Response to the Gerding Candidates’ Forum on Art


Sean Davis

Yes, I’m the candidate that didn’t get on stage, but more importantly I’m a leader in the Alberta Arts District, a member of the artistic community, and a resident of Portland who plans to live and raise my daughter here. The one phrase that highlights the theme last night happened at the very end of the “Candidates Forum for Arts & Culture” at the Gerding Theater, sponsored by the Regional Arts and Culture Council and Portland Center Stage. It rolled off the lips of moderator April Baer like it was almost an afterthought, but it meant everything: “Is Portland’s soul slipping away?”

People from the art community filled every available seat at 4pm on a Tuesday, and this was remarked on by more than one of the candidates on stage. And we should address that: out of the ten candidates running for mayor and the multiple candidates running against Novic and Fritz, only five sat on stage.

Yes, I was on the news talking about how this forum didn’t accurately represent democracy, but what else could I do? I was told that having all the candidates up there would have been cumbersome. Well, sometimes democracy is cumbersome, sometimes democracy is much worse than cumbersome. I know this from experience, but that’s all I’ll say about that.

I want to talk about how RACC and Portland Center Stage, both groups that get funding from our city government, decided which candidates running for city government would be on stage, and how this forum should have been a discussion on how art is, and will be, a vital part of what makes this town so unique, different, and amazing. I honestly believe they wanted to have a sincere discussion about the importance of art while defining our character as a city, and how we can make the art as diverse as the people. The tragedy is that they don’t even realize how they worked against this very idea by organizing the event and only giving voice to affluent, older, white politicians.

Yes, the seats were filled, but there was no more than a small smattering of applause at any one answer. The community was invested but not amused. This forum, which was designed to speak on arts and culture, had exactly one question that really had to do with arts or culture. The rest was about money, policy, and housing.

The one question about art had to do with the last art event each candidate had been a part of. There were a few pandering answers about seeing a play at Portland Center Stage or about how they sent their kid to an acting class, which I dismiss as quickly as when a candidate says Pink Martini is their favorite Portland band. They’re great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a safe answer. What about The Builders and the Butchers? What about Illmaculate? What about Floater? What about Vinnie Dewayne? What about the Freak Mountain Ramblers, or T.O.A.S.T? No one had been to an art event and they tried to make it as though the reason had something to do with how busy they were campaigning, but that’s the point they’re missing. The forum was all about who would be a champion for the arts. The person who makes art a priority is the one who fits the category.

Listen, I’m campaigning too, and I have a fraction of a fraction of their money, name notoriety, or position, but I still made time to support my friend’s stage rendition of The Yellow Wallpaper at the Coho theater a week ago. The American Legion post I manage is having a reading tomorrow night and on Saturday we’re hosting another event with a Oregon Book Award nominee. And while we’re on that note, I’m a published author, a painter, a playwright, filmmaker, and an honest to God mayoral candidate. My book, The Wax Bullet War, is about coming back from war soul-broke and how art saved my life. I had no voice in this forum and neither did the Portland art community.

Stuart Emmons couldn’t talk on policy and had no practice in the political rhetoric of the other candidates and because of it he looked completely out of his league. This is a shame because I truly believe that he was the one person up there that really would make a difference if given the position. The two mayoral candidates were asked if they’d commit to the arts. Wheeler dodged the question, but Bailey said he’d increase the budget. The mayor of our city only has very few powers the rest of the city council does not and one of them is assigning bureaus. When asked if they would take RACC over from Nick Fish they both dodged the question. When asked how we can keep more artists invested in Portland, both candidates recited their housing policy.

We had an opportunity to have real artists speak about the role of art in Portland’s developing character, and how we could use it to do some good in our communities, but instead we stripped the night away to talking points.

Portland’s soul is slipping away, April.

Portland’s soul started slipping away the moment the artists who live here made this place so great that people from all over the country wanted to move here.  Instead of concerning ourselves with our artists’ ability to earn a living wage or pay rent, we allowed ourselves to be more concerned with the money that would come in from people moving here. When we talk about making art a priority, we need to understand that means a priority over money as well. The city will always have a budget crisis. In fact, we made this place a nationally recognized center for art and culture during a budget crisis, so when we have an opportunity to speak for and about art we need to do just that and not turn it into a group of politicians saying, “Yes, it’s important, but how can we pay for it?” We need to realize its importance and decide what we are willing to do in order to promote, encourage, and foster it in our communities. If we can do that, we can keep our soul from slipping away.

By Sean Davis

Sean Davis is the author of The Wax Bullet War, a Purple Heart Iraq War veteran, and the winner of the Legionnaire of the Year Award from the American Legion in 2015 and the recipient of the Emily Gottfried Emerging Leader, Human Rights award for 2016. His stories, essays, and articles have appeared in the the Ted Talk Book The Misfit’s Manifesto (Simon and Schuster), Forest Avenue Press anthology City of Weird, Sixty Minutes, Story Corps, Flaunt Magazine, The Big Smoke, Human the movie, and much more.

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