CREATIVITY - Path from the Summit

The Creative Economy Summit, sponsored by the city of Portland (and with the Phoenix as a supporting sponsor), drew more than 100 people to City Hall today, but the real impact will begin tomorrow.

Who will change their behavior as a result of an idea they heard or devised at the summit, which included local artists, politicians, representatives of various businesses and educational institutions, as well as other interested people?

Will any of them wake up in the morning and decide to do something new, something they've never done before? Will you?

The ideas that "won" the "voting" that wound up 90 minutes of group discussion were these:
-Build Portland's identity as an international creativity center.
-Get artists connected with their audiences.
-Create a publicly supported, affordable space for artists.

As was observed by many in attendance, all the ideas revolved around four themes: space, audience, connection to city government, and free money. (The fifth theme was unspoken - the hope that a "task force" of "stakeholders" can find a recommendation that's smart enough to work and politically savvy to pass the city council.)

Now there were enough people in that room, representing enough businesses, arts patrons, and other organizations, to pay for much of the work privately, without muddying the art waters with politics. Perhaps some of them will step up to the plate and be patrons of the arts, or increase their participation in some way, though to do that they will have to learn more about how their contributions will help their own bottom lines.

There was also an undercurrent of interest, in the mentions of rebates to developers of artists' spaces, TIF districts, "public-private partnerships," and using municipal property to kick-start some of the ideas, of public funding for the arts. That brings in a messy set of questions.

Here is one question on each of the main themes, to get people talking. We'll have to answer them if the public purse is involved, and private groups will need to answer them before deciding how to support the arts themselves.

1. Why should the public at large (that is, taxpayers) subsidize artists? Sure, we subsidize other groups, such as the poor, and even businesses, but what answer can people give when taxpayers come calling in the halls of government asking whether their money is being well-spent?

2. Artists by definition need an audience. (Well, maybe not, if they operate completely solo and do work for their own reasons and no others. But most artists want to express themselves, or change the world, or shed light on something. Those require audiences.) So if someone should help artists get attention for themselves because art contributes to local culture, should that same someone also subsidize advertising for grocery stores, because buying food contributes to local survival?

3. City government should be responsible to all residents. And all residents should be involved in local affairs of interest to them. The arts community seems to want to be asked for its input in some sort of formal way, with ideas ranging from a committee to a publicly paid official whose job is to get input from artists. Why should someone pay for a person to go out and ask for the opinions of people and organizations who are completely entitled and allowed to speak up at any public meeting they choose, and who can make appointments to meet with any city official they want? (The same question applies to local business-government councils. We shouldn't have to create them - they should be part of the fabric of our public life.)

4. And now, my favorite: Free money. Let's ignore the question of why the public should give money to any one group of people who are not disadvantaged by some physical or mental ailment, and move past the idea that generations of artists have lamented the fact that they had to work day jobs to afford to do their art - and did so anyway, to great success. And let's go straight to the real question that matters: How do we determine who should get the free (or subsidized) money? Who meets our definition of an artist? Am I an artist because I doodled in class? I bet there's a definition of "artist" that someone could devise that would sound reasonable, but that Picasso would not fit. If we're talking about public money, we're talking about political money. Politics may be an art, but political funding for art is a messy idea, at best.

How will we, here in Portland, define who an artist is such that we can offer subsidies to developers selling to those artists? How will we, here in Portland, define who an artist is such that we can allocate limited resources (artists' lofts, grant funds, marketing energy) to them, without making a laughingstock of ourselves? If we become known as the city that offers grants for which anyone is eligible, I just might win something, even though I can tell you now that I shouldn't. If, however, we become known as a city that is discerning in its support for serious artists, our reputation will soar. The problem there is my fifth and final question: How do we create a structure to define and determine who an artist is, in a way that works to our collective benefit?
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