Opening weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Actors perform at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. 

Nine members of the Oregon Legislature have formed the state’s first-ever Arts and Culture Caucus. The seven Democrats and two Republicans will research the arts and try to inform other members of the Oregon statehouse.

Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, who coordinated the Arts and Culture Caucus’ inaugural membership, told Pamplin Media that large caucuses in Salem include the BIPOC and Coastal caucuses. Nosse said they had not had an arts caucus before, but lately they have been hearing a lot from people in the arts. “The sector is doing a better job of engaging us and revealing the challenged,” he said.

Being geographically diverse, the caucus will meet by Zoom for 30 minutes every three weeks.

One of the caucus' priorities is helping venues and organizations that survive by ticket sales. Proposed House Bill 2459 will extend emergency funding for venues across the state, funding that began in the pandemic and is still needed. Nosse said that doesn’t cover mega acts like Bruce Springsteen at the Moda Center, but it will include the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, which is still at 50% of pre-pandemic ticket sales and is shedding staff to save money, and the Portland Art Museum.

If Nosse’s House Bill 2459 passes by June 30, any money will be disbursed to venues and arts organizations by the end of 2023.

“The public that’s going to care most about this caucus is people who work in the arts,” Nosse said.

Florence-based Harlen Springer, a retired corporate executive and vice chair of the Oregon Arts Commission, told Pamplin Media, “Whenever there's a question (about the arts), the Legislature has a place to go and we give them advice and information about what's happening in the sector.”

Springer said they had studied arts caucuses in other states, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Vermont. “We have a trove of research and data from them that says it works. We modeled our caucus after those successful ones.”

He explained the two-pronged approach to the arts in politics: soft and hard values.

“The soft values are that art adds beauty and it adds a sense of togetherness in communities. These arts and culture events tend to be community gathering places. There’s a sense of belonging, particularly after the pandemic, a sense of communication. The hard values are the economic impact. Arts and culture in Oregon represent about 3.3% of GDP, and about 60,000 jobs. It's about an $8 billion industry.”

But, Oregon ranks in the bottom half of states across the country for per capita funding for the arts.

“There’s a gap here between the value and the impact that arts and culture bring, and the current public funding mechanism to support it. Long term, we're hopeful this can lead to a more sustainable and robust funding mechanism for the arts and culture,” Springer said.

The Arts Commission and the Oregon Cultural Trust provide information to the Oregon Legislature, but leave the lobbying to the Cultural Advocacy Coalition of Oregon.

Springer collaborated with members of the Arts Commission Advancement Committee, including Chair Jenny Green, as well as Cultural Trust Chair Niki Price and Sue Hildick, senior advisor to the Cultural Advocacy Coalition of Oregon, to support formation of the Arts and Culture Caucus.

Springer added that “art” doesn’t just mean painting and drawing, but “sculpture, literary arts, poetry ... it is the humanities, history, it is performance art. It’s so difficult for me to say one's better than the other; they're all very important.” He said, “If we could do one thing, it’s raising awareness. If we can make more Oregonians and legislators aware of the variety of the arts and vision of the institutions, that would be a huge step for us.”

Springer added that the Oregon Cultural Trust has funded 1,500 different arts groups around the state. “They vary from the Portland Art Museum and the High Desert Museum all the way down to your rural art association, staffed completely by volunteers. And the impact that those groups have in rural areas is dramatic, because they tend to be the one big gathering place for the arts and culture.” He said of the pandemic’s hit on arts events, “You feel the pain and you see it at the Shakespeare Festival, but it's also felt in all the real communities.”

Springer said their events will be — compared to most legislative meetings — fun. “We’re going to start by having succinct meetings, so they are fun to come to. And we’ll have our kick off at the Hallie Ford Museum.” 

Portland Rep. Nosse and other members of the caucus were instrumental in designating more than $100 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds and American Rescue Plan funds to sustain Oregon arts, heritage and humanities organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They are back for more in this Legislature, looking for support for arts orgs and venues that have not fully recovered.

A survey by Business Oregon, Travel Oregon and the Small Business Development Center Network said many large cultural organizations report ticket sales remain only about 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

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