Exclusive Interview: Mayor Sam Adams on the Arts

Before his bon voyage party on Friday, the mayor talks with PoMo about the state of Portland arts, the recent passage of the arts tax, and whether he has a future in acting.

By Aaron Scott December 6, 2012 Published in the December 2012 issue of Portland Monthly

While the closest Mayor Sam Adams comes these days to making art himself is his Instagram feed (see below), he has long been one of the city's most vocal supporters for the arts. From macro issues like leading the fight for Measure 26-146 (the school arts tax), to smaller efforts like showcasing local Kickstarter campaigns on his website and using local bands as the waiting music on the city hall phone system, he has  consistently used his position to better the livelihood of this city's artists and arts students.

For that reason, the Regional Arts and Culture Council is throwing him a bon voyage thank you bash tomorrow night at Yale Union called pARTy in the Name of Art. In typical fashion, he's asked it to be a fundraiser for two of his favorite arts organizations: the schools-focused Right Brain Initiative and the workplace-giving program Work for Art. You can get more info on the party and tickets here.

Given exit interviews are all the rage right now, we thought we'd take the occasion to sit Adams down and talk about the state of arts in Portland, where he thinks we need to go from here, and whether he has a future in acting.

Culturephile: What was the last show you saw?
Mayor Sam Adams: The Disjecta Art Auction.

What’s the most memorable show you’ve seen during your tenure?
Third Rail [Repertory Theatre] did a fundraiser piece in somebody’s front room. They used the actual living room, and it was absolutely phenomenal how quickly it changed and I was suddenly transported. [Ed. Note: It was a scene from That Hopey Changey Thing.]

You’ve made arts a centerpiece of your work as mayor. Why?
I really think it has saved my life a couple of times. At the Nye Beach Art Center in Newport, Oregon, as a five year old, my mom would drop us off. My brother would leave, and I would stay and make coil clay pots. I had a very difficult home life. It was a small town; there wasn’t a lot to do. I lost a lot of friends to drugs and alcohol. I think learning at an early age how to find great satisfaction, joy, and contemplation from making stuff prevented me from facing the life struggles that my brothers and sisters and friends went through.

Then I would not have graduated from South Eugene High School if not for being given a camera, that I did not own, and a dark room, that the yearbook and newspaper teacher barely had money to keep going. At the time, I did not know that I was kinesthetic learner. I don’t take well to lecture and book learning. I learn best by doing. If I had been denied access to picture taking and film development, I don’t think I would’ve stayed in school. I have two siblings who dropped out of high school. 

Do you still take photos?
Have you seen my Instagram site? I’m not a good photographer. But in my job, you get to go around the city and meet a lot of people, and there’re always moments of waiting, and so I take pictures. 

How would you assess the current state of arts and culture in Portland? 
It’s tough. First off: we’ve been spoiled. We have a much higher quality of arts and culture and humanities and history than we’ve paid for. We’re spoiled, but that means it’s always at the edge of failure, or fails too often. Yet, like arts education, it’s the molecular—more fundamental than DNA—it’s the molecules that make a successful city. At least a successful city that you would want to live in and talent would want to live in. Not just artistic talent, but any talent.

There’s arts for pleasure, there’s arts for money, and there’s arts for education and all the critical thinking linked to it. Arts for money is tough. Arts for education: the hell’s been cut out. Arts for pleasure: Portland is just overwhelmed with great professional amateur artists.

We have some big industry, but 85 percent of Portlanders works at businesses with 10 or less employees. No other city comes close to that statistic. We don’t have Amazon or Microsoft; we lost a lot of headquarters in the 90s to national consolidation. I knew we have very generous foundations and businesses, a lot of very generous midsize business, but I also knew our success as a city was dependent on getting more public funding.

When I ran for city council, I said I wanted an additional 15 million in ongoing funding—at the time, people thought I was absolutely insane—because 15 million would get us up where other cities are. It would get us into the top 15 in terms of public spending per capita basis, which is where a small but scrappy city like Portland needs to be to survive in this cruel giant global economy.

When I was elected, we spent three million in local public funding, and now we’re up to 4.2. Hopefully, we’ll add another 12 when 26-146 is fully on board, and that gets us to 16 million or so. 

You talk about the arts being as being essential to the city’s success. Some people criticize that in this hard economic time, we shouldn’t be spending money on the arts. What’s your response? What is the economic impact of arts organization and of film and TV now?
The economic impact is $318 million dollars. That’s a big industry. Some of it might be nonprofits, but they employ people who buy supplies and healthcare and everything else. 

During one of the worst recessions in 50 years, we and the governor's office worked very hard and very successfully to help land one of the things that gets instant money, gets instant economic impact, which is the film and video industry. Leverage and Portlandia and Grimm. And they all say the same thing: wow, we have great talent here, in front of camera and behind it.

What do you see as our greatest strengths in terms of arts and culture?
Portland is blessed for not being known for any one trend or any one theme. Thank god we didn’t go through the grunge thing. To a greater degree than other places, we really do support people following their passion. I think that DIY is a big strength especially it it’s coupled with stronger community support. Esperanza Spalding has her own particular approach to jazz music, and I think she’s a good example of the best of what Portland is about.

We have a special strength in terms of advertising. We have a real strength in design because of athletic and outdoor wear. We have strengths with sculpture and painters, and our presenting organizations are considered good. I think they’ve gone from good to great against some really tough financial odds.

I think in last the last eight years, the fact that we’ve landed these high profile TV series has shown off the behind-the-camera expertise that was developed by a lot of the advertising produced here and was easily translated into film and video. 

Speaking of, do you see Portlandia as ultimately having a positive or negative effect on Portland’s arts scene?
Absolutely positive. Because we deserve to be teased. We deserve to be lovingly mocked. If we can’t have a sense of humor about ourselves, then that’s probably the first emerging attribute of decline.

What was it like be on the show?
It’s great fun. It’s a completely clothing optional set. There’s a lot of free marijuana. I’m put off by the body paint, but you get used to it. I’m kidding! It’s incredibly good humored. They work very hard to make it look like they do not work very hard. 

Do you see a life in acting after politics?
Absolutely not. To be an actor, you have to have acting talent. I have none. You’ll notice my signature move is to peer around a corner. There’s a limited number of roles where your job is to look around a corner.

Although in this next season I do more than look around a corner. I do some physical comedy. But I’m not allowed to tell you more because I signed something.

What do you see as Portland's biggest weakness in terms of building thriving arts organizations?
It’s been money. The lack of funding, whether public or private. We don’t have big international companies. We have a lot of small or midsized companies, and that will always limit the amount of private funding we’re going to be able to get. It isn’t all about funding, but it’s almost all about funding.

Also I think what has held us back is a lack of cohesion, and I think that’s changed around art and arts and culture advocacy.

We will continue to work on, like any central city, affordable space—for people to do their work, to practice, and to live. Milepost 5 is turning out to be a success even though we opened it in the worst possible real estate recession ever. It’s trucked along and it’s growing in leaps and bounds. I think you’re going to see more of that around the city. Access to practice, access to live, affordability, it’s our challenge, and it’s every city’s challenge when it comes to arts and culture.

Given that, as the city gets more expensive, what can be done to keep artists here?
In my mind we’re going to compensate for that by offering more free transportation options, which is biking and walking, and you’ve got to do that safely and have systems that go everywhere. Then the next most affordable thing is transit—supplement it by transit. That’s why city council is approving bike share in next couple of weeks. It’s all around keeping an eye on all aspects outside arts and culture that definitely impact arts and culture. It's why we were busy working on 26-146, and why we also did Milepost 5. It's why we’re supportive of Disjecta. It’s looking at the full picture.

Let’s talk about 26-146, the so-called arts tax. Why is it so important to you?
Up until 26-146, the budget percentage arts organizations received from government sources was two percent. Nationally, it’s five percent. The goal with 26-146 was to get them to five, and to get one arts educator per 500 students, again based on national benchmarks. The money in between is to see more school buses from Portland elementary schools parked in front of arts organizations in this city. I go by the art museum and PNCA all the time, and I am fed up with all the school buses lined up being shiny buses from out of the city. Part of what happens with funding schools and the arts organizations is the access. I want to see more elementary school busses parked in front of our arts organizations from Portland schools. 

You had polling showing that it was going to pass. Were you still on edge on election night?
The Oregonian beat the hell out of us. The Oregonian said we had 22 percent support and 44 percent was against us two, three weeks out. More than that, they’d come out with articles out of the blue a couple of days before polling, putting together all the criticisms, and then they’d do a poll. The Oregonian in this regard, not just on the editorial page, but on the news pages, it was beyond the pale. There was one day when Jessica Jarratt [the executive director of the Creative Advocacy Network] had three hostile calls from three different reporters, and finally one admitted that they were told to hound her. This was not a certainty. 

The Oregonian and Willamette Week criticized that, despite being billed as an arts education measure, a good chunk of its money was going to big arts organizations. Do you feel you could’ve done a better job explaining why supporting the organizations in addition to the schools was important?
I’ve been around this issue for two decades. I will tell you that every time someone offered up serious proposals to fund arts and culture, there’s always a portion of responses that found a fatal flaw. What I learned is: A, listen to it, but B, don’t use it as the only impetus to make a decision. People picked at the fact that organizations get money as a negative. We were clear: you can’t have a successful city culture if don’t have successful arts organizations, if don’t have arts organizations for the educators to have an experiential component in addition to what happens in the classroom, and if you don’t have the money for the two to connect. And some people found a reason to pick at that.

So you feel that message was not heard?
No matter what we put out there, there would’ve been critics. There are aspects of the criticism that were valid; no matter what you put up, there’re going to be things that could always be more perfect. But I am saying to the critics: be careful, because you might unwittingly be finding a reason to not support what is money for the arts. This was $35 per person. This was a modest request compared to everything else on the ballot.

Where does the measure rank in the things you’re most proud of?
I worked on it for seven years. I think it’s a game changer for the city. I’m very proud of it and the way we went about it. It was a team effort. There was great support among art educators and among organizations. We had 62 percent approval. It made me very proud to be a Portlander and certainly proud to be Portland’s mayor. 

What did you hope to accomplish that you didn’t achieve?
I started out with a firm belief that the city needed a sound stage. I think that has changed, so as long as we have an availability of big space with a cheap price and adequate electricity, we’re OK for now.

I would also say what I look forward to that we’re working to accomplish is equity. Especially based on race. We’ve got a lot of really good initial efforts that RACC and others embraced. 26-146 was an equity pitch because it helps the poorest schools that also tend to be most racially diverse. As a city one of our weakest attributes is that students of color continue—we’re making some success on education—but Portlanders of color continue to have much less access to arts and culture and are much less of the audience base than they should be. So we need to work on that. I would’ve liked to have made some greater progress, but I’m happy with where we are and know it will live on beyond my time.

You're leaving big shoes. Has Charlie Hales signaled he'll keep the arts and culture portfolio? Who will take over and what advice do you have for him/her?
Portland's culture needs to embrace the largely untapped strength of it's non-Caucasian civic self. What better way than Portland's arts and culture community leading the way? The next arts and culture commissioner must support this journey.

The measure passed and you have gotten the city's funding up to what you set out to achieve. What's the next step in moving Portland arts and culture forward? What do we need to focus on next?
Make sure the new arts funds are well spent and leverage the hell out of them!

Who are three arts leaders and advocates you think will have a big impact in the coming years?
Kimberly Howard [the trust manager for the Oregon Cultural Trust], Brian Ferriso [executive director of the Portland Art Museum], and Eloise Damrosch [executive director of the Regional Arts and Culture Council]. Kimberly needs to do for Oregon what we have done for Portland. Brian is inventing an artistically high-quality but populist cultural approach to arts and culture. Eloise has the guts, brains, and leadership ability to diversify Portland's arts and culture community.

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