Portland's 'Citistate' Approach to the Arts

NEAL R. PEIRCE

August 30, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

PORTLAND, OREGON. — Portland, Oregon -- Art accessible to everyone, destined to evoke smiles, has graced Portland's transit mall since it was built the late '70s.

Who wouldn't like whimsical street sculptures reminiscent of the weather and fauna of the Pacific Northwest?

Now, in the '90s, Portland is out front again, this time with an arts initiative fitting for the dawning era of competitive ''citistates.'' ''Arts Plan 2000+,'' born in 1990, is the nation's first regional cultural plan.

The focus isn't simply on premier, downtown-based arts institutions such as the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Nor on burgeoning suburban arts efforts. Nor on diverse arts initiatives coming out of minority groups and neighborhoods.

Rather, Portlanders are addressing the broad palette of the arts for an entire four-county metropolitan region, trying to discover how diverse artistic enterprises can gain public support, reinforce each other and enrich both city and suburban life.

Like many civic efforts, the Portland initiative, coordinated by the region's Metropolitan Arts Commission, emerged out of crisis. Several prominent cultural groups had run out of money and died. The shiny new Portland Center for the Performing Arts was in peril of closure. Private and government arts giving, alarmingly anemic, was worse than in most regions.

Against those odds, a bunch of arts aficionados strategizing among themselves would have made little difference. But in Portland, with its strong tradition of regional cooperation, hundreds of citizens turned out to work with government, business and arts leaders to assess the state of the local arts -- and what they should mean across the four counties (including Clark County in Washington state).

Any elitism was quickly dispelled. From painting and sculpture to music and theater, the participants said, the arts are a powerful force in educating young people. They noted how the arts can open people's minds to the rich diversity of cultures in an increasingly multicultural region.

As social-service advocates joined the discussions, there was also agreement that exposing ''at risk'' youth to the arts could provide very real ''preventative'' alternatives to gang behavior, crime and drug abuse.

And economic impact was underscored -- how the arts draw 3 million visitors a year to Portland-area concerts, plays, operas and art showings; exceed total attendance at sports events; add $90 million annually to the economy, and increase the region's stature for national and multinational corporations eyeing areas for investment.

''Arts Plan 2000+'' scored so strongly with local governments that the city of Portland -- in the midst of a state and local fiscal crisis -- increased its arts funding 60 percent. Suburban Clackamas and Washington counties made their first-ever appropriations for arts services. Regional authorities provided fiscal relief to the Portland Performing Arts Center. Private arts giving spurted by several million dollars.

The Portland strategy reflects new ''reinventing government'' principles, Metropolitan Arts Commission director Bill Bulick claims. Relatively small numbers of public dollars ''add a seal of approval'' resulting in a ''tremendous leveraging effect'' -- some $10 in private contributions for every public dollar spent. Government is ''steering, not rowing,'' Mr. Bulick insists, when modest public monies serve agendas from education to cultural inclusion, social services and economic growth.

Just as important, a ''win-win'' feeling emerged as both mainline downtown arts and minority and suburban efforts got renewed support.

With that formula, the Portland region may successfully avoid the divisive fights over funding the center city's museums, symphonies and theaters and the siting of new arts facilities that bedevil so many metropolitan regions. Mayor Larry Cole of suburban Beaverton says:

''The arts are as important to the people of Beaverton as they are to the citizens of Portland. Through leadership and planning we must ensure the future both of downtown Portland activities which serve the whole metropolitan region, and the local programs which serve and define neighborhoods throughout our region.''

Portland is not alone in community cultural planning. Some 270 cities, from Boston to Baton Rouge, Harrisburg to Houston, Orlando to Oakland, have tried it, exploring ways to return the arts to the center of civic and social life where they belong.

Portland's experience points, though, to the especially exciting potentials when arts planning and collaboration leap city and county lines. The entire ''citistate'' -- inner city and suburbs alike -- is strengthened.

European citistates such as Lyon and Barcelona have practiced the same cohesion and farsightedness to gain new luster as centers of the arts and creativity, in turn reaping strong economic rewards.

Regions that learn to cooperate on the arts are more likely to cooperate on land use, transportation, work-force preparedness -- that is, to plan their futures, rather than let the vagaries of international economics overtake them.

The many American citistate regions that today remain at sixes and sevens, spurning city-suburb accords, ought to take note.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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