Tag Archives: Oregon Historical Society

Oregon history: just a thing of the past?

By Bob Hicks

You can order popular images online at the OHS web site.It’s not often we call attention to a front-page newspaper story — after all, it’s right there on the front page; how could you miss it? — but today we’re doing just that. If you haven’t looked at it yet, please read Still Stuck in the Past, D.K. Row’s front-page story in today’s Oregonian about the continuing woes at the Oregon Historical Society in spite of the five-year levy that Multnomah County voters recently passed to help bail the place out.

This is no hatchet job. D.K.’s story is well-balanced and gives a good insight into the complex issues that have been hurting the society and its museum for years. In a way, OHS offers a disconcerting peek into the future of all sorts of public institutions, from schools to police and street departments, if the tax-revolt and “privatization” bandwagons continue unchecked. If you starve an institution long enough, it starts to make blunders and lose track of what it is and what it’s supposed to be doing.

Certainly the state’s now-you-see-it-but-mostly-you-don’t approach to funding has been a huge contributor to the historical society’s troubles. But the place has also had structural, managerial problems for years, to a certain extent since its glory days under its legendary leader Tom Vaughan.

Continue reading Oregon history: just a thing of the past?

The state of support for history in Oregon

Tom Fehrer, skulls, from "In the Navel of the Moon" at Camerwork Gallery, Portland.

By Bob Hicks

It’s pretty grim, according to Steve Law’s report, Historical Society may ask voters for tax levy, in The Portland Tribune, and Sarah Mirk’s followup, State History Museum Will Run Out of Cash in 2011, Pitches Tax To Stay Afloat, in The Mercury’s Blogtown.

Things are skeletal right now. Oregon Historical Society boss George Vogt says that Oregon ranks No. 50 in state support of its history museum. Not sure, but that sounds like dead last, unless they’re counting the likes of Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and Washington, D.C. in the rankings.

The state of Oregon, strapped for funds like every other state, has basically thrown its hands up and surrendered. The Historical Society is so far down the list of its priorities, it’s probably looking up at the likes of funding for bicycle lanes on logging roads in the Tillamook Forest (where something called the Tillamook Burn once happened, but looks like that’s, well, history now).

Vogt says the society will run out of cash next year. His solution? A five-year, $10 million levy on the November ballot that would add about $10 a year to the property-tax bill on a $200,000 home. The catch? It’s not a statewide levy — it’s just for Multnomah County. One of the undertold stories of Oregon politics is that greater Portland and the Willamette Valley have been paying a big share of the bills for most of the rest of the state for decades (urban Oregonians pay much more into the state coffers than they get back in services, and the “extra” money helps underwrite rural and small-town Oregon) but you rarely see it spelled out as baldly as this. The payoff: Multnomah County residents would get free admission to the museum, which ordinarily costs $11 for adults.

Portlanders tend to believe in their cultural organizations, and in ordinary times this would probably stand a fair chance of passing. But these aren’t ordinary times, and I’m guessing this levy, if it hits the ballot, will face a steep uphill challenge.

Thoughts on this? Hit that comment button, please.


The picture at top, by Seattle photographer Tom Feher, is just one of his many images of Oaxaca, Mexico, on view Aug. 21-Sept. 24 at Portland’s Camerawork Gallery. There’ll be an artist’s reception 1-4 p.m. on Saturday the 21st. Feher’s exhibit, In the Navel of the Moon, is all about history, and the ways that history persists into the present, subtly and sometimes not so subtly shaping what we think of as contemporary life.

Feher has been photographing life in Oaxaca for a dozen years, and lives there half of every year. Here are some of his thoughts on what’s become something of a life work:

Life, in all its aspects, is multilayered in Mexico generally, and especially so in Oaxaca. At its most superficial there is what the tourist sees: the color, the festivities, the unsettling chaos of the markets, streets and traffic. But it goes deeper than that. The countless churches built upon the remains of ancient temples; the religious services and celebrations, an admixture of the orthodox and the older native practices. City names, often a combination of the indigenous name with a post-conquest Saint’s name tacked on. Contemporary art frequently contains pre-Hispanic imagery. Even the food has its origin in the indigenous dishes that existed before the Spaniards came. It becomes evident that even as they live in an ever more contemporary world, there are people of today’s Mexico who still dream the dreams of the ancients and evidence it in their daily lives, as well as events that only thinly disguise their connection to rituals of pre-history.

Ah, but then again, history: Who needs it, anyway?


Intriguingly, Northeast Portland’s 23 Sandy Gallery has a show coming up in September that seems to dovetail in interesting ways with Feher’s exhibit at Camerawork. Portland photographer Stewart Harvey‘s I Am What I Need To Be, on view Sept. 3-18, is subtitled A Photo Essay on the Odyssey of Identity in New Orleans. It’s about the nature of creativity in the Crescent City, which seems to have a lot to do not just with the whims and brainstorms of young creatives but more importantly with the ways that the past weaves into the present and the future. In other words: History lives.

Compared to Portland, which “shares much of the same liberal spirit,” Harvey says:

… the Crescent City seems more enamored by cultural movements than the rabid individuals who create them. I was charmed by the willingness of New Orleanians to not only give sanctuary to the expressive oddball, but to provide a platform for their development.

Like Oaxaca, New Orleans has a deep and long-running history with bones: See Harvey’s photograph below. Unlike Oregon, it seems to think that history has a place in the present and future.

Stewart Harvey photographs skeletal revelry in New Orleans, at 23 Sandy Gallery in September.


PHOTOS, from top:

  • Tom Fehrer, skulls, from “In the Navel of the Moon” at Camerwork Gallery, Portland.
  • Stewart Harvey photographs skeletal revelry in New Orleans, at 23 Sandy Gallery in September.

OHS’s ‘Native Regalia’ brings it all back home

Sue Perry Olson, dentalium cap, Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw, 2002. Photo: Frank Miller

Above: Sue Perry Olson, dentalium cap, Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw, 2002. Inset: Chooktoot’s doctor regalia, Klamath, ca. 1900. Photos: Frank Miller

On Portland’s South Park Blocks the big visual news this fall is the Portland Art Museum’s splashy China Design Now exhibit and its micro-blockbuster single-painting show of Raphael’s portrait La Velata, with its sexy speculation on the great Italian painter’s private life.

Chooktoot's doctor regalia, Klamath, ca. 1900. Photo: Frank Miller

But as important as the Far East is to our future and the European Renaissance is to our past, we have a past right here, too, that continues to inform our present and future on the Upper Left Coast.

I’m talking about Oregon’s Native American heritage, and I’m hoping that in all the understandable fuss about China and Raphael, a small jewel of a show at the Oregon Historical Society doesn’t get lost.

The show is called The Art of Ceremony: Regalia of Native Oregon, and it continues for just another week, through Sunday, Nov. 15, at the historical society, right across the park from the art museum at Southwest Jeffferson and Park Avenue. I reviewed the exhibit in The Oregonian last December when it opened at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem; since then it’s been traveling to other museums and cultural centers around the state.

The Art of Ceremony combines a lot of prime historical pieces with work in a historical vein by some leading contemporary tribal artists. It’s curated by Rebecca J. Dobkins, an anthroplogist at Willamette University who’s assembled several fine exhibits of Northwest Native American art at the Hallie Ford, but it’s notable also because the pieces chosen were selected in close consultation with members of each of Oregon’s federally recognized nations: These are the things the tribes themselves consider their best work. And in a lot of cases they’re things that aren’t ordinarily seen in public settings like powwows: They’re traditional regalia not usually in the public eye.

Spend some time with this show if you’re downtown. The historical society is closed Monday but open Tuesday through Saturday.

In the Oregon Legislature, a matter of broken Trust

This is exactly what was never supposed to happen. This is the breaking of the devil’s deal the Oregon Legislature made to keep the culture lobby off its back.The pickpocket, in  formal attire/Wikimedia Commons

This is what happens when an entire state thinks that “fiscal responsibility” means tax kickback checks to citizens in flush times, $10 corporate income taxes in all times, trying to balance the state budget on a two-legged stool (property and income taxes, but no sales tax to keep the stool from tipping over), and a pig-headed refusal to recognize — in Oregon, of all places — that you need to plan for a rainy day.

Don’t look now, but it’s pouring.

And that’s why the Oregon Legislature, trying desperately to fill the gigantic hole in the state’s budget, is cribbing money from every place possible — including the Oregon Cultural Trust, as we reported in this earlier story and as political writer Harry Esteve explains in this morning’s Oregonian.

Let me be clear: I don’t blame the Legislature for looking at every penny available from every source as it tries to deal with this fiscal crisis. It’s a no-win proposition: No matter what our legislators do, on some level it will be wrong. This is a debacle made partly at the national and international levels, and partly by Oregon’s long history of pretending it can have a little bit of everything in life without having to pay for most of it. Now the piper’s at the door, demanding to be paid. And it’s the Legislature that has to figure out how to do it.

What’s depressing is that we’ve been down this road before. And the Oregon Cultural Trust was set up to ensure that in the toughest of times — which once again, we seem to be entering — vital cultural projects and organizations won’t be cut off at the root.

The deal the Legislature made on the Trust when it passed enabling legislation in 2001 was essentially this: Culture in Oregon will be pay-as-you-go, but we’ll help. We’ll establish a small beginning balance, we’ll sell cultural license plates to help fund the Trust, we’ll provide a nice tax break for contributions to cultural groups, and we’ll administer the thing. And then, please, leave us alone.

What that means is that every cent from cultural license plates and donations to the Trust has come into the state coffers with a clear, specific and supposedly inviolable earmark. The money was given for cultural purposes and no others. Using it for any other purpose is a moral violation of trust, and probably a legal violation as well: There is long legal precedence in the United States in favor of donor intentions.

Picking the Cultural Trust pocket, even in times of extraordinary fiscal crisis, is foolish in the long run in three ways.

First, once burned, twice shy. Why would anyone donate to the Trust again once it’s been made clear that the state can and will take the money and use it for something else? That precedent surely will strangle the Trust and cripple or even kill it.

Second, this can’t be legal. If the Legislature ends up appropriating this $2 million-odd for other purposes, it almost certainly will be slapped with a lawsuit. And how much will it cost for the state to defend a suit it will probably lose?

Third, who you gonna trust? Not the Legislature, which has broken its word. Not the governor, who says it’s OK. The erosion of public trust in government is a problem with serious consequences for democracy — as trust goes down, more and more people simply tune out, choosing not to take part in the political process at all. For government, trust — even trust shaded with skepticism — is vital. Break it and you’ve broken yourself.

For some background on the beginnings of the Oregon Cultural Trust, on how we got to this point, and on how frustratingly familiar today’s “news” sounds, read on:

Continue reading In the Oregon Legislature, a matter of broken Trust

Salem swings the ax: Arts heads on the chopping block

Fresh on the heels of this afternoon’s news that the Oregon Historical Society is shutting down its research library comes this report from the Oregon Cultural Advocacy Coalition that the Oregon Legislature has targeted OHS for an additional $350,000 cut — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg for slashes in arts and cultural funding as the Legislature tries to make sense of the economic crisis.

150-cake_1Things are looking bad, folks. Most egregious is the Legislature’s attempt to liberate $1.8 million from the permanent fund of the Oregon Cultural Trust — vital money that Oregon citizens contributed specifically for that purpose, and, as the Cultural Advocacy Coalition notes, a violation of those citizens’ trust.

Time to pitch in with your two cents’ worth, or you won’t have two cents to pitch.

Here’s this evening’s report from the Cultural Advocacy Coalition. Happy 150th birthday, Oregon. Here’s hoping we make it to 151:

Help Preserve Oregon Arts, Culture, and Humanities Funding

Take Action!
Read and Take Action Today

The Cultural Advocacy Coalition representing Oregon’s 1,200 cultural non-profits in Salem is closely monitoring budget and legislative developments in Salem.

If you read the newspaper and listen to broadcast media, you know that Oregon is facing one of the most significant budget shortfalls in its history. The State issued its revenue forecast on Friday. Revenue projections are now an additional $55 million over the previously announced shortfall of $800 million in the State’s General Fund. Lottery revenues are also down.

Legislators issued a “cut list” last week.
It contains proposed reductions and fund sweeps for all agencies to re-balance the 2007- 09 budget, assuming an $800 million hole. This represents a serious threat to state funding for culture.

In this proposal are the following reductions in current year spending:

$211,384 cut to the Oregon Arts Commission
$350,000 cut to the Oregon Historical Society
$ 64,085 cut in lottery funds to the Office of Film and Television

Finally, and most sobering: the “funds sweep” list of Other Funds includes the recapture of $1.8 million from the permanent fund of the Oregon Cultural Trust. The $1.8 million includes $1.3 million in cultural license plate revenue generated since 2003 – plus interest.

The Cultural Trust was authorized by the Legislature in 1999 – ten years ago – to grow and stabilize funding for culture – in good times and in bad. To skim the Trust fund and re-allocate cultural license plate fees for the General Fund is a violation of trust with the buyers of the plates who assumed they were supporting Oregon culture with their purchases. To raid the fund to pay for other state services simply violates the very purpose of the Trust and the intent of the Trust’s thousands of donors: to protect and invest in Oregon’s cultural resources.

This situation is very serious. Not only are legislators dealing with a large revenue shortfall and the potential of an additional $55 million in cuts, there are efforts under way to hold k-12 school funding from further reductions.

Take Action Now.

Use the Cultural Advocacy Coalition’s website to send a message directly to your legislators. You can use one of the messages on the website – or write your own message to convey the importance of cultural funding in your city, town or county and why the Oregon Cultural Trust needs to be remain intact and taken off the fund sweep

Work to re-balance the state budget is proceeding very quickly and may be completed by this weekend. Weigh in with your opinion. Click here to send a message to your legislators NOW.

Happy 150th, Oregon — sorry about the history


The state of Oregon turned 150 on Valentine’s Day, and it looks like the honeymoon’s over.

A friend sent along a copy of this message from  the Oregon Historical Society, an organization that’s been dealing with tough financial times for several years. (It was once funded largely by the state, but those days are long gone.) For most people, the society’s research library is being shut down.

A lot of Oregonians will never notice, of course. But for writers, researchers, historians, people searching their family roots, this is a blow. Here’s an excerpt from a message sent to insiders. Read it and weep.

Conversation: Closure of OHS Research Library
Subject: Closure of OHS Research Library

Dear friends and colleagues,

It is with great sadness that I write to share the news with you that, due to severe budget reductions, the Oregon Historical Society will be closing its Research Library beginning this Saturday, February 28th. The collections will no longer be open to the public, and all library positions will be eliminated beginning March 13th. A few positions will remain to handle orders for photo and film reproduction. It is not known at this time if or when the library will re-open and at what capacity.

As many of you know, the OHS Research Library has the largest collection of archival documents relating to the history of Oregon, including its nationally-renowed photograph collection containing over 2.5 million historical photographs, more than 32,000 books, 25,000 maps, 12,000 linear feet of manuscripts, 3,000 serials titles, 16,000 reels of newspaper microfilm, 8.5 million feet of film and videotape, and 10,000 oral history tapes. I feel this not only as a very personal loss but as a great loss to all Oregonians.

If you have questions or concerns about the OHS Research Library closure, I strongly recommend that you contact our Executive Director, George Vogt, at george.vogt@ohs.org or 503-306-5203. Please continue to check our website at http://www.ohs.org for any future news about the status of the library. …

A bridge too far: Connecting Portland’s performance halls

“While you’re catching up on weekend papers,” our blogging compatriot Mighty Toy Cannon of Culture Shock writes, “I’d be interested in your comments on the Oregonian editorial regarding the renovation of the Schnitz and the possible enclosure of the Main Street Plaza (Saturday, August 30).”

As Mighty Toy points out, the editorial got lost not only by running on a Saturday but also because it was buried beneath the flurry of news about vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin (pre-grandma version) — and wasn’t that an artfully worded baby announcement, by the way.

The editorial’s gist is this: Even though most Portlanders could care less about the symphony and opera and ballet, these things are important to our economy and our sense of civic pride. The city’s most prominent performance space, downtown’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, is in need of big fixes — at least $10 million, maybe a lot more — partly because its acoustics are subpar, and it’s used 60 percent of the time by the Oregon Symphony, a group for which acoustics are exceedingly important.

So far so good. But then the editorial gets down to what really seems to excite its author: the possibility of reviving the idea of some sort of bridge between the Schnitz and the theater building that houses the Newmark and Dolores Winningstad theaters right across Main Street. It’s an idea that was part of the original 1982 blueprints for the Portland Center for the Performing Arts but was scrapped for financial reasons. And it would include permanently blocking off Main between Broadway and Park Avenue to create a plaza that would connect the two buildings.

“In the offing now,” the editorialist writes, “is an opportunity to finally connect the two buildings, to animate their too-often-dormant lobbies, to cleverly create downtown’s long-sought ‘gateway’ to its cultural district.”

OK, first a little history. When the performing arts center was being planned in the early 1980s, it was all to be built on land donated by Evans Products adjacent to Keller Auditorium, which was then known as Civic Auditorium. That plan would have created a Portland version of Manhattan’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts — an arts cluster near downtown but not quite at its center. And except for the old Civic, all the halls would be built new, so the acoustics and seating would be up-to-date and you wouldn’t run into any of the surprises and compromises that go along with historical renovation. (The Schnitz at the time was known as the Paramount, and was a shabby onetime vaudeville and movie house that was being used for rock ‘n’ roll concerts.)

But downtown business and political interests pushed through a swap so the new center would be housed instead along a stretch of Broadway that had become run-down, creating an economic spur to help the center of the city out of its recession doldrums. The Paramount, with all of its problems, became the key player in the switch, and the city took over the block across from Main to build its two smaller theater spaces. Economically, the plan worked like a dream (for the business district, at least: the arts center itself, and the companies that used it, still suffer because the center’s financial structure covered only the costs of construction, with no regard for maintenance or operation).

Flash forward to 2008 and the latest push to create a “gateway” to the cultural district, which also includes the Oregon Historical Society and the Portland Art Museum along the South Park Blocks. And forget for the moment the nasty realities about actually funding any sort of project, because that’s a subject far too complex for this post. As the Oregonian editorial stresses, it would require plenty of individual, corporate and foundation support in addition to tax money.

Continue reading A bridge too far: Connecting Portland’s performance halls