Right now, our city is a three-ring circus, packed with public exhibitions and events designed to draw attention to our creative scene.

Three events fall under one big tent known as the "Portland Design Festival." The first ring offers PICA's "Time Based Art" Festival (see special section in this issue). In the second ring is "PDX Fashion Incubator's Fashion Week" (see last week's Look). And in the third ring is "DNA PDX."

That's a lot of new stuff to juggle--even for the savviest of culture vultures. But, ready or not, these first-time-ever events are upon us.

Now, plenty of ink's been spilled on TBA and Fashion Week, but not much has been written about DNA PDX. Which is sort of weird, considering that the nine-day fest is being billed as "Portland's centerpiece event for design."

At the heart of DNA PDX is the "Design Genome," which organizers--a.k.a. the Design Collaborative--refer to as "a juried exhibit of Portland designers' best works." Please note the careful wording. Not "Portland's best design," or even "work by Portland's best designers."

Hmmm. This convoluted dodge is necessary, considering who is behind this thing.

Since Vera Katz first announced her "Cultural Economy Initiative" for the city of Portland last year, many local artists and designers have kept one eyebrow cocked. Sure, there's copious creative talent here. Sure, our economy took a round of buckshot in 2001. But does that mean city government should intercede in stoking the creative fires?

It's a standard problem for midsize towns with cheap rent and a restive creative population. How do you keep artists rooted and at the same time snare enough support so they'll keep producing the kooky art-stuff that adds so much local color, not to mention on-the-map national cachet?

Popular wisdom holds that, other than pumping money into arts organizations and batting a tolerant eye at the fringe, the best the "suits" can do is stay out of the way.

But Portland's a can-do kind of town. Hence the Portland Design Festival.

As local creative confabs go, DNA PDX looks to be business as usual: anoint "luminaries" from Wieden & Kennedy and Nike, hand them a bullhorn and let the bull fly. In its chummy tone and "aren't we creative" tenor, the program is eerily reminiscent of a similar venture, the recently folded, Will Vinton-founded "Portland Creative Conference."

Portland has a hard time taking itself seriously as a creative mecca without a little help from the outside. That's why DNA PDX will feature a keynote speech by Eames Demetrios, the Director of the Eames Office and a member of a furniture-design dynasty. Add to that a heavy-hitting panel of guest speakers, including Jeff Kovel of Portland-based Skylab and Tinker Hatfield from Nike. Likewise the "best" in design (architecture, fashion, graphic, interior and product) will include works by Skylab, Nike and--sorry if this is getting repetitive.

To be fair, there will be a few outsiders. Anisa Makhoul, who typically shows her Uprise Clothing line at a decidedly democratic venue--Saturday Market--will be in the house. So will a handful of recent graduates and adjunct professors from area universities.

But even if in theory it were possible to build momentum by making Portland's creative community internally competitive, nothing about DNA PDX seems able to pull that off. Exclusive and embarrassingly elitist, the festival's "open call" for submissions was quietly announced and, therefore, quietly answered, largely by a corporate in-crowd.

And yes, it's great that all the events are free, but just who is the audience? Mayor Katz and just a few of her appointees?

Embracing the ideals initiated by Richard Florida in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, Mayor Vera is out to create a city shaped by a "creative class" that values diversity, tolerance, liberal thought and other arts-promoting principles. It's a good idea. But if DNA PDX is pandering to the same old crowd of designers, then it's in a class by itself.

Portland Design Festival 2003:

Sept. 10-21. For a schedule of events and more information, check out www.pdxdesigncollaborative.com.


Rock & Roll Fashion Show

A benefit for the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, featuring rockin' threads by 20 local designers and music by Karaoke from Hell, Dead Moon and Electric Eye.

Modern Zoo, 6635 N Baltimore Ave., 309-0159. 8 pm Saturday, Sept. 13. $12.50 general admission/$20 VIP.