One Year In, Portland's Creative Laureate Sounds Off

Subashini Ganesan weighs in on the state of the arts.

By Fiona McCann December 21, 2018 Published in the January 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

One year ago this month, Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish appointed dancer and educator Subashini Ganesan as the city’s new Creative Laureate. The post, the first of its kind in the world, was held by photographer Julie Keefe since its creation in 2012 by then-mayor Sam Adams. Ganesan, an immigrant from Singapore who founded and runs Southeast Portland’s multicultural performing arts venue New Expressive Works, got to work quickly: moderating festival talks, working on affordability surveys for artists, and mobilizing Portland’s arts community for August’s Walk with Refugees and Immigrants. In the past 12 months she’s attended dozens of productions—big and small—squeezing in mentorship meetings with artists from Cully to East Portland in between, all for a stipend of $5,000 for two years. Now, she’s ready to talk big picture.

A year in, how do you see your role evolving?
There’s potential for the Creative Laureate to be a true ambassador of the arts for national and international conversations. Can I help build a network so we can keep providing opportunities for homegrown artists be seen elsewhere? This is the beginning of a mission. 

What are the big concerns for the arts community?
There’s so much art happening in Portland, but there is no repository that puts all [the artists] together: the ballet, the symphony, the opera, the theaters ... and the independent artists, the ones I keep calling the “food truck culture” of Portland arts. How does an audience even find them? [The city needs an online] artist Rolodex. The burden should not be on the artist to keep saying, “Look at me!” I truly believe that it’s in the city’s best interest to collect this [info] and disseminate it.

What else must change?
The whole arts tax language. We’re not taxing people for arts. It’s actually called the “Arts Education and Access income tax.” You say “arts tax” and people say: “I don’t want to give money to the symphony, I’ve never seen it!” But what they’re really saying is “Don’t tax me for arts education.” Yet their own children are going to school and not receiving any music, art, or dance classes. It’s for education and access—no one would argue with that!

How do you make arts a priority among so many pressing issues?
We can’t just keep saying we’re not going to fund the arts because there are bigger problems to be dealt with. That is ridiculous. To be a human, we need … artistic experience, expression, process. We’re already at the place that shows what happens if people don’t have arts. Arts is sort of a vaccination to possibly not be a heartless human.

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