Eloise Damrosch

Turning The Tide

Executive director of the Regional Arts & Culture Council Eloise Damrosch has dedicated much of her life to service in the arts. She believes that art and culture are an inseparable part of what it means to be a human being and integral to the healthy functioning of society. In our increasingly globalized world, art and culture help open up apertures for insight, connections through collaboration, and innovation toward problem solving.

In recent years, massive budget cuts have dealt significant blows across the board, but especially within the realm of arts and culture-related programs. Nevertheless, as Eloise explains, there are some very exciting things on the horizon with regard to how art and culture are out to help make communities thrive. RACC has mounted some extraordinarily effective campaigns such as The Right Brain Initiative, which works to return arts programs back into the curriculum in the public schools, and Work for Art, which includes a public-private matching fund that is the first of its kind in the US. The important task of returning arts and culture to a more centralized place in societal life doesn’t come without significant challenges, however. Eloise’s extensive history of arts advocacy and longstanding administrative expertise help her meet and exceed the obstacles she encounters, doing so with an air of strength and grace.

Eloise’s outstanding community leadership has been recognized at both local and national levels. In 2009 she was named by Marylhurst University as one of five formally recognized “Women of Distinction.” She is also a recipient of the 2013 Ray Hanley Innovation Award, which recognizes outstanding individual contributions to art and culture across the nation. Taking it all in stride Eloise says, “It’s all about time management and juggling many different balls in the air at the same time, but I seem to thrive on it.”

Where would you say your drive and passion for the arts come from?
I think from when I was growing up. I was lucky enough to live right smack in the middle of New York City. My parents believed first and foremost in a good education for their daughters, and so that’s where they focused their attention. Field trips to the likes of the Metropolitan Museum were pretty fabulous. I was also from an especially musical family. I studied piano and cello. My parents sent us all to really good schools where the arts were part of everything. But I actually didn’t know I was going to veer into the arts world professionally until my freshman year in college.

I took an art history course and within six weeks I was totally hooked. I got my BA in art history and then my masters, hoping to teach at the college level. I taught for a year at the University of Virginia, where my former husband was finishing up law school. Then we went into the Peace Corps because it was Vietnam War time and he was eligible to go.

What did you do in the Peace Corps?
I taught English and art in Chile. My mother would send me reproductions from art books because I didn’t have any materials to teach with. It was very gratifying.

What brought you to Portland after that?
My former husband and I came back to Oregon and lived over in the Bend area after the Peace Corps. We were just going to be there for the summer. We ended up living there for fifteen years and I taught at the college there for twelve years. I had a daughter, and my husband was practicing law. I wanted to get back to the city, so finally we moved to Portland.

A friend at the Metropolitan Arts Commission [now RACC] hooked me up for an interview for a job overseeing the public art for the Convention Center that was just being designed. That started my public art career, and I did that for seventeen years. Then I did two stints as interim director at RACC, and then ultimately became executive director nine years ago.

How do you see the role of art and culture in community development?
I think what really sets human beings apart from other species is the ability to express ideas, actions, and feelings. We have the ability to create things that enable us to communicate in all kinds of different ways. Art really is about communication. And I think when you gather people together in a community, whether it’s a little village in the Altiplano of Peru or a big metropolitan area, people connect through the arts—singing, writing, dancing. Travel anywhere on the globe, and the arts are what are inherent to a group of people. I’ve certainly seen it after living in Portland for 26 years. As the arts community has grown and the population has changed, I think we’ve come to a point where the arts are really critical to our differences and our connectedness, as well as our identity as a city.

We’re seeing it in our arts education program The Right Brain Initiative, where a wide range of artists work with the classroom teachers to help kids learn the basic subjects through the arts. For example, we had a residency last year where BodyVox dance company came to an elementary school that was studying the water cycle in science class. The dancers helped the kids learn about the water cycle through choreography and movement. Since the population of the schools now is 50 percent kids of color and English Language Learners, we hear from the teachers that these students just come alive when they get to do something with the arts because they become equal with their classmates.

Will you briefly explain the other ways in which RACC helps to build and strengthen the community here in our region?
We truly are a service organization. We don’t produce things. We help the community. Basically, in one form or another, all of our programs are designed to do that. So let’s start with the primary one in most people’s minds, which is giving grants to arts organizations to keep them strong, and also to individual artists for creating new work, for performing work, or developing the professional skills that they need to thrive. This new tax that just passed is going to help with that. We receive funding from public and private sources and send those dollars back out to support the artistic community in the tri-county region [Clackamas, Multnomah, Washington].

In addition, we manage the city and the county’s Percent for Art programs—the public art that you see all over. When the city or the county builds a new building or a park, or renovates a building extensively, two percent of the construction costs must be set aside for pubic art. That’s why you see art along the transit mall, why you see it in City Hall, for example. It shouldn’t just be for people who can pay to go to the Art Museum. It should be available to the general public because of how important it is to our culture and to the quality of our city.

We also have the arts education program that I mentioned, and we provide technical assistance through our website and our technical assistance workshops for artists. So that’s strengthening the arts community through information and teaching as opposed to just giving grants. Those are very well attended and cost very little. The workshops range from how to get a public art commission, to contracts and copyrights, marketing, digital photography, and other topics that help artists be more successful in their business.

As executive director of RACC since 2004, what has been your main focus in its further development?
The assumption was when we became a nonprofit seventeen years ago there would be some kind of a dedicated funding stream—that’s what the Arts Tax is going to be. It’s money that’s generated annually by a $35 individual income tax payment. Once that’s established in its final form and collected regularly, many arts organizations can count on increased operating support from RACC. A substantial amount of the money will also put certified art and music teachers back into all Portland elementary schools, where few exist today.

Another major priority is our equity initiative. As the population continues to change, we need to make sure that we’re not putting up barriers to people from other cultures and that we’re delivering our services to everybody equally. It’s hard work and it’s going to take a long time, but we are absolutely committed.

Take our grants process for example. To some people having to fill out an application is not familiar to them. So how do we remove that barrier and yet still shepherd fairly and appropriately this public investment? We also are working to make sure our Public Art Collection reflects the diversity of our community by reaching out to new artists where they live and work and helping them easily access the public art process.

Can you talk a little bit more about the success of Work for Art?
We go into workplaces, take artists with us, and make it very easy for any individual working in a public or private workplace to dedicate a few dollars out of their paycheck for Work for Art. All of those dollars go back to the arts organizations that we’re already serving with grants. We started the program in 2005, and Sam Adams, who was the arts commissioner at the time, persuaded his colleagues on the city council to offer up some money as a match. We had an 880 percent increase that year because the match was so compelling. Then we took that story out to the three counties that we serve and asked if they would put in some match to grow this pot even more. And they all did. These are workplaces like banks and Burgervilles that are all over the tri-county region. We were able to leverage some private money to add to the match as well.

A huge incentive is everybody who contributes as little as $5 a month out of their paycheck gets an arts card. The card offers two-for-one tickets to all kinds of arts experiences, thus building audiences and arts advocates. We also know that a large percentage of the people who donate to this program are not people who write checks to arts organizations.

Burgerville is one of our poster children. The CEO is our honorary campaign chair because that company has done so well with its campaign. These are people with primarily minimum wage jobs, and yet they donate in droves. It’s a very progressive, very community-minded company. They have a tight relationship with the Timbers and the COO of the Timbers is on our board. He and the CEO of Burgerville are going to be co-chairs of our campaign this year.

What has been your greatest triumph in your work here recently?
The passage of the Arts Tax. We all acknowledged it wasn’t a perfect tax, but we needed to pass something that would do this job. The reason that the tax passed so solidly is because we led the messaging with arts education. I think for the general population, people remember what their schooling was like when the arts used to be a part of everybody’s school day, every day, and they see their own children with little or nothing.

The other part of it though is the general population doesn’t understand that the arts organizations have to raise as much of their income as they do. No organization can rely just on selling tickets. One year the symphony mounted a very clever campaign.

They took a seat from the Schnitzer and they put it in the lobby and cut it in half demonstrating just what ticket prices buy. The other half of the seat represented what has to be raised.

The effort to get this tax passed and the effort to build arts education back into the school system is all about a vision for this community. If we’re going to be a community that values the arts and culture—and we are, we’re known for it all over the country—we need to do something about it.

Would you say the Arts Tax has also been your biggest challenge recently?
That and the situation in schools, and they are completely linked. Watching the schools bleed their art and music programs down to nothing—it’s really robbing children of a full education.

How does making the arts a constant and permanent fixture in school curriculums help to create a more successful future for our children?
By helping them to learn a combination of twenty-first century skills—collaboration, creativity, critical thinking—because that’s the future of our workforce. When you talk to people in the high tech world, for example, and ask what they need in their workforce, the first thing they say is innovation, critical thinking, problem solving. How do you know how to do that if you haven’t ever learned creativity? No matter what it is, whether you’re designing sneakers or whether you’re building computer parts, those are the skills that kids need. For so many students the arts are a way to help them engage in learning, keep them in school, and set them on a path to be successful for life.


About The Author: Jenn Dawson

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