Our state of the arts

If you happened to be in Portland this past Wednesday you could have spent the day at the Oregon Convention Center where the Oregon Arts Commission convened a statewide Arts Summit.

The day-long summit was designed to bring together arts managers, board members, advocates and community leaders who value the role the arts play in Oregon. Organizers titled the event "Setting the Table: Collaborative Solutions for Arts Organizations."

Picture an ideal dinner party where ideas flow freely in lively conversation, the advance brochure suggested. Picture arts leaders and advocates sitting down together at a metaphorical table to identify common problems and seek collaborative solutions to them.

Since I couldn't make it to the summit, I did my picturing on the Internet. I checked out www.oregonartscommission.org to get a sense of what the commission does to promote the arts and those who create them in our state. There I came across a study they had done called "Creative Vitality in Oregon: A Measure of Arts-Related Economic Activity."

The Creative Vitality Index is an annual measure of the health of the arts-related creative economy. It is designed to be more thorough in assessing the economic impact the arts have on our state.

To do that, the study includes things like bookstore sales; film, theater and museum attendance; gallery sales; as well as arts-related occupations like visual artists, graphic designers, architects, writers, etc.; and people who buy music, visual art or musical instruments. The index does not measure creative potential, only the economic impact of creativity.

This made for interesting reading given the City of Ashland's recent allocations from its Economic and Cultural Grants. It has always seemed a bit of a challenge having organizations vie for limited grant money on the basis of their economic and/or cultural contributions.

It's fairly easy to measure how many people a group pulls in to town to attend their event, possibly stay overnight, eat at a restaurant and shop.

Things get much more ephemeral when you're talking about what that event contributes to the intrinsic quality of life of the individuals who attend that event and how that, in turn, benefits the quality of life of the community as a whole.

Sometimes the two categories overlap and the organization's activities contribute substantially to both the economic and cultural life of the town. But often they don't.

Maybe we need two separate grant categories: one for economic and one for cultural. That way, small arts organizations whose primary intent is not to make money could have more access to grant funds, which would make a big difference in carrying out their artistic mission.

Another significant find in the summit's information packet was the Web site of California-based United States Artists, www.unitedstatesartists.org. The Web site makes a bold assertion: 96 percent of Americans value art in their communities and in their lives, but only 27 percent of Americans value artists.

The organization's research concludes that "although many artists enjoy success in commercial markets, significant numbers live on the economic margins of society with inadequate support systems." That translates as insufficient employment, health insurance, living and working space and access to equipment, materials and other artists.

United States Artists' executive director Katharine DeShaw was one of the keynote speakers at the summit. Her organization is seeded by four major national foundations. It seeks to address the significant need of providing funding to individual artists by permanently endowing 50 unrestricted fellowships of $50,000. Fellowships are awarded annually to artists working in a diverse array of disciplines who must be nominated in order to be considered.

We are fortunate to have organizations like the Oregon Arts Commission, the Oregon Cultural Trust and United States Artists working on behalf of our artistic well being. I sincerely hope that the dinner-party conversation last Wednesday gave the attendees something substantive to chew on — and hopefully act on.

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