A Letter to Portland's City Council

Dear Mayor Potter, Commissioner Adams, Commissioner Leonard and Commissioner Saltzman,

I write in response to the news that the city intends to cut funding for the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center. For what it's worth, I honestly believe that this is an opportunity.

I was born and raised here in Portland. I'm the son of immigrants fleeing a third-world dictatorship. I'm as divorced from my native cultural heritage as I am detached from this cultural context. For most of my career here in Portland, my perspective as a performing artist has been that Portland as a civic establishment is not particularly well-disposed towards diversity in the arts.

There are some obvious circumstances in play, mitigating this perception: Portland's economy does not present sustainable opportunities for a broad-based arts community capable of self-sufficiency and long-term engagement with this city's civic fabric. The demographics, and the history of housing and employment discrimination, has had the added effect of minimizing and marginalizing what diversity is present in this city, particularly when it comes to diversity in the performing arts.

Of the established theatres, only Milagro Teatro/Miracle Theatre has succeeded in maintaining a commited vision supporting diversity in this artistic community; everyone else's efforts have been mere spring thaws at best, flashes of seasonal exuberance that quietly fold when the funding dries up, never lasting long enough to build real momentum or community roots. Most theatres rely on an inconsistent, fickle and demeaning funding process that inhibits growth, innovation and originality. 501c3 status; private donor patronage; seasonal ticket subscriptions--none of these conventional funding sources are in any way designed for serious, career-spanning explorations in diversity, integration, cultural discretion, gender roles, politics, violence, social justice, civic responsibility, etc., etc.--in short, none of the themes which live performance today is specifically tailored to meaningfully deal with. Authentic exploration of any of these themes is an inherently risky undertaking; neither donors nor earned income sources are reliably disposed towards shouldering that kind of risk. Even the laudable efforts of the Regional Arts and Culture Council produce shots in the dark, occasional windfalls that cannot be guaranteed for future support. We simply do not have a sustainable model for the performing arts.

The Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center has often been the exception to these observations. For over 25 years, the stated mission of the IFCC has been to foster and promote diversity in the arts, in a multiplicity of disciplines and means. The IFCC has been a home to a broad range of artists, all committed and determined to further the cause of diversity in our arts community, and each success made possible only through the real and palpable advocacy of the IFCC. It's been one of the only real long-term establishments specifically supporting diversity in the arts in this city, and as such it's been an inspiration and an encouragement for me, an assurance that this city is neither blind nor insensitive to my peculiar position in this society, nor to those of my peers.

In our current straitened economic circumstances, there is ample precedent for unraveling what little established support there is for the arts in this city. This is an accepted tactic, for a public that's accustomed to shrill, deceptively simplistic zero-sum decision making, pitting the arts against similarly vulnerable public funding dimensions--parks, or emergency services, or social services, or the disabled, or education, etc., etc. Perpetuating these precedents is a demonstrably unhealthy approach to local governance. We mortgage our future growth for short-term, stop-gap fiscal band-aids. We divide and cripple potentially powerful coalitions of constituencies into petty, balkanized groups incapable of protecting their own interests alone, much less furthering a broader community agenda.

I write to suggest that there's another way. Make the IFCC the flagship of a renewed commitment to diversity and community engagement. Use a decision to turn around the destruction of its public funding into the beginning of a broader discussion on funding each of the aforementioned priorities sustainably. The diversity of this community, specifically diversity in the arts, can provide meaning and depth to this city, in ways that promote and complement the economic and civic priorities of this city. The arts in general--and the performing arts in particular--are the means by which we can refine, communicate, discover and develop our identities as individuals within a community, specific to ourselves and to this city as a whole, independent of corporate and commodified influence. By linking this priority, integrating this priority along with the rest of the historically vulnerable publicly-funded dimensions, you can make this debate not about which constituency to betray, but how we can all work together to collectively agree on fully funding all of our priorities, how we can all live together in the same city, and not a series of isolated, defensive and antagonistic cities.

Together, the city as a whole can explore alternative funding methods: tax breaks for high-profile, "guardian angel" donors, corporate or private, willing to step in and work with the city to protect our collective priorities. Or debt relief for specific organizations that would otherwise lose their public funding. A citywide subscription drive, allowing individuals and businesses to post an "Arts Supporter" or "Public Citizen" certificate in exchange for a monthly or an annual fee, revenues then dedicated to the Arts or to the General Fund. We can explore methods of structurally altering the urban climate to accomodate our priorities: city ownership of properties, or a public debt that specifically supports the arts, or education, etc.

The announced decision to withdraw public funding from the IFCC is absolutely an opportunity for you to collectively turn around and surprise voters and commentators with a completely different approach, overturn unfortunate and unimaginative precedents, demonstrate long-term political commitment and foresight and rally an untapped, underserved and unorganized broader constituency that doesn't even know we exist yet.

Better yet, we get to take credit for something that was already identified as a priority a generation ago--our predecessors already did the heavy lifting in getting the IFCC established in the first place. All we have to do is keep it open, and we can claim a triumph.

To reiterate: the problem is not that we have unsustainable priorities: the problem is how to make our priorities sustainable. It will take work, and sacrifice, and difficult decisions, absolutely: this is the essence of public service. But let's use the opportunities we have at hand to move forward protecting and nurturing our priorities, instead of destroying them. Together, we can cultivate a political climate in which, in even the most depressed of economic circumstances, priorities like the arts and diversity need not be vulnerable to the vagaries of ill-designed funding schemes. We simply need the political will to protect what we already know is worthwhile. Demonstrate to this community that you are indeed committed to diversity, if not in the past, then now more then ever.


paul j. susi

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