Analysis: Scrutinizing Portland’s Arts Economy


by DeAnn Walker

Why can't accomplished veteran cultural figures like Linda K. Johnson find suitable employment in town? (photo by Beth Nakamura)

The most severe recession in generations has turned into a trial of limitations for many people, and has particularly shaken Portland’s creative class.

Take, for example, 47-year-old Linda K. Johnson, one of the city’s most forward-thinking, diversely talented cultural figures of the past 20 years. She’s been looking for a job suitable to her estimable resume as an established choreographer, arts administrator, curator and college teacher. After nearly 10 months, she’s exasperated.

Johnson, who is married to painter Stephen Hayes, with whom she has a young daughter, is pondering a slow reveal wrought by the recession. Portland may live up to its marketed image as an artisan paradise with funky jobs and a cheap quality of life for post-collegiates who embrace the stereotype of living La Boheme. But it has much more ground to travel for those who aspire to a mature, sustaining way of life.

“There are plenty of hand-to-mouth jobs in Portland for 25 year-old creative types,” says Johnson, who has two degrees from Stanford University. “But what if you want to have children and own a house?”

Creatives come to Portland
If you talk to Joe Cortright, the local economist who has documented the influx of creatives into Portland from across the country, the dilemma demands rephrasing.

The “creative class” refers to the professionals in the Pop economy theories of Richard Florida and Daniel Pink: America’s competitive future rests with a highly educated 20- and 30-something creative work force of right-brained analysts, not traditional, information-based white collar attorneys and engineers. In their world, industrial engineers think like artists — Leonardo da Vinci, for example.

More accurately, Cortright says the economic quandary concerns a more narrow group: the city’s toiling arts professionals, though many arts professionals are technically creatives.

Even in that regard, Cortright believes Portland’s arts professionals shouldn’t worry too much, notwithstanding a recession that has flattened the bubbly enthusiasm of the recent champagne era. Credit may not be as voluminous, jobs not as bountiful, and the entrepreneurial atmosphere may be oxygen deprived, but educated arts people still move to Portland, he says.

New businesses, including arts related ones, are also still growing here. Even though some have left town, more arts people stay rather than leave. Above all, Portland has a resilient legacy. This is an alternative outpost of seemingly idiosyncratic practices where businesses, especially arts and entertainment ones like galleries and restaurants, ape pre-industrial practices like bartering for services instead of paying for them. Even City Hall frames normal business projects in an unusual cloak.

In mid-July, the City of Portland unveiled a contest to redesign its Portlandonline website, soliciting concepts and ideas from the general public. The winner doesn’t get paid for a brilliant idea to revamp about 140,000 web pages, but he or she will receive a helluva lot of free publicity.

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