In 1990, Will Vinton wanted to attract more creative types to Portland—so he launched a conference, creatively titled the Creative Conference, which drew thousands of local and out-of-town entrepreneurs for an annual weekend of lectures through the 90s. It was partially selfish, admits the Academy Award-winning animator, who coined the term Claymation.

"I liked building my studio in Portland, this smaller area that wasn't considered a hotbed for such things," Vinton said. "We wanted to give back to that community, and to build a bigger talent pool that we could tap into."

 
A quarter century later, and after two hiatuses, the conference returns this weekend with speakers like Lego and Starbucks alum Stanley Hainsworth, Disney animator Nik Ranieri, and Pink Martini songstress China Forbes, who will “open the kimono” as organizers put it, revealing their tools for success.

But no one needs to attract creatives to Portland anymore. And with a crowded creative marketplace, is the conference already obsolete in an era of short, streamable conference talks with eye-popping video and a few nice charts?

“It’s not a 140 character conference. it’s not even an 18 minute TED talk—the speaker really has to let the audience in their head,” insists current organizer Steve Gehlen, which means a classic conference of 40-minute speeches, scheduled breaks and a networking lunch. “It’s not about getting big jobs in L.A.” says Vinton, “ it’s just how to live and work as freelancer, independent or small company.” 

If it sounds like something out of another era, it is. The conference's golden age was before the fall of the Twin Towers, when Vinton ran the weekend-long conference as a nonprofit, flying talent in first-class and putting them up in hotels with money from sponsors and donors.

 
“9/11 killed it,” he said. “It was scheduled for the 14th, then suddenly everyone was told not to travel and we’d spent all the money from this nonprofit. It was too hard to resurrect.”

In 2008, local startup ad-man Steve Gehlen agreed to help relaunch Vinton's dream. But after 14 years, Gehlen needed a break. Now he's bringing it back, pared down to one day and operating as a fundraiser for K-12 arts education in Oregon. 

"If it doesn't happen now it might not ever," Gehlen said. "It's a lot of work, all volunteer, and I needed a rest. I came back with all this passion, but I want the conference to be able to exist independent of me in the future."

But Gehlen doesn’t have any heir in the wings and there’s a whole new playing field to tackle this time around. “In the 90s, we owned September,” Gehlen said. “Then when we went dark after 9/11, PICA stepped up, and the second time we shut down XOXO emerged. Now the calendar is very crowded.” 

Vinton and Gehlen both classify their Creative Conference as unique, but its most notable distinction might be its nostalgia. In an era where audiences expect unconventional experiences—think Virtual Reality goggles at a film festival, “potent forest spirits” at an outdoor PICA performance and a light-up suit that responds to sound at fashion week

"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel from what worked in the 90s," says Gehlen. "How people think and collaborate hasn't changed, just the tools they use."

And despite the rising cost of living here, and the arrival of more tech jobs, they say Portland still has a unique creative community.

"It's not like L.A. or New York. There are festivals in every city, various kinds of comic-cons and conferences," says Vinton. "Portland was unique in being a creative center with more independent, entrepreneurial spirit."

"When Silicon Valley people come in, they stick out unless they adapt," he says. "Portlanders aren't pretentious… they're concerned with interesting work and people, and then they think that money will just flow naturally—or that's not even an issue."


GO: Portland's Creative Conference is at The Armory at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave., cre8con.com. 8 am Friday, Sept. 25. $99.