Arts alive, well in Oregon.
As the Oregon Cultural Trust this week announces $1.54 million in grants to 106 arts, cultural and heritage institutions for 2011 - a 5 percent increase over last year - it's worth noting that other states are slashing financial aid to arts organizations.
The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies says 31 states are reducing their arts budgets as part of a downturn that has seen such financial aid decline 42 percent over the last decade.
While state aid represents a small percentage of the money used to underwrite the arts nationwide, the funding is vitally important in rural states and communities where smaller arts organizations are heavily dependent on state grants.
A recent New York Times story painted a bleak picture of arts funding in rural states such as Kansas, where a proposed state budget of $689,000 was recently vetoed by Gov. Sam Brownback and organizations such as the Music Theater of Wichita stand to lose their matching funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. Texas, meanwhile, cut its aid to the arts by 50 percent and Wisconsin by 67 percent.
In Oregon, the arts funding outlook is sunnier, despite a recession that has slammed this state every bit as hard as the rest of the country. That's because the state Legislature, in the midst of an earlier economic downturn, created the Oregon Cultural Trust to support arts, culture and humanities throughout the state.
The arts trust, itself a work of considerable creativity, works like this: The trust is funded by donations and, to a lesser extent, the sale of special Cultural Trust license plates. Anyone who makes a donation to a qualifying cultural organization can make a donation of equal size to the trust, with the entire amount donated to the trust - capped at $500 for individuals, $1,000 for joint filers and $2,500 for corporations - refunded as a credit when income tax forms are filed.
Part of the money that flows into the trust is distributed in grants to arts and culture organizations across the state, shared with counties and Indian tribes and used to support such organizations as the Oregon Historical Society. Fifty-eight percent of donated funds are placed in a permanent endowment that has grown to more than $13 million, with an interest spinoff that itself has become a key source of funding for grants.
There have been a few rough patches along the way. Originally, when the Oregon Legislature created the trust in 2001, the idea was to build an impressive $200 million endowment that would churn out grants larger and more numerous than those announced Monday. The endowment was supposed to be fueled by partial proceeds from the sale of state-owned land, but those transactions never came to pass.
In 2009, the Legislature, struggling to deal with a budget shortfall, siphoned $1.8 million from the trust that was generated by sales of the trust's license plates. While clearly within the Legislature's budgeting authority, the move generated a public backlash and fears of a recurrence with the arts community, which were diminished by the Legislature's decision in 2011 to leave the trust intact.
This year's grants will go to projects such as the Eugene Symphony's "A Lincoln Portrait with Tom Brokaw," a multimedia presentation examining, on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, how societies deal with major economic, political and social issues.
Other projects include the preservation of historic buildings such as Portland's World Forestry Center's Cheatham Hall; PDX Pops Now, a free, all-ages summer music festival; and Columbia Gorge Arts in Education's plans to work with students to create art celebrating the reopening of the Hood River Library.
Over time, Oregon's trust fund has become a major force in the support of artistic enterprises and cultural institutions throughout Oregon. That, in turn, has had a positive impact on education, economic development and quality of life statewide - and has made Oregon the envy of arts communities across the rest of the country.