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The City of Portland, Oregon

Nick Fish (In Memoriam)

City of Portland Commissioner

phone: 503-823-3589


1221 S.W. 4th, Room 240, Portland, OR 97204

The Soul of a City: The Arts in Portland

Commissioner Nick Fish in the December edition of Art Notes, November 29, 2016. 

December 2, 2016

Imagine Portland with no art. No paintings or murals. No Lee Kelly sculptures. No Grimm or Wild or Live Wire. No Jefferson Dancers, symphony and opera in our parks, or production of Our Town. No Mel Brown Quartet. Would you still choose to live here?

Fortunately, art, culture and heritage are woven into the fabric of our city. And this year, we have much to celebrate: a proud history of public and private support for the arts; strong leadership from organizations like the Regional Arts & Culture Council and the Oregon Arts Commission; and an Arts Tax delivering on its promise of enriching the lives of 36,000 elementary school children in six local school districts.

And these issues rose to the top during the Mayor’s race this spring. At a forum on arts and culture, the candidates displayed an impressive depth of knowledge. In the end, Portland elected a new Mayor, Ted Wheeler, deeply committed to arts and culture.

As 2016 comes to a close, we also face many challenges.

Portland is fast becoming unaffordable for artists and non-profit arts organizations. We continue to struggle with translating equity into action. And will a new Republican administration in Washington continue to support public funding for the arts?

Here is my (highly selective) report on the State of the Arts.


In April, RACC presented its annual “State of the Arts” to the Council. The sounds of Portland Opera and youth singers from the BRAVO Orchestra and Rosa Parks Elementary reverberated through our chambers.

The City of Portland continued to prioritize funding for the arts. This year we contributed $7 million to RACC, about 70% of its $9.7 million budget. If we are to grow the pie, however, our partners also need to step up to support this regional effort.

Under Mike Golub’s leadership, Work for Art, a workplace giving campaign, hit $912,000 this year. I signed up, and not only enjoy the convenience of automatic deductions from my paycheck, but also the added benefit of the Arts Card!

And RACC is fully engaged in the important work of expanding access to the arts and building equity into all of its grant-making. Small community-based arts organizations deserve our support.

The Oregon Cultural Trust

Our vision for the arts extends beyond the region. I once served as vice-chair of the Oregon Cultural Trust. The Trust allows individuals and businesses to support art, culture and heritage statewide, for which they get a tax credit on their state tax return.

2015 saw record fundraising—$4,560,000.  The Willamette Week Give Guide generated over $350,000 in donations. As a result, the Trust awarded nearly $3 million dollars to 149 cultural non-profits. Bravo!

Federal Funding for the Arts

This past year, America celebrated the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). At the bill signing ceremony on September 29, 1965, President Johnson declared that “[a]rt is the nation’s most precious heritage…it is in our works of art that we reveal ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a Nation.”

Stirring words. But today, federal funding for the arts and the humanities is very modest, and vulnerable to more cuts. Will President-elect Trump defend the NEA, or will we see a repeat of 1995, when its budget and staff were slashed by fifty-percent?

The Arts Tax Delivers for Kids

The voter-approved Arts Tax had a good year. Collections were up significantly, and revenues will exceed $10 million dollars.

That means 36,000 elementary school kids benefited from arts instruction in school. We know from the Right Brain Initiative that arts education improves student achievement across the board.

The Arts Tax has prevailed in three legal challenges. Now the Oregon Supreme Court has agreed to hear a final appeal. The hearing, which is open to the public, will be held at Lewis and Clark College on March 6th, 2017. We continue to believe the tax is constitutional.

Stan Penkin completed four years of service as the chair of the Arts Oversight Committee. He has been a tireless and passionate supporter of the arts, and we owe him a big debt of gratitude.

The Housing Crisis and Artists

Last year, the Portland City Council declared a housing “state of emergency.” With rising rents and land values, Portland is quickly becoming unaffordable for older adults on fixed incomes, full-time minimum wage workers, students and working class families.

Artists and arts organizations are also feeling the squeeze. The eviction of artists from studio spaces in Towne Storage was the proverbial canary in the tunnel. If we do not act quickly, we risk losing something that can’t be replaced.

I believe it is time to convene a panel of stakeholders, including artists, public-spirited developers, the Portland Development Commission, and RACC to identify solutions. We should look at best practices in other cities, including incentives, zoning changes, and cutting red tape.

My Personal Highlight Reel

This year, arts and culture once again enriched my life. Here are some of my personal highlights:

  • A student art exhibit at City Hall, featuring fourth graders from Boise-Eliot/Humboldt School. They based their inspiring work on a tour of the Bull Run Watershed.
  • A screening of short films featuring survivors of the Vanport flood, produced by Vanport Mosaic.
  • The Portland 2016 Biennial presented by Disjecta.

I had a cameo role in Artist Repertory Theater’s production of The Skin of our Teeth; was interviewed by Jessica Rand of KMHD Jazz radio about my first encounter with Oscar Peterson, and by OPB’s State of Wonder about the shortage of affordable artist studios; and participated in a City Club forum on the arts at Milagro Theatre.

Sculptor Lee Kelly was named an “Honored Citizen” by the Architecture Foundation of Oregon. And my friends Walter Jaffe and Paul King at White Bird presented me with their “Angel Award,” a singular honor.

Finally, I visited Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts in Pendleton, Oregon. The collection of prints, made by prominent Native-American artists, is breathtaking. I met one of the founders, James Lavadour, whose paintings and prints celebrate the natural landscape of Eastern Oregon.

Looking Forward

In 2017, we must continue to build on our success. Complacency is not an option.

Here are some of my priorities for the next year:

  • Develop a plan to help keep Portland affordable for artists and arts organizations.
  • Engage our regional partners in supporting the important work of RACC.
  • Address the systemic inequality in the funding of minority and community-based arts organizations.
  • Protect Veterans Memorial Coliseum, a civic treasure, for future generations.

A Holiday Toast

For the past three years, I have had the honor of serving as the Arts Commissioner for the City of Portland—following in the footsteps of past champions like Sam Adams and Mike Lindberg.

I have learned that our success depends on vision, leadership and strong partnerships.

Thanks to our dedicated leadership team: RACC Executive Director Eloise Damrosch, Director of Community Engagement Jeff Hawthorne and Board Chair Mike Golub; OCT Chair Carole Morse and Executive Director Brian Rogers; Julie Vigeland and Libby Tower at the Oregon Arts Commission; Tim Williams at Oregon Film; Stan Penkin, Chair of the Arts Oversight Committee; the Cultural Advocacy Coalition; our city’s Creative Laureate, photographer Julie Keefe; and all the volunteer board and commission members.

Thanks to the artists, teachers, and nonprofit arts and culture organizations that call Portland home.

Thanks to the cast and crew of Grimm—for filming over 100 episodes in Portland, and for giving back to the community through the Grimm Gala.

Thanks to Jimmy Maks, for twenty years of featuring the city’s best jazz players.

Finally, thanks to my Council colleagues, our partners throughout the state, and the taxpayers who share our vision.

Portland is a special place because of your collective good work.

The Weekly Catch

Defending death with dignity: Barbara Roberts, Barbara Coombs Lee reflect on decades-long effort

Joanne Zuhl in Street Roots News


Small Business Saturday

Small Business Saturday a big deal for Portland shops damaged in blast

Maggie Vespa in KGW News


Small Business Saturday stands out in holiday rush: Editorial Agenda 2015

The Oregonian Editorial Board


Black Friday is out, Small Business Saturday is in

KOIN 6 News Staff


Small Business Saturday a Big Deal for Portland Shops Damaged in Blast

Rosie Nguyen in KEZI News


5 things to know for Monday, and why no one cared about big-time college football in Oregon this year

Andy Giegerich in the Portland Business Journal


Rep. Bonamici Highlights Local Businesses on Small Business Saturday

Representative Suzanne Bonamici’s Media Center


Terminal 1

City Receives Higher Bids for Terminal 1 the Second Time Around

Jim Redden in the Portland Tribune


Lithia Motors Bids on Terminal 1 and Asks for the Iconic Portlandia Statue

Amelia Templeton, OPB News


Seven Companies Want to Buy Terminal 1—And One Wants Portlandia, Too

Dirk VanderHart in the Portland Mercury


In pricey bids to the city, developers see big promise from the Terminal 1 site

Jon Bell in the Portland Business Journal 


Vision Zero

Portland Adopts Plan To End Traffic Fatalities

Amelia Templeton from OPB News


Council approves Vision Zero Action Plan

Jim Redden in the Portland Tribune


Ending traffic deaths: PBOT lays out plan for Vision Zero, wants to tackle DUIs

Reed Andrews in KATU News


With passage of action plan, Portland now has roadmap to zero traffic deaths

Jonathan Maus in Bike Portland


In Other News


OBM Team in the Oregon Business


Oregonians Give kicks off charitable giving season: They are taking care of our community'



Ideas for #GivingTuesday: Donate to Oregon nonprofits

Janet Eastman in The Oregonian


Officials open new downtown homeless shelter

Nick Budnick in the Portland Tribune

Portland Art Museum and the “Five Buddhas" - A Korean Icon’s Journey through Time

December 5, 2016

On Friday, Nick had the honor of speaking at the Portland Art Museum’s repatriation event for the Five Buddhas, a beautiful South Korean painting with an unusual history.

The Five Buddhas was originally displayed in Songgwangsa, a famous Zen temple in the mountains of southwestern Korea. In the early 1970’s, Robert Mattielli, an Oregonian and avid art collector who lived in Seoul for many years, purchased the painting from a small shop for ten dollars. It had been tossed in a corner and heavily damaged.

The Mattiellis repaired the painting and donated it to the Portland Art Museum in 2014. Around the same time, visiting scholars from the Korean National Research Institute for Cultural Heritage had an opportunity to examine the painting. Several months later, the Institute for Cultural Heritage determined that the Five Buddhas had been stolen from Songgwangsa a short time before Robert Mattielli purchased it.

Upon learning of the painting’s history, the Mattiellis and the Portland Art Museum immediately announced their intention to return the Five Buddhas to the temple.

Working with the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration, the museum mounted a special exhibition and organized a symposium that told the history of the painting. That exhibit was on display for several months before the painting was officially deeded back to the Korean people this weekend.

As Portland’s Arts Commissioner, Nick was honored to celebrate this repatriation, congratulate all the parties, welcome dignitaries from South Korea, and witness the deed-signing ceremony.

For more information about the Five Buddhas, visit the Portland Art Museum’s website.

Photo courtesy of the Portland Art Museum

25th Anniversary of the Steve Lowenstein Trust Award

December 7, 2016

This morning, Nick was proud to recognize the Portland Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority as the 25th Annual Steve Lowenstein Award recipient.

Leigh Bohannon, Aasha Benton, and Dr. Keisha Thomas were on hand to receive the award. Each spoke eloquently about their community service work with the Sorority.

The Lowenstein Trust Award honors attorney, author, and civil rights activist Steve Lowenstein. For 25 years, the Trust has recognized Portlanders working to improve the lives of low-income people in our community.

This year’s award recognizes the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority for its inspiring work with young African-American women in Portland. The Sorority focuses on economic and personal development, physical and mental healthcare, and political awareness.

Trustee and outgoing Board Chair Michelle Harper also read a letter at Council, naming Nick an “Honorary Trustee.” He is honored and humbled by this recognition from a dear friend.

Congratulations to the honorees and to Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Portland Alumnae Chapter. Thank you for making a big difference in our community!

The Weekly Catch

25th Annual Steve Lowenstein Trust Award

Commissioner Nick Fish Blog


Green Street Stewards: Keeping the keepers of clean storm runoff shipshape

Stuart Tomlinson in KATU News


Portland heeds EPA's guidance to reduce lead in water

Brad Schmidt in The Oregonian


City shuts off Benson Bubblers during cold spell

Chris Holmstrom in KOIN 6 News


Shelters prepare to open as cold moves in

Jennifer Dowling in the Portland Tribune


Portland City Council OKs plan that calls for more duplexes, triplexes

Elliot Njus in The Oregonian


OP-ED: Residential infill is surprisingly sustainable

Vic Remmers in the Daily Journal of Commerce


Council to consider rezoning for higher density housing

Jim Redden in the Portland Tribune


Portland mayor says federal judge overseeing police reforms has 'lost credibility' as impartial arbiter

Maxine Bernstein in The Oregonian


Steve Novick's CEO tax wins close vote, putting Portland on world map

Jessica Floum in The Oregonian


Steve Novick's Tax on Egregious CEO Pay Passed, and National Media's All Over It

Dirk VanderHart in the Portland Mercury


Portland Passes Tax On Businesses To Target Income Inequality

Amelia Templeton in OPB News


Portland City Council set to revive publicly funded campaigns -- in 2019

Jessica Floum in The Oregonian


It's Official: Portland's About to Adopt a New Campaign Finance System—Without Asking Voters

Dirk VandHart in the Portland Mercury


Portland Art Museum Hires New Northwest Curator

April Baer in OPB News