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Not out of the woods yet: Arts groups in a fiscal thicket

Hansel and Gretel, illus. Arthur Rackham, 1909. Wikimedia CommonsThe smashing success of last Friday’s Dance United gala benefit notwithstanding, it’s a Grimm world out there right now for Portland’s arts organizations: There go Hansel and Gretel, trailing bread crumbs as they traipse into the thick of the woods, and here come the birds, pecking away at the crumbs so there’s no trail out again.

There must be some way out of here. What Hansel and Gretel and the Oregon Symphony and Oregon Ballet Theatre and all-classical radio and Portland Center Stage and the rest need is a financial GPS.

For arts groups here and elsewhere, the fissures of the global economic meltdown have become a chasm, a canyon carved by the raging River Deficit. Given the state of the financial union it’s astonishing that Oregon Ballet Theatre has managed to almost wipe out its $750,000 emergency shortfall in less than a month. Celebrate this as a victory, because a victory it surely is.

But the sobering truth is, it’s only the beginning. Now the hard, tough work begins. And it’s going to be extremely difficult keeping up the sort of adrenalin that has at least temporarily pulled OBT back from the brink.

This string of financial crises has predictably pulled out the trollers, the mocking wise guys who laugh and declare that if arts groups can’t survive in the marketplace, they deserve to die (presumably, like Bank of America and General Motors). These loudmouths understand nothing about the not-for-profit world, or if they do understand it, they despise it with every fiber in their rugged-individualist, social-Darwinist bodies. Ignore them. They are happiest when someone shouts back.

Even among arts people the current crisis has inspired a lot of hand-wringing about “dead art forms” and the possibility that in an age of radically new media and runaway-success popular art forms, ┬ápeople just don’t care any more about things like dance and serious music.

I don’t buy it. In a way, the “traditional” arts have never been more popular. The Oregon Symphony, which has piled up a $1.5 million deficit in the just-ending fiscal year, sold more tickets in the just-past season than ever before. OBT is playing to packed, enthusiastic houses. Portland Center Stage keeps extending its Storm Large musical hit, Crazy Enough. Radio market share at KQAC, Portland’s all-classical station, is booming. As I make the rounds I see good-sized crowds at fringe events, too, from puppet shows to new vaudeville to cold readings of new play scripts. Dance and classical music, for all their financial woes, are undergoing a renaissance sparked by rigorously trained and exquisitely talented young performers — the very people who are supposed to have defected to American Idol and Twitter and “reality” TV. What’s more, they’re extending the boundaries of their art forms, reinterpreting them for today’s world even as they keep their heritages alive.

And audiences have responded. If there’s a crisis — and there is — it isn’t a lack of enthusiastic audiences, who are finding ways to continue to participate even in the midst of their own financial travails. The thirst for art is real, and our greatest hope for long-term optimism.

So what’s the problem?

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