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First Person: Commentary by Eloise Damrosch of the Regional Arts & Culture Council

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

EloiseDamrosch.jpg Will work for art

Innovative partnerships benefit businesses and the arts — and the people they care about.

By Eloise Damrosch

Oregon has some great opportunities and challenges as young creative people move here in droves. They come because this is a beautiful and somewhat affordable place with a reputation for a lively arts scene, good transportation and outdoors experiences galore. Businesses of all kinds want and need to attract and retain creative workers. What better way to do that than by weaving the arts and innovation into corporate thinking and action?

Having worked in the arts in this state for 35 years, I have seen the highs and lows of arts prosperity. Organizations have flourished and floundered. Public and business support have fluctuated with the economy, tax revolutions and personalities. Despite this rollercoaster ride, I believe we are in a productive and positive time for the business and art worlds to support each other.

Oregon is almost dead last in per capita public funding for the arts, but the Oregon Arts Commission, together with its parent Oregon Economic and Community Development Department, has prepared for the 2007 Legislature an innovative funding package to use the arts as a tool for economic growth. Portland ranks in the lower third nationally for corporate arts support, but giving has increased for the third year in a row. Freightliner, the top company this year on the Northwest Business for Culture and the Arts’ list of major corporate benefactors, is a newcomer to arts giving. The company contributed because arts support was the employees’ cause of choice.

Why is this support so critical? If a symphony orchestra can sell out its seats, why does it have financial woes? We know that arts groups rely on a funding mix to survive and thrive. Ticket sales for performing arts organizations generate at best 50% of their revenue, with the rest raised from contributions. Add to that challenge the fact that many arts organizations whose primary missions are not teaching children are tapped to fill in for defunct arts education in schools. These problems are not unique to Oregon. All arts nonprofits face similar funding challenges no matter the discipline. Just ask their development directors.

Certainly, more public and private money helps, but real progress happens with good new ideas, often by joining forces. Recently, the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) instituted “Work for Art,” a workplace-giving program to support regional arts activities. We know that individuals fervently support the arts in their own and their children’s lives. So we make it easy for them to give through payroll deductions and we make it fun by bringing artists into workplaces.

Many companies match employee gifts to worthwhile causes. At The Standard, employees gave $9,200, which became $18,400 with the company match. That then became $36,800 with a match by the City of Portland. Thanks to a foundation grant, RACC passes every dollar raised on to arts organizations — with no overhead. The Work for Art “arts card” gives participating employees discounted tickets to treat their families to live arts experiences. And we have proof that when employees have giving options they give more to all causes, so everyone wins.

“Percent for art” programs have been around for decades, ensuring that arts are part of major publicly funded capital construction projects. This is art for everyone without museum admission and art that the public owns. Now some private developers are following suit. They fund sculptures for publicly accessible plazas and partner with other private and public entities for art in mixed-level housing projects. They provide major support for new cultural venues and even hire artists for creative construction mitigation. These business people appreciate that art will give special character and interest to places, attract and instill pride in residents, bolster their own reputations as good citizens, and add value — all the while keeping artists working.

It is time for business and arts leaders to keep the new ideas flowing. If all those people moving to Oregon find workplaces where innovation is celebrated, they will stay. They will also insist that their kids have art in the schools, attend cultural events, write checks, pump up the economy and help us all thrive in this wonderful state.

Eloise Damrosch is executive director of the Regional Arts & Culture Council.


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