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Agency puts its heart into the arts

MY VIEW • RACC gives long, careful thought to all aspects of its mission

Portland Tribune columnist Phil Stanford recently mentioned the Regional Arts & Culture Council and its public art program in two of his columns: 'There's an art to foolish spending,' Jan. 10, and a followup column Jan. 13 that responded to readers who reacted to the initial piece.

We believe Tribune readers and the community need to be given a more comprehensive view of RACC and its role and responsibility in the region.

RACC is the steward of public investments in arts and culture, and manages public art programs on behalf of the city of Portland and Multnomah County. RACC also provides other important services for the local arts community, including grants, technical assistance and information resources Ñ all designed to help support a creative economy, drive tourism, enhance our children's education and improve the quality of life for residents in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties.

As our elected officials evaluate and vote on measures that affect social services needs versus dollars devoted to artistic investments, there are no easy tradeoffs. It also is not a simplistic 'given,' however, to evaluate any vote for the arts as shortsighted when one considers the important societal and educational benefits such an investment makes to our region. The fact is that the recent unanimous vote of the Portland City Council amending the 25-year-old Percent for Art Program can and should be evaluated in a very constructive way.

With the most recent changes, 2 percent (up from 1.33 percent) of city capital improvement efforts above $50,000 will be set aside for the purchase of art, program management and maintenance of the city's substantial public art collection. Because these funds already have been allocated and approved within the city's capital improvement budget, the art component does not increase project costs, nor may it be spent on other city services.

In addition, the city has refined its process for identifying eligible capital projects, resulting in a newly streamlined and consistent system. These changes emphasize the importance the city attaches to providing citizens and visitors alike engaging, easily accessible and properly maintained public art in their daily lives.

The Regional Arts & Culture Council takes its responsibility for using the Percent for Art funds entrusted to it very seriously. Each year, hundreds of volunteers serve on public art selection panels that spend countless personal hours to help objectively determine the artistic endeavors to place in our community.

These decisions aren't cavalier, and they represent collective citizen interest, value and confirmation of the importance of providing daily artistic experiences to our community. Your own artistic taste may not always coincide with the choices RACC makes, but that fact alone shouldn't indict the dollars spent or the process by which the dollars are spent.

Business leaders have readily acknowledged that regional competitive advantages can be built through the successful solicitation and nurturing of creative industries to fuel positive economic and cultural growth. A vibrant public art program helps create an environment that shows our region values creative endeavors.

In addition, an ongoing investment in public art instills citizen pride and provides engaging and valuable experiences for all who encounter it. It provides our younger citizens exposure to arts and culture that could encourage them to develop their own innovative talents either professionally or privately throughout their whole lives. Credible educational research has shown that the more exposure young people get to arts education and creation, the better innovative thinkers they will become.

The Percent for Art Program has positioned Portland as a national leader in the field of public art. Portland is widely acknowledged as a wonderful place to live and work, in some measure because our city encourages creative application of our citizens' talent. We applaud the work of the City Council in its support of a program that will continue this important investment for many years to come.

Mayor Tom Potter summed up his commitment to the arts recently at the City Club: 'I think that art and culture in our community is one of the core values we cannot ignore or relegate to second position É in a healthy community. It means that we expand our appreciation to things that not only affect us in our daily life but throughout our lives.'

Chris R. Rasmussen is chairman of the Regional Arts & Culture Council's board and president of Washington Trust Bank, Oregon region.