Changing the culture starts with creative people in the arts

By Hannah Krafcik & Barry Johnson | Photos by Meg Nanna

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The Western idea that change is a central theme of human experience goes back at least as far as Heraclitus and his famous observation that we never step into the same river twice. “Everything flows,” he said, a notion that parallels similar ideas in Buddhism and Taoism, which date back to about the same time.

Modern science agrees with Heraclitus: The universe is a very busy place—when it isn’t an absolute vacuum, a paradox that Heraclitus would have enjoyed.
But just because we understand that change happens whether we like it or not, we don’t necessarily feel or think about it, let alone respond to it, in the same way.

We describe it differently across communities. We acknowledge it differently, and sometimes, we don’t acknowledge it at all. So, as we researched and talked to this group of “change artists,” we never offered or arrived at a set definition for “change,” choosing to accept shifts and subjectivity as constant within the rhetoric of our conversations.

In discussing the subject with George Thorn, an astute observer of our changing arts community, he replied with a potent question: “How does the leadership, whether it’s one artist or an institution, stay connected to what’s going on and how fast it’s changing?” The list compiled here is full of people who are addressing the never-ending shifts in our society. They are artists, organizers, curators, educators, administrators, thought leaders, and they are all learning from, adapting to, and changing the culture here.

Before we go on, there’s an important caveat. A “list” usually implies a hierarchy of influence. That’s not the case here. If compiled tomorrow, the list would have different names: We never step into the same river twice. Consider this a snapshot of important work to make our local culture at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers better right now—more open, more resilient, more creative, fairer.

Some common themes emerged across our conversations, including analogies to ecology and evolution: “I think that the real change that happens is with the little seeds that are within all of us, and those seeds begin to grow when we put ourselves in situations where we can learn,” says Chantal DeGroat, theater artist and Artistic Director of The Color of NOW. “That’s one of the reasons why I love the theater as much as I do. It is a place where people who are different from each other come together in a room to share  an experience specifically of something that is different from themselves, so they can watch how these relationships and problems work themselves out onstage.”

From an organizational standpoint, arts administrators spoke about the notion of evolution. “Change, in general, is an evolving set of wants and needs for a particular community,” remarks Ashley Stull Meyers, who is a curator and writer, as well as the Communications and Outreach Coordinator for c3:initiative.

Charlie Stanton, Executive Director of the Portland Chamber Orchestra, notes that every aspect of an organization—its programs, board leadership, staff—“everything should systematically evolve to not only be reflective of the community, but also to be of best service to the community.”

For Roya Amirsoleymani, Director of Community Engagement at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, to engage in systems change is to “really look at the root of issues and not just imagine the art world and the larger world that we want to see, but actually be part of creating it or manifesting it.” She continues, “It has to do with where the power and influence lie and how wealth is distributed. It has to do with who is given opportunities; who is being featured; who are we celebrating; whose stories are being shared; whose voices and visions are centered; which communities are empowered—all of those things.”

A vital part of this work involves building reciprocity. Steve Bloom, CEO of the Portland Japanese Garden, talks about this on an international scale. “Every single day, we do that work where we’re bridging culturally between our countries,” he says, referencing the garden’s work to rebuild and return two torii gates to Japan that had washed ashore on the Oregon coast after the 2011 tsunami.

Change connects the past and future to the present. Shifts in governmental powers and environmental landscape, even death and life, are a reminder that change requires adaptation, and that people must account for their history and take responsibility for a future that extends beyond the limits of one lifetime.

For contemporary Klamath/Modoc visual artist Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, upholding an intergenerational model of learning is key, whether it is through working with youth and elders or learning traditional practices.

“We’ve had a lot of things taken from us, so there’s this cultural preservation that says ‘No, I don’t want to share,’” she says. But then she quotes from her father, Al Smith, a champion of religious freedom in Oregon, who told her that we need to all come together, raise our kids together, love life, love the earth, and love each other.

Part of the problem with change, as Thorn notes, is that there isn’t a specific model for artists and administrators to follow. Everyone needs to have basic discipline, structure, deadlines, and planning, he says. After that, the particulars are an ongoing challenge, both inside the culture of the organization and outside in the culture of the community. Adaptability doesn’t involve following a model. It’s a series of adjustments, tiny and massive, that we have to make if we want the arts to continue its many roles in the culture— carrying our heritage, history, and values forward; responding to immediate problems and opportunities; offering consolation to the grieving; roaring at injustice, and modeling creative expression for everyone in the community. That’s why we need change artists: It’s not as simple as a square peg in a square hole

Portland is going through a time of intense change. We are growing quickly, and we have the sense that we are losing things that are important. Upheaval in the national culture and national politics threaten to pull us apart. The economy is directing resources away from the people who need them most. Demonstrations of planet-altering environmental change occur with greater frequency.

These are just some of the larger forces colliding with us every minute. The culture we make together, within and without the systems at play, is our best defense, our best hope of making it through. And if that’s going to happen, then we all have to pitch in—artists, administrative staff, board members, volunteers, journalists, and audiences. We’ve reserved a spot on our list for everyone. Or, more importantly, for you.

Yulia Arakelyan and Erik Ferguson are partners in life and Wobbly, a dance theater company which presents disabled bodies in contemporary performance contexts in a deliberate effort to create higher standards of accessibility. Arakelyan and Ferguson’s work has become a radical operative in Portland’s performing arts community, demonstrating “a broader definition of art, beauty, and the lived human experience of people with and without disabilities.” Their artistic output ranges from film, to live performance, to educational work, to the occasional all-abilities dance jam.

Linda Austin embodies the continuum between the adventurous creator and creative administrator. Austin transitioned her practice from New York City, where she had been creating and presenting work as part of the experimental dance community, to Mexico, finally landing in Portland. In 1999, she founded Performance Works NorthWest along with Technical Director Jeff Forbes. She creates her own work as part of Linda Austin Dance and serves as the most generous of hosts for other performance makers and educators, both visiting and local. 

Demian DinéYazhi´ is an indigenous queer artist born to the clans Naasht’ézhí Tábąąhá (Zuni Clan Water’s Edge) and Tódích’ii’nii (Bitter Water). Rather than thinking about the notion of “change,” DinéYazhi´ prefers to think about his work “in terms of adapting and evolving”—which, he notes, are both traits characteristic of tribes that have survived colonization in the United States. Important to DinéYazhi´’s practice is his desire to create more visibility and positive representation for indigenous art and culture. His projects include R.I.S.E.: Radical Indigenous Survivance & Empowerment (of which he is Founder and Director), poetry and publications, curatorial work, and much more.

Ka’ila Farrell-Smith is a contemporary Klamath/Modoc visual artist. Central ​​to her practice is an effort to decolonize the settler colonial lens (particularly on contemporary native art), to perpetuate indigenous aesthetics, to uphold an intergenerational model of learning, and to acknowledge the fact that, as she says, “we’re on Indian land.” Reflecting on her work, she shares, “I’m very interested in wanting to promote a different way of engaging…with people, land, and place, and I think art practices can do that.” In addition to her organizing work with One Flaming Arrow: Inter-Tribal Art, Music, and Film Festival and her work as an educator, Farrell-Smith is also one of the Co-directors for Signal Fire, a nonprofit that provides artists and creative agitators points of engagement with public lands.

A South Asian immigrant to the United States, Subashini Ganesan blends her skills as an expert administrator and contemporary Bharatanatyam dancer to meet intersecting needs within Portland’s dance community. As an administrator, she runs New Expressive Works, a space that fosters cross-cultural dialogue, offering everything from rehearsal space, to much needed residencies, to classes and performances from a range of cultural and artistic canons. As Artistic Director of Natya Leela Academy, she teaches, choreographs, and presents work from her deep, embodied knowledge of Bharatanatyam. As a performer, she is a force to be reckoned with. 

Shirly Camin Grisanti and Ashley Stull Meyers both occupy critical roles at c3:initiative, a nonprofit that provides administrative and financial support, space, and other much needed arts services from their two campuses in Portland and Colton, Oregon. According to Founder and Director Grisanti, c3:initiative sees their place in Portland as “responding to the change in the economics of the city.” c3:initiative hopes to provide much needed support as it becomes more challenging for artists to find space and resources within the local landscape. Meyers—who is c3:initiative’s Communications and Outreach Coordinator (as well as an established writer and curator)—noted that while Portland is ironically a cityspace ​“valued for its creative energy,” the cost of living in the city has increased to the point that “creative practitioners are not paid a fair wage or paid for all parts of their process.” In response to this reality, c:3initiative strives to tip the scale by compensating artists with a living wage for their creative work. 

Native Portlander Tahni Holt has presented her work across the country, but her home base is in her hometown, where she continues to make innovative investments in the ecology of her field. FLOCK, a dance center that is part of the Disjecta Contemporary Art Center hub, is her brainchild. In addition to offering an ongoing roster of movement-based educational programming, FLOCK provides a fee-based dance rehearsal space program to counter the popular project-by-project model. Currently, seven other local choreographers are incubating their work and conducting artistic research at FLOCK year-round. 

Jaded by her experience of working in the Los Angeles film industry, Tara Johnson-Medinger relocated to Portland in 2002 for a change of pace. She became Executive Director of Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival in 2009 after recognizing that she wanted to direct her life’s work toward elevating women’s voices in the film industry, where the gender disparity is rampant. Johnson-Medinger’s production company, Sour Apple Productions, in partnership with the Hollywood Theatre, currently produces POWFest each March, showcasing film work by women across the globe. “I think it is important for any underrepresented community to have a space to have their voices heard. Until we truly have achieved equal representation in the director’s chair, the need for POWFest (along with the many other women-centric film festivals)
is there.”

Ronni Lacroute models patronage and philanthropy at a Herculean level. She has held down a vital role as benefactor for local performing arts, supporting the likes of Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Center Stage, Teatro Milagro, Third Rail Repertory, Chamber Music Northwest, and many more. She has played a pivotal role in funding experimental projects, especially those that bring new voices to theater. Lacroute inhabits arts patronage with a diligence that extends well beyond donating money, creating a pivotal role for herself within Portland’s arts community.

A former columnist for The OregonianRenee Mitchell has recently developed Portland Public School’s first Career Technical Education track in journalism, exploring how youth have agency to shape “the narrative of their own lives, their school, and their community.” But since leaving the newspaper, she has also embarked on a new career as an artist, both in the visual and performing arts. Her artistic and educational work hold social justice in sight, through support for and empowerment of youth, survivors of sexual and domestic abuse, Black families, Black community health, and more.

Mercedes Orozco and Blair Crissman created UNA Gallery, a relatively new space in the Everett Street Lofts building, “to prioritize the work of marginalized artist communities while offering a consistent and constructive platform for the solo and collaborative efforts of nonestablished and experimental artists.” Under the leadership of owner and Director Orozco, an artist from Mexico City, and Co-director Crissman, UNA is a thriving nexus of cultural activity that features work by emerging and experimental artists, with a specific focus on people of color, queer, gender-nonconforming, and femme voices.

Scott Palmer is the Founding Artistic Director for Bag&Baggage, the Hillsboro-based theater company known for its sharp, creative takes on the classics. Hillsboro, Palmer says, is “a suburban community that has been experiencing seismic changes,” and he believes that “we have an obligation to use the work of Bag&Baggage to explore and examine those changes.” While Bag&Baggage focuses on classics of Western drama, Palmer notes, “we approach those classic works with a very contemporary and provocative lens; it is our hope that performing titles that people know by playwrights they have heard of will bring our community to the theater and that, once there, we can begin a discussion about social justice.”

Portland Center Stage has created a cluster of artistic, outreach, and organizational innovations, and several of its staff, including Artistic Director Chris Coleman and Chief Operating Officer Cynthia Fuhrman, have been critical in the changes. Here, we acknowledge the ongoing efforts of Associate Artistic Director Rose Riordan, who founded the theater’s  JAW: A Playwrights Festival in 1999 and has overseen the development of 80 new scripts, employed more than 1,000 artists, and reached an audience of more than 20,000 with a window into the creative process at staged readings while the scripts are still in progress.

Dmae Roberts has become a crucial figure in the culture by shining a light on the Asian-American experience and highlighting the problems that Asian artists, especially in the performing arts, can face. A two-time George Foster Peabody Award winner, Roberts has developed and shared stories surrounding her mother’s childhood in Taiwan, her own experience growing up in small-town Oregon, and Asian-American history as a whole. Her storytelling and personal work spans the realms of audio art, theater and performance, and writing. Pioneering the intersection of arts and radio in Portland, Roberts offers platforms to individuals of different cultures, experiences, and artistic practices. Catch her show Stage and Studio on KBOO radio for the latest.

Artists Repertory Theatre’s Dámaso RodrÍguez sees himself as a theater director first and foremost, even in the way he approaches his role as Artistic Director. “When I am directing a play, this means assembling a team of artists and empowering each individual to boldly pursue their instincts toward a shared vision,” he says. “I believe my job is to unify and focus the choices of the group in service of the play. I suppose, I instinctively apply this approach to my leadership role as Artistic Director at Artists Rep.” Under Rodríguez, Artists Rep has become a hub for theater artists through its resident artists program, which provides an artistic home for local theater professionals—actors, directors, and technical artists. It has also opened the doors of its facility to several important Portland performance groups, making it possible for them to share expertise and creative energy. Artists Rep itself has become a center for neglected voices in theater, often through plays that Rodríguez himself directs.

The new Executive Director of Disjecta Contemporary Art Center had demonstrated her administrative skills in Georgia and Arizona before landing in the Northwest in 2009, first at the Archer Gallery at Clark College and then at Marylhurst University’s Art Gym. Blake Shell combines that organizational skill with a keen curatorial eye and an ability to work with artists, donors, boards, and staff. And she’s committed to fair pay for artists: “The Art Gym was the first organization in Oregon to self-certify and commit to paying fair wages standardized by Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.). I will be working on getting Disjecta certified now, as well. Disjecta is already paying artists fees, which is great. I think certifying through W.A.G.E. shows a commitment to ongoing and fair pay to artists, and also, it helps create awareness for other organizations that there is a resource of standards for paying artists.”

Like many change artists on this list, Stephen Slappe wears many hats—media artist, curator, organizer, Associate Professor at Pacific Northwest College of Art, to name a few. However, when asked about his notion of change, Slappe says, “It’s just becoming blurrier, essentially…blurring between my political self, my teaching-employment self, and my role as an artist.” Slappe draws from his history as a young punk rocker, specifically, the idea that “we are responsible for making our own culture.” To that end, he is in the process of launching Future Forum, a new artist training project that is oriented toward social impact—and for Slappe, a “concrete way to engage with activism.”

While she self-identifies as a “multidisciplinary artist, educator, and scholar with Western training,” Sara Siestreem, who is Hanis Coos and American, has steeped herself in the traditional weaving culture of The Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians. In 2014, she started the Hanis Coos Traditional Weaving Research and Education Project to investigate, archive, and educate on the basketmaking practices of her people, which had been in hibernation for more than a century.  Her work spans institutional and indigenous culture through teaching traditional weaving practices as well as studio arts at Portland State University.

While a spotless balance sheet might seem mythical and out of reach to many arts nonprofits, George Thorn will probably argue otherwise. In 1991, together with his NYC-based collaborator, Nello McDaniel, Thorn started ARTS Action Research, which provides tailored services to arts organizations. Today, after being steeped in the inner workings of more than 200 arts organizations, Thorn stands as a beacon of hope for strategic planning and organizational sustainability for arts organizations on the West Coast. And here in Portland, he has been incredibly generous with his time and insights.

Shaking Tree Theatre, founded by Artistic Director Samantha Van Der Merwe, believes in the power of stories: “Stories are essential to life…telling and listening to stories gives us a deeper understanding of the world.” Located in Portland’s Central Eastside Industrial District, Shaking Tree Theatre’s nontraditional theater space is a site for aesthetic and theatrical innovation, where Van Der Merwe melds practices of theater and visual arts elements to create new and evocative worlds for audiences.

Both Bobbi Woods and Christine Toth are artists who devote parts of their own spaces to showing the work of other artists. Woods has created an exhibition space called Private Places inside her shared art studio and is curating shows of important local artists. Between April and November each year, Toth clears out the first floor of her Southeast Portland home to create an exhibition space called Indivisible, which often features solo shows by local artists of color. These two women are breaking the mold for how substantive art can be shown—it doesn’t have to be in a blue-chip Pearl District gallery. Artists sharing with other artists has become one of the primary ways the arts community has adapted to the city’s space crunch, and Woods and Toth show how powerful this activity can be. “I am deeply inspired by the notion of artists creating opportunities for other artists,” says arts writer and artist Jennifer Rabin.

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Portland’s theater community is fortunate to have Chantal DeGroat spanning the roles of actor, educator, and administrator. Though she currently lives in Seattle, DeGroat performs with Portland’s Third Rail Repertory, and her past experience includes many of Portland’s prominent theater institutions. She also serves as Artistic Director of The Color of NOW, using her theatrical savvy to hold space for community engagement and much needed conversations about social justice. “The avenue that I have been taking with The Color of NOW has been from a standpoint of learning. Whatever guests that we have in our discussion series, those guest speakers are people that I want to learn from.”

founding executive
director, Age and Gender
Equity in the Arts

With a focus on theater as a site for change, Jane Vogel founded Age and Gender Equity in the Arts. This social justice nonprofit focuses on advancing equity for all women in theater with an explicitly intergenerational approach. Vogel—who has occupied roles as an activist, actor, clinical psychologist, and mother—believes the only way positive change can happen is collectively. While she describes herself as “just one small person,” she hopes that, through collective action, girls and women will be “given opportunities to be leaders, to be represented.”

Scott Showalter
President & CEO,

As the President and CEO of the Oregon Symphony, Scott Showalter landed in choppy organizational waters three years ago, and he has generated good will and new enthusiasm inside the organization since then. At the same time, he’s led the Symphony in a series of moves that have helped it to connect with larger audiences in the city, including the SoundSights series this season, which paired musical performance with powerful visuals from Dale Chihuly, Rose Bond, and Michael Curry puppetry and staging. Next season’s Sounds of Home series will focus on immigration, environment, and homelessness.

Fertile Ground Festival of New Works
“My overarching philosophy is about connecting people and ideas and perspectives in my life,” Nicole Lane says. And from her position as one of the linchpins of the Fertile Ground Festival and as the former nexus of community engagement for Artists Repertory Theatre, that’s exactly what she’s done. She’s helped expand Fertile Ground from its base in theater to include the rest of the performing arts in one big festival of new work every January, and she’s helped make Artists Rep a model for innovative outreach efforts in the city. “We’re past differences of opinion and into a sticky, tangible anxiety that seeps in everywhere. How do you assuage that anxiety? Bring people together.”

Charlie Stanton
executive director,
Portland chamber orchestra

A classically trained singer turned nonprofit consultant and advocate for social and restorative justice, Charlie Stanton made significant progress in his recently relinquished role as Executive Director of the Portland Chamber Orchestra in promoting equity at the deepest roots of its board and leadership. Working with Artistic Director Yaacov Bergman, Stanton helped to clarify the Orchestra’s evolutionary path, for as he put it, “everything should systematically evolve not only to be reflective of the community but also to be of best service to the community.” Stanton, Co-founder of Transient Consulting in Charlotte, North Carolina, now serves as Director of Development for Our House of Portland, a provider of compassionate care for people living with HIV and AIDS. He also maintains a connection to the creative sector with his continued role with PCO as Senior Advisor.

Thomas Lauderdale
Thomas Lauderdale is the socially conscious, politically minded pianist and leader of the band Pink Martini, which he founded in the 1990s to fill a dearth of inclusive entertainment at political fundraisers. In fact, his penchant for politics took another form in earlier years when he spent time working in Portland City Hall and with the Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee for the state. Since its formation, Pink Martini has raised visibility of efforts including civil rights, affordable housing, environmentalism, and other social causes while touring nationally and internationally, mixing musical languages and genres as it goes.

In her leadership role as Curator and Producer of Boom Arts, Ruth Wikler-Luker imagines new social and political possibilities through live performance, as per her organization’s mission statement. “Maybe we, as the city of Portland, aren’t there yet,” she says “but we can get there, and we’re showing what that is on the stage.” This has everything to do with her commitment to doing the legwork. Not only is Wikler-Luker carefully curating relevant performance to present in Portland through Boom Arts, but she is also helping connect these visiting artist from across the globe to the local community through programming, partnerships, and post-show talks with an astonishing 80% retention rate.


Steve Bloom, CEO of the Portland Japanese Garden, sees change in terms of growth. This makes sense in the context of his leadership role in the recent expansion of what is considered the most authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan, which is currently overseen by Curator Sadafumi Uchiyama, a third generation gardener from Japan. Bloom speaks about it as a “living classroom,” a space for teaching about Japanese art, culture, and design. “In a broader context, it’s a relevant conversation for today,” says Bloom, noting that the garden is an example of attempts to foster better understanding of Japanese culture post-World War II. Especially in light of the national immigration controversy, Bloom notes, “We don’t need things that keep us apart; we need things that draw us closer together and help us understand each other better. And that’s really what the garden is all about.”

Roya Amirsoleymani
Director of Community Engagement, PORTLAND

Roya Amirsoleymani seems to do the work of three humans. As Director of Community Engagement at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, she helps to manage the international Time-Based Arts Festival, among many other initiatives that shape the arts landscape. She also teaches at Portland State University’s School of Art and Social Practice and does grassroots organizing with Arts Workers for Equity (AWE). Her various roles are all undergirded with aspirations relating to justice. “For me, it really has a lot to do with systemic or systems change,” says Amirsoleymani. “I see all of the ways in which the art world is problematic and replicates some of the very same problems that exist in the real world, so to speak. Still, at the end of the day, I wouldn’t be doing what I do if I didn’t believe in the power of art.”