we are engaged in the most ambitious project of our nearly ten years together.

And, its going to be tough.
This moment right now is tough.
But we believe — go big, or go home.”

In the meantime, breakfast in the shadow of Kenton’s giant Paul Bunyan statue sounds good.


Another way to look at food and art and cities and rural life: Froelick Gallery‘s exhibit Town & Country: Oregon at 150, which continues through July 11 at the gallery, 714 N.W. Davis St, just off Broadway. This juried group show takes a look at Oregon through its urban/rural geographical divide, which sometimes is a connection as well. That’s Eric Bowman’s 2007 painting “Oregon Farm” above.

Who knows? Maybe someone’s sitting behind the barn, playing a five-hole bone flute. And maybe that’s just all right.

Good news: OBT beats the bank — for now

obt_thermometer1While Art Scatter was spending Thursday in the Columbia Gorge visiting the Maryhill Museum (more on that trip as soon as I get it written) our partner in crime Barry Johnson was busy reporting on Portland Arts Watch that Oregon Ballet Theatre has smashed through the ceiling of its emergency fund drive, raising $853,271 by the end of the day Wednesday.

Considering that its goal was $750,000 by June 30, that’s remarkable. And it doesn’t need to stop here. Maybe OBT can smash $1 million by June 30, which would help considerably in balancing next year’s reduced budget. OBT says it needs to raise $1.5 million in donations to meet its slashed-back budget of $4.8 million, down from a projected $6.7 million before the economy collapsed.

To break it down: A little more than $500,000 came from 976 individual donations, or an average of about $512. And it didn’t come just from Portland:  Money came from 26 states, which indicates how highly this company is thought of nationally. Eight donors gave $190,000 of that, in chunks of $25,000 or $20,000, which means there were a lot of $25, $50, $100, $150, $250 gifts from ordinary dance-lovers who dug deep, and their willingness to help made a big difference. In addition, last weekend’s big gala concert pulled in about $330,000.

Now it’s time for the heavy hitters to step up to the plate — the six-figure and seven-figure people. It’s essential to the long-term health of this company that it gain the confidence and regular support of the deep-pocket crowd. That $1.5 million for the coming year? It breaks down to about $29,000 a week — and that’s for a bare-bones budget. To build the company back to the $7 million level, and restore its full orchestra, is going to take a lot more than that.

The task has just begun. In the meantime, congratulations to everyone.