Regional Reports

Portland, Oregon

Published in: GIA Newsletter, Vol 9, No 1 (Spring 1998)

Alice McCartor, Meyer Memorial Trust

Landscape dominates Oregon. Its beaches, mountains, and rivers beckon Oregonians to spend their leisure time hiking, skiing, and fishing. Many Portland residents routinely exit the city on weekends, choosing outdoors over urban culture. It is within this enticing natural environment that Portland's arts and cultural institutions must engage their audiences and make their way as financially viable institutions.

Complicating this picture is Oregon's minimal support for the arts. State funding for the arts — 52 cents per capita — is less than half the national average. At $1.89 per capita public funding for the arts, Portland falls far short of other cities of like size. Private giving also lags well behind the national average. But recent changes at the Portland Art Museum have sparked a trend that has Portland and Oregonians stepping up their support of the arts and their giving in general.

Under new leadership for the past four years, the art museum has shed its moribund image and become a lively cultural center for the city. This transformation began with a bold $12 million capital campaign to upgrade the museum's physical plant and bring a major blockbuster traveling exhibit to Portland. Charting new territory for Portland, the museum's leadership secured a $1 million contribution for the exhibit from the city government. (Public funding for arts institutions is typically allocated through the Regional Arts and Culture Council grantmaking process.)

The traveling exhibit brought new audiences to the museum, doubling membership from 6,500 to 13,000, and routine annual operating deficits gave way to a healthy bottom line. Likewise, endowment assets grew by 78 percent. Museum leaders have engaged Portlanders with a new vision of their art museum.

Other arts organizations are benefiting from this renewal. Last year the city gave the Oregon Symphony a $1 million contribution above its annual Regional Arts and Culture Commission allotment, and this year the city is considering a similar $1 million direct grant to the ballet.

Recently, the museum parlayed its success into a $30 million campaign to double its size and further increase its endowment. This is the biggest campaign ever attempted by an arts institution in Oregon, and its startling success includes some of the largest single gifts made by foundations, corporations, and individuals in Oregon's history. Through its success the museum has ushered in a new standard by which future donations to Oregon's cultural institutions will be measured. Oregon Community foundation president, Greg Chaille, marks this as “a turning point in Oregon philanthropy.”

How did the museum's new leadership awaken the sleeping giant in a brief four years? Rather than magic, it has been through fundraising basics: engaging the community in a vision, offering them opportunities to participate in achieving it at many levels, making it personal and fun, and delivering with utmost quality.