Sunday, August 8, 2010

Arts space, the final frontier

By Barry Johnson

Last week I surprised myself and wrote about "arts facilities." 

Believe me, those two words make me shudder as much as they do you.  They only come up in conversation accompanied by whining, complaining or a proposal that demands a great deal of money.  Shaddup and sing, I want to say.

But as Home Depot understands better than most, humans are naturally restless about their spaces. They want to improve them and they are willing to expose themselves to great personal danger (nail guns! circular saws!) in their quest.  Or they want an altogether new space -- the Great American Real Estate Bubble was filled to popping with this particular desire.  

Theater companies and symphony orchestras and art galleries are no different. They are always looking for the perfect space, and "perfect," as we know, is always a moving target.

Portland theaters especially have been good at homesteading new spaces, even though one of the best productions I ever saw here was a "Buried Child" in the basement of a church. (The late Peter Fornara could be just about the scariest actor you can imagine.) The defunct Storefront Theatre inhabited three different space before it went belly-up in the poshest of them. Artists Rep used to be in the YWCA. Portland Center Stage left the best performing arts space in the city to a more theater-specific one in the Armory. So yes, churches, old office buildings, warehouses, meeting rooms, you name it.  Eventually, just about everyone moves on or starts regular visits to Home Depot.

It's not just theater, though. Operas, symphonies, chamber groups, dance companies, museums and art galleries, art colleges, jazz bands and lecture series -- they've all moved or wanted to. Many want to move as I type these words.

I completely understand their restlessness. Space is critical for any arts group. Space determines everything from the economics of your show to the size of the ensemble to the comfort of the audience.  Space bends a company or a museum to its dimensions.  A company (of dancers, actors, musicians, etc.) becomes identified with its space.  And at some point, those artists do not want to be confined by that particular identity.  Then they change it or move on if they can.

The point of the little essay that attempted to apply a Christopher Alexander approach to the development of the city's arts spaces (see: I'm avoiding "arts facilities") wasn't to invent a mechanism to manage that development.  Ideally, it's unmanageable! No, it was to change the balance.

Arts groups aren't the only ones who benefit from more and better arts space options. The public benefits, too, and should bear some of the cost, directly or indirectly. But we can also use those arts spaces to repair -- and even create out of nothing -- our neighborhood centers. In the process we can spread our cultural resources much more evenly through the city (and metro area) and provide a far larger menu of arts spaces to our artists. And I get excited when I think of the partnership possibilities -- with school and libraries and the parks department, specifically, but also with businesses that see the utility in arts spaces for them.  So many of our outlying neighborhoods (Wilkes, Argay, Glenfair, Russell, just to pick the ones in Northeast Portland) need reconstitution as functioning "places," and public investment in the form of an arts center/gallery/performing space could be an important card to play.

What's beneath my consideration of arts spaces? Just this: The richer, denser and more available our local culture is, the more likely it is to respond to our particular needs. Our need for escape, our need for consolation, our need for celebration and society, for contemplation and expression, for discussion and even argument, our need to participate in deciding what we need.  Alexander is all about participation and that's why I found "The Oregon Experiment" so congenial. A community that participates in the design of its spaces makes better decisions about them. And if its focus is on repair and improvement on a small and medium scale, rather than huge capital projects, participation is going to be broader and more far-reaching.

I'm not against building a large concert hall for the ballet and opera, especially if we can somehow salvage Keller Auditorium in the process. I would not be in favor of expending all of our public repair money for cultural spaces during the next 20 years in the process. If large private donors or corporate sponsors step up to this task, we should encourage them and figure out ways to help, for all kinds of good reasons.

I think there are potentially greater priorities, though -- on Southeast Foster Road, for example, where Linda Austin has developed a plan to expand the Performance Works Northwest space. Or Hollywood, where the Hollywood Theatre could use extensive remodeling.  And these can be done more cheaply and more quickly, with greater positive effects on their neighborhoods, than big projects. I think we want to figure out ways to help them, too.

In any case, this is the sort of thing I think we want to talk about -- over time and fueled by necessity or a sudden inspiration.  We are starting to develop pretty deep technologies and metaphysics around such ideas as "environment," "sustainability," "public process," and "urban design." I am adding "local culture" to the list and arguing that it has a direct important relationship to the others.



MightyToyCannon said...

Barry, I appreciate your commentary on the topic of "arts facilities." (How about giving them a real bureaucratic moniker like "CPPPs" for "Cultural Production and Performance Plants").

You posts are introducing real thinking and, dare I say, vision to the issue. Finally. Despite Portland's vaunted reputation for arts support and planning, we lack a thoughtful, comprehensive and intellectually anchored vision to guide, let alone inspire us.

That's one reason the RACC-sponsored facilities needs assessment generated little reaction. While it provides a useful inventory of what we have and what many people think we need, there's nothing to grab on to or rally around. (To be fair to RACC and the consultants, that was not within their charge).

I'm not advocating for yet another blue ribbon commission of civic leaders to craft a master plan through a drawn-out public process. Part of me thinks that the real needs of artists and arts institutions may be best met through organic, grassroots problem-solving, rather than being engineered through public policy. Honestly, I just don't know. But, I hope you'll keep pulling on these threads and that others will join in the conversation.

Barry Johnson said...

Thanks, MTC.

I'm totally with you. I don't want a blue-ribbon committee in charge of mis-masterplanning our cultural future. Which is why I've found Alexander so interesting: How do we set up a process that takes both particular and overall needs into account? How do we take the decisions out of the hands of the few and into the hands of the many? How can we get what we really need from the culture we are creating here?

These are questions, as you suggest, that we need to discuss together, both speculatively and concretely, through the lenses of urban planning, modern production practice and democratic process, among many others. No one is an expert at all of these (right?), but somehow we need the wisdom of all of these perspectives, along with the great practical wisdom of artists, administrators and their audiences.

Brian Libby said...

Barry, where might Memorial Coliseum fit into this mix? A restored 7,000 seat arena could be good for a variety of arts performances, no?

Barry Johnson said...

Well, our principle of conservation suggests that we attempt to figure out new uses for Memorial Coliseum rather than replace it with another Capital Intensive project. Personally, I think it has great possibilities as a public space, a little like a covered Pioneer Courthouse Square. The problem with it comes in identifying "users," because its neighborhood was scraped clean when it was built. I've argued that the bordering neighborhoods (along the river on the West Side, and the swathe around it on the East Side) probably contain most of the potential users for the coliseum, except when events of citywide interest are conducted (Winterhawks, say, a major political rally, the Grand Floral Parade, etc.). And representatives from those neighborhoods should play a central role in its design/remodel and governance. To me, it's a natural for all sorts of cultural events -- not just the bowl, but its other spaces as well.

MightyToyCannon said...

I agree with the notion of democratizing the planning and problem-solving...I think. We certainly need a process that taps into the collective wisdom of the many, though I am often skeptical of "process." I quail at the prospect of a large assembly watching a Powerpoint presentation before breaking into small groups to cavil about relative priorities, jot notes on a flip chart, and then "report out" to the larger group. I know that's not the kind of process you're advocating for, but that's often how these things turn out.

I'm with you and Brian about preserving Memorial Coliseum and finding an adaptive use that makes it a civic prize while bringing life to the Rose Quarter. However, the last attempt at public process to guide that reuse was a bit of a disaster, no? I'm all for participatory democracy, but also believe we need leadership to bring inspiration, vision and intellectual heft to the task.
Absent visionary leadership representing the public interest, we default to the commercial interests of the Blazers, or reawaken Randy Leonard's cry to tear it down (which is really just the voice of an impatient bully).

Let me put this another way: Who can be the Jane Jacobs for arts planning in Portland? By which I mean, who can combine a theoretical vision with the ability to organize and mobilize? Perhaps you can think of better examples than Ms. Jacobs.

Another question: Are there parallel models for civic planning and action that the arts can follow? The biking community, for example, seems to have done a great job in mapping out a long-range vision, then mobilizing to get things done, step by step, through political organizing. What can we learn from it?

Ultimately, the challenge in all of this is the lack of resources and the resulting "why bother?" attitude. I fear that the long-range effect of the economic crisis is a general malaise that tamps down bold vision for doing anything. If we can't fix our schools and create jobs, what hope do we have of investing in the infrastructure needed for a thriving arts ecosystem? Honestly, I love Portland and Oregon, but haven't been feeling very hopeful about our prospects lately.

Barry Johnson said...

Don't you think that these things are related? Centrally driven and led planning processes actually work against participation because the problems they take on are too big. And without participation, the "why bother" attitude rushes to fill the vacuum.

I am very doubtful that we will produce an Arts Plan that will be at useful for the next 20 years. The Memorial Coliseum "process" was all wrong. So was the Trimet "process" for the Willamette light rail crossing. That's because the outcomes weren't truly open, and neither the city nor Trimet was bound by the citizen decisions. So no, I think many of our citizen involvement processes are a sham that produce foreordained outcomes, a little like Soviet elections.

One of the reasons I like Alexander's approach (as I understand it) is that it changes the location for idea generation. And once more people get involved in improving and designing their own cultural facilities, the more likely they are to support them -- by attending, participating and voting to fund them. I don't see a lot of ways to overcome our current situation, but this might be one.

I guess I think that effective leadership emerges from lots of places, and that it's easier when the message is clear. The bike groups don't seem to fight each other; they fight for better bike travel. The arts groups and artists should be fighting for a responsive, adaptive local culture. Which means places to "stage" that culture, support for the artists involved, accessibility for everyone in the city, and participation that is as broad as possible. The symphony is part of that. Children's theater certainly is. But it might mean that the groups themselves need to change -- some more radically than others.

I sympathize with your worry about us. I guess I think the schools and the jobs are intricately entangled with arts and culture. What makes Portland frustrating is that sometimes it looks as though we're on the right track -- unlike most American cities. We can only describe what we see, propose different paths forward and engage as many people as we can to test and improve our descriptions and plans.

Rob said...

Thanks Barry for a thoughtful note on performance spaces. I would suggest we look to the future. Large scale, 1000-2000 seat dance, theater, opera, the symphony have specialized stage and house needs. But their audience is dwindling, they are failing to reach new audiences. Now is the time to search for models in other cities, or to create our own. How can these traditional arts share space with popular music, comedy, literary arts, stage-oriented competition and film? Can they partner with universities, hospitals, or even our high schools for performance space? In many cases, the time slots are complementary.

I'm a Portland loyalist, but if the CAN tax passes, there will be a huge infusion into art funding in Washington and Clackamas counties, including potentially facilities. Beaverton specifically is talking about a performing art center, likely right on the MAX.

MightyToyCannon said...

In 1903, the Olmsted Brothers submitted a report to Portland’s Parks Commission that included the recommendation that parks should be managed by a citizen commission, independent of the City Council. Read the following excerpts and replace “parks” with “arts” and see if there’s any relevance today. (Also note the comment about the beauty of bridges at the end of the 3rd p).

"It has been demonstrated by experience in many cities that the park system more than any other of the undertakings of a city should be managed independently of the common council or legislative body of the city government.

The reason for this is, of course, that the majority of the members of the city government is composed of practical politicians or of men who have about the same education, the same impulses and ideas and about the same taste. It should be clearly understood that … no blame is meant to be cast upon practical politicians. It is simply a fact that when they control the management of parks, the results attained from the point of view of art are poor, sometimes very bad indeed.

Parks should not be brought into politics not only for the important business reasons that apply in all departments of municipal administration, but for the more important reason that the essential requirement of parks is that they should be naturally and artistically beautiful and because politicians as a class give small consideration to matters of art and beauty of natural scenery and care less whenever they conflict with their business interests. The schools may not be beautiful, but yet may serve all practical purposes; bridges may be and usually are hideous, but we can use them and hope for better things some day, but if parks are not beautiful, they are very nearly useless.

Politicians, as a class, work as hard for power and pecuniary success as any other class of business men, but like most business men, especially retailers, they do not waste much time or money in trying to inspire the masses with high ideals or in improving or refining their taste. Politicians do not make good park commissioners, not alone because they are not good judges of landscape beauty, but because they are strongly biased in the direction of deciding every question in the way that will gain them and their party friends and votes, and because they will inevitably sacrifice what seem to them such trivial things as matters of appearance to oblige people who generally have some personal or selfish or party end in view. The number of cases that arise in park administration in which a politician will decide contrary to the requirements of good taste are far more numerous than anyone who has not had long experience of park matters could imagine, or believe if told."

I can't recall to whom I own a hat tip for finding the foregoing, though I suspect it was Tim DuRoche.