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Don’t make me send in the mimes

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Thursday, February 01, 2007


In a previous life, I was an arts editor. I had to argue longer, and a little louder, to get an arts story on the newspaper’s front page, while editors offering tales of big mergers or corrupt cops breezed onto Page 1. So I’m not surprised that the arts “moment” at the recent Oregon Leadership Summit was pretty much ignored in the news coverage of the summit.

The local papers and business press and their editorial boards wrote at length about the sustainability theme of the summit; indeed, that was our January cover story.

But that arts segment, which included dance and classical music performances listed on the agenda as “the lunch program,” shouldn’t be underestimated. It was an elegant shot across the bow by those who have worked long and hard to get the arts included in the Oregon Business Plan, a highly regarded framework for priorities for business and political leaders.

Jamey Hampton, co-founder of Portland dance troupe BodyVox and the son of arts advocate and timber baron John Hampton, gave a smart, funny and passionate speech. Duncan Wyse, president of the Oregon Business Council, invited him to do that in honor of John, who long had lobbied the council to include the arts in its business plan.

John Hampton, who passed away last year, might have liked how his son didn’t mince words as the younger Hampton stood in a place where his father often did: in front of a room full of business people, trying to convince them that arts are not only an artistic expression, but an important fuel in the economic engine.

“I initially accepted this gig today with a bit of trepidation,” Jamey said in his remarks. He wondered if he would have to “stand in front of yet another group of people and make the speech about how the arts are important to the economy of a region ... and have people nod their heads in agreement that, in fact, the arts are important while they are saying inside, ‘Yes, but only after we’ve put all the other aspects of our house in order. And if our schools don’t have enough money, shouldn’t we cut the arts programs first so we can afford the expensive football gear?’”

After the summit, I asked Wyse why the arts still were not a specific initiative in the business plan, now in its fifth year. “We had considered arts for this year, but decided we had a lot on our plate right now,” he said. To the council’s credit, it gave the arts a coveted program spot. Will the arts be in the plan next year? Wyse said the council hadn’t decided. But indecision is not what arts advocates are feeling.

“We’re giving Duncan a little breathing room but we plan a full attack to convince the council that arts should be in the business plan,” says Virginia Willard, executive director of the Northwest Business for Culture and the Arts (NWBCA). “We’re going to focus on creativity and innovation and how important it is to the economy. We need strong arts to compete. Arts have been seen as the frosting. Now we need to see it as the yeast.”

“The timing is right,” says Carol Morse, the NWBCA board president, adding that she is certain the arts will be included in the plan next year. Morse and Willard are formidable forces, and they aren’t alone.

The real honor to John Hampton would be to elevate the arts from a moment at the summit to a full-fledged initiative in the business plan. And to give his son, and all those who work tirelessly for the arts, a seat at the table, instead of being just the invited lunchtime guests.

— Robin Doussard
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