At a meeting of the Regional Arts and Culture Council this afternoon, City Commissioner Dan Ryan delivered unwelcome news: The city will allow the contract through which it funds the independent arts body, which primarily doles out grants to local groups that provide arts education, events and advocacy, to expire at the end of this fiscal year.
Ryan’s office says the city has worked in the past to develop an in-house arts office that could fulfill the same functions that RACC has for more than a decade: “This new model will enable the city to work with multiple service providers, establish stronger performance measures, and reduce its investment in loosely defined administration and overhead expenses,” Ryan’s office said in a statement.
Since 1995, the city has helped fund the arts council, which last year had an annual budget of $7.5 million and 25 staff, alongside Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties and the regional government Metro. Portland has long provided the majority of RACC’s funding with the city’s arts tax—a $35 annual tax imposed on most Portlanders. In recent years, the city’s contribution amounted to around 83% of the arts council’s total budget.
RACC spends most of its budget on grants distributed to local nonprofits that, among other things, increase public access to art, commission artists from underrepresented communities to paint city murals, and give to small-time artists looking to build businesses.
The writing was on the wall for months—some members of the arts council might argue for years—that the city would pull its support from the council.
In 2020, RACC laid off 15 of its employees after a city audit of the program in 2018 found the council was unclear of its responsibilities and had a poor system for measuring its performance. The following year, the City Council began discussing how to shift some of the arts council’s functions to the city. In the summer of 2021, despite reservations by some, city commissioners unanimously agreed to sign a three-year contract extension with the arts council. That fiscal year, the city contributed $6.3 million to RACC’s annual budget of $7.6 million.
The city has historically funded RACC from three buckets of money: a small percentage of the general fund that amounts to just over $3.5 million annually, a portion of the city’s arts tax (that pesky $35 bill Portlanders receive once a year), and 2% of capital construction project costs.
But the little cuts kept coming.
In November 2022, the City Council moved a primary leadership position it had funded at RACC to the city’s new arts program. The following month, tensions increased after the City Council rejected RACC’s annual report due to the dissatisfaction of two commissioners—Jo Ann Hardesty and Mingus Mapps—with the council’s financial reporting.
“This is the fourth time I’ve had a report that’s told me absolutely nothing about how we’re investing dollars and whether equity, that we all talk about so much, is really being centered,” Commissioner Hardesty said at the time. “I find it disappointing that we continue to ask questions about how public dollars are being spent, and I get the impression that, basically, we should mind our own business because it’s a ballot measure that actually funds it.”
And in May of this year, the city made it abundantly clear that it aimed to create its own Office of Arts and Culture by the summer of 2024. The subtext: The city could internalize the functions of RACC. It also withheld $400,000 of its annual funding from the arts council. “Though we were not made aware of these specific changes ahead of time,” RACC said in a statement at the time, “[the council] has seen a growing divestment in equity-driven arts and culture engagement by the city of Portland since the fall of 2020.”
The impact of the move remains unclear—but city commissioners grumbling in December that the city wasn’t getting bang for its buck is a likely indicator the city will try to concentrate spending on Portland-centered projects. Ryan says no grantees funded by the arts council this fiscal year will be affected. Artists may still apply for grants from the city’s new Office of Arts and Culture.
The arts council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.