Twenty-twenty-one? Been there, and, boy, done that.
In the arts world–as in education, workplaces, welfare, sports, health care, and just about every other corner of public life–for the second year in a row Covid was the big story, followed closely by corrosive politics and the nation’s more and more extreme culture wars, punctuated emphatically by the storming of the Capitol on January 6.
A couple of times in 2021 it seemed as if the pandemic was waning. It would ease off for a while, and then, with relaxed protocols and new variants, come roaring back. Right now we’re in one of the roar-backs. Winter and the holiday traveling season, combined with the superspreading (but maybe milder) Omicron variant, have brought spiking numbers and fresh fears of new mass outbreaks, and of course that has a huge effect on the arts and cultural life.
2021: THE YEAR IN REVIEW
Covid’s persistence has been a key part of a general unsettling of confidence in cultural stability, and the arts world has been scrambling to keep pace and maybe even discover some creative breakthroughs.
Still also very much with us in 2021 and now 2022 are the complex and crucial matters of equity, both economic and racial, that continue to divide the nation. That’s reflected in a mass movement among museums, theaters, music organizations and other cultural groups to diversify their staffs and the art they present.
One way or another, the arts always reflect the culture and times they come from. The tie between art and its culture is there whether artists are directly confronting cultural issues, finding ways to work around them, alluding to them in creatively indirect ways, or even “escaping” them. A little escapism in tough times, after all, isn’t a bad thing: One of the crowning periods of American comedy came during the Depression years, when people needed to laugh. And the rough soil of 2021 sprouted some of the alternative visions and creative possibilities that artists often discover.
- I’m thinking of things like Our Diversity Is Our Strength, Blue Sky Gallery’s remarkable photographic exhibition in January and February about immigrants to the United States and the lives they’ve built here.
- I’m thinking of things like Tikkun Olam, the fabric artist Bonnie Meltzer’s interactive show at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Studies, which Beth Sorensen wrote about for ArtsWatch. It’s still going. Visitors are invited to take up a needle and metaphorically mend tears in the social fabric, putting their own stitches into a re-created world.
- I’m thinking of Reimagining the museum with a Native lens, Steph Littlebird’s story, with photos by Joe Cantrell, about the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center on the Grand Ronde Reservation, and curator Travis Stewart’s emphasis on keeping the art and culture alive and moving into the future.
- I’m thinking of The Art of Learning, Hannah Krafcik’s story about the creative flexibility being built into a school and the future at the ever-evolving Museum of Contemporary Art at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School. For the Northeast Portland school’s students, Krafcik wrote, “an art museum is an experience built into the very fabric of their learning environment.”
And now, a look at the year that was:
Jan. 7: Suddenly, the Theater of Chaos. “America’s actual theaters have been shut down for ten months,” ArtsWatch noted on the day after the mob broke into the U.S. Capitol. “But the metaphorical theater – the great big blustering morality play of the body politic, screeching and bleating its lines in some hyperdrive version of a medieval drama – reached a new climax in Washington, D.C. … In the midst of all this I found myself thinking, theater is like politics, and politics is like theater, but they are not the same, and it’s dangerous to mix them up.”
Jan. 14: Mixed art signals amid the turmoil. As the fallout from the Jan. 6 insurrection continued, coronavirus was still very much with us. Around Portland and Multnomah County, pandemic-themed signs and billboards began popping up. They were part of an artist-driven campaign, Resist Covid / Take 6! (the “6” referred to six feet of social distancing), spearheaded by Carrie Mae Weems, the internationally known contemporary artist and Portland native who had recently joined the Portland Art Museum’s board of trustees. The campaign focused on the racial and cultural disparities in who gets sick and dies – BIPOC populations were being hit roughly twice as hard as white populations – and a kind of consumer-friendly reminder of things that can be done.
Jan. 21: The inauguration and the art of words. Sixteen days after the insurrection and the day after Joseph R. Biden, Jr.’s inauguration as president, the nation was buzzing about the young poet Amanda Gorman and her inauguration poem The Hill We Climb, which laid out an aspirational vision of “a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.” ArtsWatch’s view: “The power of words, which make up, with music, the foundation of the arts, was on emphatic display at the inauguration ceremony.”
Jan. 28: Portrait of both sides: An interview with a protest photographer. Blake Andrews talked with Rian Dundon, who’d been photographing protests and protestors in Oregon since 2019, often producing portraits of people from both the right and left, seeking something of essence. “I’m always trying to do portraits at these events as a way to cut through the visual noise of flags and sign boards etc.,” Dundon told Andrews. “It’s easy to lose people to that stuff, and I want to make it clear that these are the individuals who took part in this.”
Feb. 4: Strike up the virtual festival band. As major annual events including the Fertile Ground festival of new works were moving swiftly from live shows to streaming formats, arts and cultural groups were facing severe financial difficulties because of canceled events, lack of ticket sales, and the increased costs of switching to virtual delivery. Governmental agencies, foundations, and individual contributors were stepping in to help shore things up – including, early in the year, $336,500 in grants from the National Endowment for the Arts to Oregon arts groups. Much more would follow from various sources.
March 4: Spotlighting the lives of Black Portlanders in the pandemic. Bennett Campbell Ferguson talks with the makers of the short film See Me – the first project of DNA: Oxygen, a group of Black company members at Artists Rep, and a landmark of sorts, chronicling as it does the everyday lives of three Black Portlanders dealing with the anxieties and pressures of living through pandemic times. “It’s a movie for this moment (it is haunted by the protests that swept Portland in the wake of George Floyd’s murder), but it is as personal as it is universal,” Ferguson writes.
March 4: Women on the move: These are the days, again. In March doors began to reopen, cautiously, including the doors of the Oregon Historical Society, which had been vandalized more than once during downtown protests but welcomed the public once again. Among the exhibitions greeting visitors was Neverthless, They Persisted: Voting Rights and the 19th Amendment, featuring pioneering Portland suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway and others. The historic Pittock Mansion also reopened, with an exhibition about social change in Vanport, the “instant” city hurried into existence to house workers in the World War II shipyards, and which was washed away in a 1948 flood. And All Classical Portland turned up the volume on a series of broadcasts featuring women composers and performers.
March 10: Seeking refuge: Enjoy a live performance again. Also in March, Valarie Smith went back to the theater for the first time in, well, a long time. Shaking the Tree’s Refuge wasn’t your everyday comedy or drama. It was built around 11 illustrated panels arranged in a circle, each dedicated to a different goddess. “You and your pod of up to five people sit within the Stonehenge-like circle and listen to audio-based (or, in a couple of cases, watch video-based) stories of these goddesses, each performed by a different person,” Smith wrote. Oh, and about that pandemic thing: “(T)ake it from someone who hasn’t even set foot in a grocery store for over a year: It feels completely safe. Someone lets you in, and then they leave so that you and your pod have a warehouse floor to yourselves to watch the show.”
March 15: An Open-Air Museum, Part 2. With museums and galleries sort of open and sort of not – “things are headed in the right direction, but restrictions still abound” – photographer and writer K.B. Dixon turned to the gallery of the streets, strapping his camera with him as he roamed the avenues and boulevards of inner Southeast and Northeast Portland, looking for fresh work by the city’s street muralists. He found an outdoor museum’s worth – almost a full year after his first such collection, from murals on the west side of town. In a long-term pandemic, artists adapt.
May 20: The arts moment: back, or ahead? By May, the Covid deep-freeze was beginning to melt, although no one was sure whether it would quickly freeze again. “Still, the trend appears to be toward motion – moving ahead – and that includes the worlds of culture and the arts,” ArtsWatch observed. “Museums have reopened, with restrictions. Music and theater and dance are once again among us, if mainly via video stream or on outdoor stages.”
July 1: Chamber music comes out to play. Could it finally be? “The scene was familiar, although it had been well more than a year since I’d been inside a concert hall,” ArtsWatch observed with barely controlled delight. The scene was Kaul Auditorium at Reed College, home space of Chamber Music Northwest, and the action was the first open rehearsal of the season. Masks were required, and seating was spaced. But. “There was no stink, as far as I could smell, about the precautionary requirement. It would have been difficult not to notice the sheer pleasure of the audience – and its attentiveness. This was, despite its modest size, something of a coming-out party; a grand reopening. After all these months, to be sitting inside a concert hall, listening to great music performed by highly skilled musicians, in real time and real space! Everyone, or so it seemed, was here not out of obligation but desire.”
July 24: Photo First: A Day with the Makers. On a bright and sunny Saturday in July, K.B. Dixon did something he hadn’t done in fifteen or sixteen months: He grabbed his camera and went out to mingle in a crowd. What he discovered at Slabtown Makers Market’s gathering of artists and craftsmakers was a lot of people rediscovering the pleasure of simply being out and about, admiring row after row of beautiful handmade things; maybe grabbing a nibble; maybe even buying a thing or three that struck their fancy. For the vendors, it was just as much of a pleasure: showing their works, seeing people, engaging in conversations, maybe selling something.
Aug. 4: “Our intent is normalcy”: Oregon choirs adapting. “Hard to imagine, but once upon a time not everyone in the lively arts was versed in ZOOM. That changed in a semiquaver.” Covid’s been particularly hard on choirs, which by their nature crowd people closely together and breathe out. Daryl Browne wrote about how Partland’s lively and varied choral seeing was staying safe and singing, too.
Nov. 4: In Praise of Isolation: Enjoying Oregon music from home. “I have a confession to make, dear reader: I don’t miss it.” One of the lesser-told stories of Pandemic Year 2 was the reluctance of many former regular audience members to go back into live theaters and concert halls with a bunch of strangers, no matter how much they missed the experience. ArtsWatch music editor Matthew Neil Andrews speaks for the un-crowd, and enumerates the ways he’s found to keep up with the music from the comfort and safety of home.
Two fresh voices
ArtsWatch happily welcomed two new recurring features and their creators in March 2021. Steph Littlebird – artist, writer, curator, enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde – began her series Indigenous History & Resilience, focusing on the history, culture, and resilience of Indigenous people in Oregon as they move into the future. And Peabody-winning audio journalist Dmae Lo Roberts brought her insightful podcast series Stage & Studio to ArtsWatch, focusing mainly on artists of color. For our readers and listeners, the rewards were immediate, and just keep coming.
Littlebird began her Indigenous series with a personal essay of purpose, Am I honoring those who came before me? “(I)n this series, history is interwoven into each narrative,” she wrote. “If it were separated from the present, the account wouldn’t be as accurate, or as faithful to the way we tell our stories.” Among the stories she’s told since are the tale of Grand Ronde artist Greg Archuleta and the Lifeways classes he began to teach traditional crafts and lore; the work of woodcarver Qahir Beejee Jamil Peco-Llaneza, and the journey of Diné member Lori Trephibio from the Navajo homeland of Arizona and New Mexico to Portland, where she’s stage manager for the Oregon Symphony.
Roberts kicked off her Stage & Studio podcast in its new ArtsWatch home by interviewing the terrific costume designer Wanda Walden, and has followed up with illuminating conversations with such talents as artist and curator Roberta Wong, Native American artist Lillian Pitt, Vanport Mosaic leaders Laura Lo Forti and Damaris Webb, The Immigrant Story’s founder Sankar Raman, and arts benefactor Ronni S. Lacroute.
Coming & Going
The year brought a lot of changes in leadership of arts groups, too, most of them planned, at least one quite abrupt. New faces emerged at organizations as varied as Portland’s symphony, opera, and ballet companies, as well as theater companies and in the city’s creative laureate chair. It’ll be fascinating to see where this new crop of leaders takes things.
Feb. 3: PBO’s Monica Huggett to retire. Huggett, the internationally celebrated Baroque violinist who had led Portland Baroque Orchestra for more than a quarter-century, announced she’d be retiring after the group’s 2020-21 season. She took over as artistic director in 1994 and was the face of the company as it gained a national reputation. While it hunts for a new permanent director, PBO is being guided by an impressive team of artistic advisors with previous ties to the orchestra, including violinist Aisslinn Nosky, harpsichordist Byron Schenkman, conductor and keyboardist Gary Thor Wedow, and bass-baritone Jonathan Woody.
April 22: Dawson Carr’s Portland adventure. Carr, the Portland Art Museum’s distinguished curator of European art, announced his retirement following eight years at PAM. He had previously held curatorial positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the National Gallery in London, and as his last major exhibit in Portland, brought together a “dream” show commemorating the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Laurel Reed Pavic talks with Carr and assesses his impact on the Portland museum.
June 10/15: “It’s sometimes necessary to restrict certain things.” In February the Oregon Symphony Orchestra named Austrian conductor David Danzmayr as only its third music director since 1980, following long tenures by James DePreist and Carlos Kalmar. In June, Charles Rose held a long conversation on just about everything from Mahler to Metallica with “up-and-comer” Danzmayr, which was published on ArtsWatch in the story linked above and this followup from five days later.
May 4: Subashini Ganesan: Last Official Project. Hannah Krafcik talks with Ganesan-Forbes about her approach during her pandemic-extended term as Portland’s official cultural laureate to being a collaborative advocate for arts and artists, and about her final project, which would carry beyond her official term: a six-month initiative to drive public art projects to promote healing among Portland communities from the health and cultural crises of 2020 and ’21.
- July 26: Chatting with the new laureates. TJ Acena sat down with Leila Haile and Joaquin Lopez, Portland’s new cultural laureates, to talk about the state of the arts and their hopes and goals for their dual term.
- Aug. 17: Amid crises, creating art to heal. TJ Acena checks in with Ganesan-Forbes to see how her final project, Community Healing Through Art, has been going.
May 27: Jason Holland: Rooting arts groups in community. Lori Tobias talks with Holland, the new executive director of the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts, which among other things manages the Newport Performing Arts Center and the Newport Visual Arts Center.
June 19: Rising leaders & theater’s future. TJ Acena talks with Rebecca Martinez (a member of Portland-based Sojourn Theatre and veteran of Milagro Theatre) and Zi Alikhan (artistic directing fellow at Artists Rep and first director of the company’s DNA: Oxygen creative hub for projects by artists of color) about life, theater, and being named national Rising Leaders of Color by the national theater-support organization Theatre Communications Group.
June 25: OBT & Kevin Irving part ways. In a surprise move, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s board forced the resignation of Irving, its artistic director of eight years. Resident choreographer Niccolo Fonte, who is also Irving’s life partner, then resigned, and former company principal dancer Peter Franc was immediately named interim artistic director. ArtsWatch followed up with several stories, among them Aug. 12’s story about significant changes in the company’s new season lineup, Change partners and dance; Jamuna Chiarini’s Aug. 25 udpate OBT: More questions than answers, and an Aug. 28 interview with Jordan Schnitzer in which the philanthropist talks about perceptions, funding, and the duties of boards.
July 21: Portland Opera hires new artistic director. After a long search to replace former general manager Christopher Mattaliano, the opera company named Priti Gandhi its new artistic director, making her one of the few top woman artistic leaders in the opera world.
- Oct. 27: Diving into the Moment of Creation: Priti Gandhi and Damien Geter at Portland Opera. Angela Allen takes a deep look at the new leadership at Portland Opera (Geter’s been named interim music director), the new team’s more collaborative approach, and the balancing act between familiar grand opera and more contemporary works.
Sept. 18: The end of an era: Dámaso Rodríguez leaves ART. Rodríguez, who had been Artists Rep’s artistic director for nine years, announced he would leave the city’s second-biggest theater company at the end of the calendar year, but stay in Portland as a vice president of the international consulting company Arts Consulting Group. Luanne Schooler, ART’s dramaturg and director of play development, becomes interim artistic director while the company does a national search for a permanent A.D.
Building & Rebuilding
If 2020 was the year of isolation and streaming of events, 2021 was the year of the hybrid – the Prius of arts years. There continued to be a lot of streaming shows. And museums got much more adept at sharing their exhibitions online. But groups like Chamber Music Northwest and the Portland Book Festival had it both ways, with live performances or events and with streaming versions, so audiences had a choice. And slowly, live performances picked up. In Portland, Triangle Productions was a pioneer of doing small-scale live theater indoors; a lot of theater, dance, and music companies have gone live since.
Summer brought a lot of outdoor performances, too. By May, arts organizations were either opening up or making plans to do so soon. In Portland, spaces sprang up on both sides of the Willamette River, at Zidell Yards and on a temporary stage near OMSI, which were used by everyone from the opera to Oregon Ballet Theatre to the Waterfront Blues Festival. As Charles Rose wrote, Third Angle New Music even took its instruments to the farm, for a trio of mini-concerts on Sauvie Island. And in June, Classical Up Close, the group made up mostly of members of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, did a series of free concerts in parks and people’s yards across the city, which photographer Joe Cantrell covered from start to finish for ArtsWatch. It was a celebratory series, at a time when we all needed a little celebration.
Sometimes building took on a literal as well as a metaphorical meaning, particularly in the case of the construction of the Eugene Arts Center and Beaverton’s multipurpose Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, which will open in the spring. (You can’t keep a good idea down: Similar projects are under way in Hood River and at Oregon State University in Corvallis, too; in Tigard, Broadway Rose Theatre Company broke ground on a $3.5 million New Stage expansion project.)
June 2-15: Classical Up Close free concerts. By June, this roving group of classical musicians (most also members of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra) was bustin’ out all over. After months of pandemic-forced distance, the musicians set up a series of intimate outdoor concerts in parks and people’s yards around Portland and environs, reestablishing the great pleasure of playing and listening to great music in real time and space – and photographer Joe Cantrell was on hand for every show, expertly capturing the artistry and exuberance of it all. Click to the final story here, which also includes links to the previous eight stories in the series.
June 9: Cultivating Creative Community. For Tualatin Valley Creates, in Washington County, building for the future means helping artists make connections with their communities as they develop their artistic projects. Brett Campbell wrote about TVC’s innovative Arts and Culture Leadership Incubator program.
June 21: Watershed Moments. The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education reopened after its Covid shutdown by taking a deep dive into the story of the fountains that reshaped the city: landscape architect Lawrence Halprin’s acclaimed 1970 Forecourt (now Keller) Fountain and its nearby sister water parks. Brian Libby considers the success and influence of Halprin’s project, and pairs it with another not-so-successful rebuilding undertaking from around the same time: what he calls “the urban renewal mistake” that, as an exhibition at Architectural Heritage Center stressed, razed lower-income but vital downtown neighborhoods and replaced them with sterile modern buildings cut off from the bustle of the rest of the city.
Aug. 8: The Rebuild: Broadway Rose. The years 2020 and 2021 were deeply damaging for performing arts companies, which had to figure out how to maintain their spaces during shutdown and decide how or whether they’d produce shows virtually. (It’s also been a dauntingly hard time for actors and technicians, who mostly work on a freelance, show-by-show basis, and who’ve seen their livelihoods circling the drain.) Bennett Campbell Ferguson checked in with the musical-theater specialists at Broadway Rose, who figured out how to produce good shows online and gradually transitioned back to live performances.
Sept. 4: The Rebuild: triangle productions! Bennet Campbell Ferguson continues his exploration of the theatrical comeback trail by talking with Donald Horn of the LGBTQ+ identified theater company triangle, one of the first companies to resume live performances and, Ferguson writes, “one of the safest places in the city to see a play.”
Sept. 8/9: Beaverton’s new Patricia Reser Arts Center. Brian Libby covered in depth the planning, architecture, and hopes for the Reser Center in a pair of September stories: the project overview Rising in Beaverton: West Gate, and an interview with center director Chris Ayzoukian. With a 550-seat theater, an art gallery, studio spaces, and other amenities rising above Beaverton Creek, the arts center provides a cultural focus for Washington County residents and for The Round, near Beaverton’s city hall, library, and a central MAX line. “Now there’s a there there,” Joe Baldwin, a partner at Portland’s Opsis Architecture, which designed the Reser Center, told Libby. “Before, there was only a parking lot on this property, with no way for the public to engage and appreciate this section of the creek in any meaningful way, let alone even realize it’s there.”
Sept. 15: Oregon’s new 127-flavor cultural license plate. The Oregon Cultural Trust unveiled the design for the state’s new cultural license plate for cars and trucks – a bold new jigsaw puzzle of a landscape that includes 127 symbols for arts and cultural topics or events around the state, each decipherable via an interactive visual key code. The design, by Eugene artist Liza Mana Burns, is called “Celebrate Oregon!” – and it’s being used not just for license plates but also as a kind of emblem for the state’s cultural assets. Large mural versions of it, for instance, hang at four Oregon airports.
Sept. 22: Realizing the Impossible Dream: Eugene’s Midtown Arts Center. Gary Ferrington tells the story of the seven-story, 128,000-square-foot project that combines 40 urban condominiums with a much-needed rehearsal, class, and office center for Eugene Ballet and its academy, as well as administrative office spaces for seven other key nonprofit arts organizations.
Sept. 30: They have the words: Singing Mahler with the Oregon Symphony. After many months of Covid-forced inactivity, the Oregon Symphony Orchestra prepared to open a new season in a freshly refurbished Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with a new music director, David Danzmayr, and a massive musical undertaking: Mahler’s aptly named Resurrection symphony, which calls for more than 100 instrumentalists, two vocal soloists, and more than 100 choral singers. Daryl Browne tells the tale of how Ethan Sperry prepared the members of the Oregon Repertory Singers and the Portland State Chamber Choir for this massive reawakening and renewal.
Oct. 8: Cultural Trust Awards $3.25 million. In a year of multiple crises, arts and cultural organizations needed to find all sorts of solutions – and money was a big one. In October, the Oregon Cultural Trust announced a record $3.25 million in new grants to 140 organizations across the state, funded from an also-record $5.2 million in 2020 donations to the Trust by Oregon taxpayers in return for cultural tax credits.
Nov. 10: Restoring the Balance: Rep. Suzanne Bonamici’s school arts bill. If you’re going to rebuild Oregon’s and the nation’s arts and cultural life, it’s a good idea to start from the ground up: in the schools, where arts education has taken a beating in recent decades, and in some cases has disappeared. Bonamici, the U.S. House member from Beaverton, chairs the Congressional STEAM caucus, which aims to redress the imbalance in education funding by adding the important A (for arts) into the STEM formula that has recently focused on sciences, technology and math. Brett Campbell considers the promise of and potential roadblocks to her ambitious arts education bill, which, Campbell writes, “would help redress decades of inequitable access to arts education, and give the children of middle class and poor families the tools that can help improve their academic performance, increase their chances of going to college, and help them become more effective, creative and innovative workers — whether in the arts or in any other job.” The bill was referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor; no further action has been taken yet.
Also in “2021: The Year in Review”
- Marc Mohan’s 10 Best Films of the Year. ArtsWatch’s chief film columnist picks ’em and praises ’em, from The Lost Daughter to Memoria to The Tragedy of Macbeth.
- 2021: The people who made the art. From Damien Geter and Leapin’ Louie to Bonnie Meltzer and Willy Vlautin, celebrating almost 30 artists in Oregon whose visions stood out and helped define and rethink a precarious year.
- Stage & Studio: Reflections on 2021. In her end-of-year podcast, Dmae Lo Roberts talks with ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks, Steph Littlebird, Brett Campbell, and Amy Leona Havin about the highs, lows, and landmarks of the cultural year.
- 2021: A literary year of loss, renewal, and re-emergence. Amy Leona Havin looks back on the authors we lost and the bookish events that cheered us this year.
- 2021: A year of rethinking who we are. Amid a year of cultural clashes over who belongs, a baker’s dozen stories about artists in Oregon who thought big, told untold stories, and spread the creative net wide.
- 2021: A year of dance, up in the air. From dance on film in January to a flurry of Nutcrackers in December, Jamuna Chiarini tracks the ups and downs of Oregon’s Covid-tinged dance year.
- 2021: A year of looking at things. In a year of sharp contrasts, visual art in Oregon bounced between the stark and the hopeful, with plenty of surprises along the way.
- 2021: Remembering those who died. From children’s writer Beverly Cleary to jazz star Carlton Jackson to actor Philip Cuomo and more, we say farewell to artists who died in 2021.