Weird year, right? Let's never do that again.
2020 hit all of us hard, and the arts were a prime example: spaces shuttered, artists struggled, and the word "pivot" flew out of nearly every mouth that opened while cultural orgs citywide (and worldwide) scrambled to find some footing. It wasn't, however, a year without hope: theaters put out innovative audio dramas, local trusts formed relief plans, and the devastation helped us take stock of the arts' struggles pre-COVID.
Hope was a common theme in Portland Monthly's top 2020 culture stories. Time and again, our readers sought out glimmers of light, and we've compiled them here—the pieces that catalogued this rough year in the arts while offering a little flotation in the meantime.
In mid-March, when the ensuing months' grimness started to come into fuzzy focus, we all scrambled to fortify our reading lists. The Multnomah County Library system shut down almost immediately, though, so at first, borrowing books was out of the question. Lucky for us, MultCo has joined library systems nationwide in putting the pedal to the metal on their digital offerings, offering killer films, a ton of audiobooks, music, even full, digitally optimized magazines. We ran all the options down in this story, which readers absolutely flocked to—it's handily our most-read culture piece of the year.
This piece, from PoMo senior editor at-large Fiona McCann, also got a lot of love. In June, a video of PSU grad Madisen Hallberg singing the national anthem on campus, only to be joined by an angel-voiced stranger, went viral. That stranger turned out to be Onry, AKA Emmanuel Howard, a Portland-born opera singer, who talked to McCann about his new projects, being Black in an uber-white field, and more.
Back in the halcyon days of February, managing editor Margaret Seiler went deep on this Vancouver, BC–shot, Portland–set sequel to Netflix's 2018 megahit To All the Boys I've Loved Before, pointing out some geographic inconsistencies (where do you hide, Portland Aquarium?) and ribbing its invocation of the Crystal Ballroom. Clearly it resonated. Is the movie good? It is not. Does Holland Taylor play a fun grandma in it? You bet your ass she does. You do the math.
When the summer heat hit its peak, Portland's favorite hip-hop child, Aminé, finally released his followup to 2017's gold-certified Good for You. The album, Limbo turned out to be a balanced, mature, but no-less-fun record than its predecessor, and we caught up with Aminé to talk about its globetrotting inception, music-as-politics, and his experience watching Portland dominate headlines this summer from his current home in Los Angeles.
One discipline relatively untouched by the pandemic? Animation. Right now, Portland has three stop-motion feature films in simultaneous production—the first time this has happened anywhere in the world. Turns out our stop-motion roots run deep, and this piece traces them from Will Vinton’s 1975 Oscar win, through Laika, up to our current status as a hub that’s attracted the likes of Guillermo del Toro to its shores.
After the Portland International Film Festival called it quits mid-program in March, one thing became clear: traditional moviegoing was headed for a long hibernation. At the time, Oregon had three fully operational drive-in theaters (a bunch of makeshift COVID-era setups have popped up in the interim), and we caught up with them to see whether their already-socially-distant services might be able to provide a stopgap. (Spoiler: they were, however imperfectly.)
Back in January, when you could sit across from people at coffee shops, we did that with the founders of The Numberz, an independent all-Black radio station named for the streets past 82nd Avenue where many BIPOC Portlanders have flocked due to factors like rising rents and gentrification.
In the year of “The Last Great American Dynasty,” this piece told an aristocrats-gone-wild story of its own. This spring marked the 80th birthday of the Maryhill Museum of Art, an ornate mansion in a remote stretch of the Columbia Gorge filled with Rodin sculptures, Romanian textiles, fashion miniatures straight from The Louvre, and (much) more. The origin story is fully bonkers, roping in the Queen of Romania, a world-famous contemporary dancer, a mysterious fire, and a six-foot-tall female philanthropist known to friends as “Big Alma.”
We are frankly shocked this glorified blog post did as well as it did, but we are not complaining. It highlights, admittedly, a great meeting of the minds: a disgraced Central Oregon spiritual cult leader and a hushed indie prince who's shown a propensity for puppeting dark figures in American culture (to say nothing of his affection for Oregon). In hindsight, "My Rajneesh" might not raise to the level of Suf's "Tonya Harding," but it's still a hypnotic slice of musical Oregon noir.
In May, Anis Mojgani became Oregon's new poet laureate. In June, we called him on the phone to talk about the role, the tensions of Portland's inclusivity and exclusivity, and his vision for a better-built Portland in the wake of the summer's protests. It was, if we may say so, a hell of a conversation.