Arts Funding and Diversity in Oregon

The Oregonian reported this weekend that the city of Portland would start to tie arts funding to the diversity of the art organization’s board, staff and ultimately audiences.

Specifically, arts groups will be asked to increase the ethnic makeup of their staff, boards and contractors. Their audiences, too, may become more diverse through marketing and outreach. Organizations will also be expected to spend more of their budget — 30 percent being the ideal — on communities of color.

It appears the hope is that by shifting the composition of the board and employees, the type of programming will shift to be more inclusive. Though I think there is some potential for problems, I appreciate the intention behind the plan. Change the culture of your city through its arts and cultural institutions. The arts and culture community is probably a good place to start with such efforts because they are likely to regard the goal as a worthy one.

There are some practical problems as mentioned in the article. First, federal law prohibits making hiring decisions based on race.

Another problem noted is the lack of resources arts organizations have to perform the assessments and programs to which the money is tied. That said, the article notes there are plans for a new levy to fund arts organizations and arts education in the schools. This is encouraging because it acknowledges that the arts require a more supportive environment in which to operate and pursue these programs.

One thing I am most concerned about is that the programs offered to communities of color be appropriate to those communities and not simply extensions of activities which appeal primarily to Caucasian audiences. While some programs may be equally well received by all audiences and it is just a matter of making them more widely accessible, we already know that the demographics who have traditionally comprised arts audiences don’t view traditional arts programs has having relevance to them. There is a good chance that people outside of those demographics will perceive the programs as even less relevant to them.

Designing a program that is meaningful to different communities is possible. It just takes additional time and resources, two things arts organizations have in short supply. It is much easier to use a similar approach in all instances. Is there enough funding being offered by the city of Portland to make it worthwhile to customize programming?

However, since many arts organizations currently have no choice but to change their approach to their audiences and communities if they wish to continue operating, perhaps this is the most suitable time to implement this policy. If you are struggling to discover how best to engage your community, you might be open to considering expanding the definition of your community.

Do you think Portland’s plan can succeed? Not all the guidelines have been set, but do you think this is the correct approach.

One last thing to ponder. In the article Mayor Sam Adams is quote talking about the criteria they will use.

“Adams says organizations shouldn’t be intimidated by the measures. Increasing racial diversity on staff and boards and spending more money on communities of color will be just two of several factors that determine public funding. And when they are used, they’ll be interpreted flexibly. Different groups face different challenges, he says. “

I felt a little relief knowing there wouldn’t be a hard benchmark for funding. I think there has to be flexibility. On the other hand, I am a little concerned about how flexibly the criteria will be interpreted. It is one thing for private foundations to favor the same organizations with large amounts of funding. But there needs to be a higher degree of equity and transparency in the process of disbursing public funding.

Better to have clear guidelines from the outset about the type of outcomes are valued by the funding program than to sanction loose interpretations which allow the rationalization why an organization should be funded.

My perception is that this is the toughest part of funding. How do you allow for both a small organization that works with the same 20 people once a week for 9 months and a large organization that reaches 20,000 people once in the same time frame? Which is valued?

Now throw issues of race/ethnicity in as a factor and it becomes more complicated. (Yes, I am aware that diversity encompasses more than just race, but race is generally the most volatile aspect and is one of the stated criteria.) The stakes become a lot higher when you say racial composition matters and people can see where the money is going. If a medium size organization increases diversity by three on their board of ten and a large organization only increases their diversity by one on a board of 25 and the latter gets more funding in proportion to their budget, what will people think?

Does it matter that the one person on the larger board is more influential than the three on the smaller board and will potentially increase the reach and effectiveness of the organization? Well, I guess it depends on the way the funding criteria is written.

And as I said, with race as a measure, the criteria needs to be very clearly written as do the awards panel’s justifications. Leave too much ambiguity in the rules or the funding justifications and you open the whole process to accusations of racism, raising tensions rather than alleviating them. Funding for the arts is enough of a political issue as it is.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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