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Friday, August 6, 2010

Going Guerrilla for Arts Funding at First Thursday

Posted on Fri, Aug 6, 2010 at 4:00 AM

dance.jpg
At 7 o'clock last night I was wandering through the usual First Thursday art scene in the Pearl, poking my head into the stuffy wine-and-cheese galleries, when I noticed a huge crowd gathered in the middle of the street at 13th and Hoyt. From a distance, I could see bright blue ribbons stretching out of the mob and as I got closer, I could see they were dancers who leapt and gyrated in T-shirts and shorts. Sometimes they danced with the ribbons, sometimes on their own, and sometimes with each other. Cars waited patiently at the intersection for twenty minutes until, suddenly, the dancers disbursed and the audience broke into wild applause. Like me, maybe some other people here were happy to have First Thursday shaken up a bit.

It turns out this wasn't just ribbon dancing. This was ribbon dancing with a purpose. Creative Advocacy Network (CAN) orchestrated the guerrilla performances to raise awareness of their campaign to get more public funding for the arts in Portland. The Executive Director of CAN Jessica Jarratt explains that they're hoping to get support behind establishing a $15-20 million annual city fund for the arts. That would be a big jump for arts funding in the city: Portland's current annual budget gave $4.3 million to the Regional Arts and Culture Council. “We’re not actually raising money, we’re trying to set up a dedicated funding stream," says Jarratt.

Surprising as it may sound, Portland trails other metropolitan regions of its size for public funding for the arts. While Seattle spends over $7 per person for the arts, and Denver over $15 perperson, Portland only designates $3.11 per person.

Many other states fund the arts from a sales tax. But because Oregon has no sales tax, arts funding relies on annual budgeting, which often shaves money from the arts during tough times.

CAN's plan for a dedicated fund could show up on the ballot next year, since Jarrat is hoping to establish the fund by the end of 2012.

The next guerrilla art attack happened on the corner of 12th and Couch. Thunderous drumbeats resounding off the condos and I ran to see the performance, turning the corner to find the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers blocking the intersection with their black uniforms, red flags and all.
Onlookers stood around gawking as traffic stopped. Without warning they spun around and took off marching up the street, red flags twirling, and a crowd of fans trooped after them, creating their own little parade.

In their wake on the corner of 12th and Couch, the Flash Choir assembled. Their uniform was white CAN T-shirts and a woman directed them from on top of a plastic blue box, playing a guitar. The Flash Choir was not quite as exciting as ribbons or drums, but their job was to act as the "voice box" for the arts fund, stopping between songs to explain to people the campaign to the crowd.

“We want these performances to inspire people and make them more aware of what’s going on around them,” CAN spokesperson Natalie Sept says. “This city is really tied to the arts and art is happening all around them all the time.”

The crowds witnessing these performances seemed excited and very enthusiastic. I was talking with Natalie Sept when a man on a bicycle heard my questions and was too excited not to add his own opinion. “At First Thursday, people usually stay and watch performers for maybe five minutes," he said, before riding off. "Here they were just glued, it was so good. It's a great idea.”

Within an hour, the guerrilla artists were gone and the gallery-hopping was back to normal.

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