Report from Washington

As many of you have seen, Governor Ted Kulongoski received an Arts Leadership award yesterday morning at a joint gathering of the US Conference of Mayors and Americans for the Arts. I’ll post a copy of his speech as soon as I can get my virtual fingers on it, but suffice it to say that our governor charmed and impressed the crowd -- a room that included such luminaries as NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman, one of my favorite arts advocates Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, and former NBA Star Kevin Johnson. I mean Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

My boss Eloise and I were lucky to attend the breakfast in our roles with Americans for the Arts, she with the US Urban Arts Federation and me with AFTA’s Private Sector Council. And being the fine Oregonians that we are, the governor’s people seated us right up front… which means that you, dear reader, get some up-close-and-personal photographs.

Ever since rumors started percolating a few weeks ago that Gov. Kulongoski would receive this prestigious award – one goes to a Governor and one goes to a Mayor every year – many in the arts community were surprised and perhaps underwhelmed at the suggestion that Oregon was doing something better than 49 other states. Better when a desperate legislature stole $1.8 million from the Oregon Cultural Trust to help balance the state’s budget? Better when the state’s overall investment in the arts translates to relative pittance for the average arts organization?

But I can say, with both my skepticism and my professional responsibilities in check, that Oregon has fared much better than many states over the past 7 years, and that Gov. Kulongoski did in fact outperform most if not all of his peers during this Great Recession. The bar, as they say, is low, but Oregon somehow managed to jump over it while many states grappled whether to limbo clumsily beneath, or knock it to the ground entirely. The governor quietly ensured that the arts were not “left on the cutting room floor,” even in this god-awful economy, and although most people thought that his pet program CHAMP had no chance of being renewed this biennium, $5 million in new funds (in 2009!) was indeed secured for culture, heritage, arts, movies and preservation. Also worth noting, the Tax Credit for Culture, scheduled to sunset in 2010, was quietly renewed for another four years. (Perhaps the citizen outrage and media attention surrounding the aforementioned theft had something to do with everyone’s willingness to give this little present to the Trust.)

Nationally, state funding for the arts has fallen 19% over the last 6 years, and some state arts councils have been stripped down to nothing. Neither the governor nor Senator Jeff Merkley (who introduced the governor this morning) mentioned this in his remarks, but Oregon has managed to move in the other direction, clawing its way up from last place to 33rd in state funding for the arts per capita during the governor’s tenure.

Of course only those of us with perennial loser syndrome would even think of celebrating that we’re #33 (hooya!). We can and must do better. So I appreciated the Governor’s self-deprecation when he quoted Israeili politician Golda Meir in accepting the award: “Don’t be humble, you’re not that great.” But no matter how unimpressive as our situation may be right now, there probably isn’t a governor in Oregon’s 150-history who has done as much for the arts.

So: my sincere congratulations and appreciation to Governor Kulongoski. Now, who’s next? And will he or she be able to take it to the next level?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks culturejock. I admit to being "surprised and underwhelmed" when I heard about the award, and I appreciate this cogent explanation of why it was deserved. I ought to pay more attention before I go all cynical!