Talking Arts: Q&A With Decemberists-Loving, Pro-Arts Portland Mayor Sam Adams
It's a skit from the new IFC sketch comedy show "Portlandia."The mayor of Portland, Ore., portrayed by Kyle McLachlan, commissions the show's two actors, Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney) and Fred Armisen (of "Saturday Night Live" fame) to write a theme song for the city. Portland stereotypes abound: The mayor bikes in. He bounces on an ab ball. He disses Seattle and gives the musicians a dream catcher for inspiration. And he constantly calls for his assistant, played by Portland's actual mayor, Sam Adams.
Adams, who spent 11 years as chief of staff for former Portland mayor Vera Katz and four years on the city council, was elected mayor in 2008. While he's a bit more grounded than the fictional mayor on "Portlandia," he's got plenty of hipster cred: He kicked off his campaign at indie music venue the Wonder Ballroom; he hosts a series of rock concerts-featuring acts like Point Juncture Washington and Y La Bamba-at City Hall; and he even did a guest-DJ set at Portland's Jackpot Records for Record Store Day. He's probably the only mayor in the country who gets tweets like the following: "@MayorSamAdams: Do you like the band The Smiths? Also there is a pothole on Rhine and Milwaukie."
But Adams' support of the local music scene (and the local arts community as a whole) goes far beyond fandom and lip service. He has worked with the Regional Arts and Culture Council to reach out to local musicians. Although the organization has been giving out grants since 1995, the number of musicians submitting applications has gone up in recent years. Adams has also been a key supporter of the Right Brain Initiative, which provides arts and music education in local public schools, and last fall, the Kennedy Center named the Portland region as its third partner in its Any Given Child arts education initiative.
On a smaller scale, the city of Portland also uses local artists to provide its "on hold" music and offers $5 tickets to select musical performances for low- and no-income residents. In his Creative Action Plan for the Portland Metropolitan Region, Adams said his primary goal in this area is to create a dedicated $15 million-$20 million annual public fund for arts, culture and arts education in the Portland region.
Of course, Portland isn't the only city -- New York and Austin can boast strong arts grant -- making foundations-with a top-notch arts scene that provides government funding for musicians. And it doesn't hold a candle to many other countries -- like Canada and Sweden -- where local governments go so far as to underwrite tours.
But Adams' passion for music, along with his ability to connect with bands, sets him apart. He's also not the first Portland mayor to champion local music-in the mid-'80s, former mayor Bud Clark, a bar owner (who biked to work), hosted the Mayor's Ball, an annual charity event featuring local rock bands. Portland's music scene has always been vibrant, producing such acts as Greg Sage, Elliott Smith, Everclear and the Dandy Warhols, as well as labels like Kill Rock Stars.
Billboard spoke to Adams about his support for chart-topping Portland act the Decemberists, his reasons for spending on the arts when the city faces high unemployment and his favorite local band of all time.
The Decemberists, whose album "The King Is Dead" debuted at No. 1 on the Feb. 5 Billboard 200 [it's No. 10 this week], are playing a message from you before all of their shows, right?
Yeah, Colin [Meloy, the Decemberists' frontman] asked me to record the message that announces them taking the stage. It was a great honor. [The message features Adams, surrounded by sounds of nature, urging fans to relax while waiting for the band to take the stage.]
How did your role in "Portlandia" come about?
They first asked me in the pilot phase, before IFC had actually picked it up, and I was thrilled to do it. I got to play the assistant to the mayor, which I did in real life for 11 years, so I didn't need to do much acting.
Portland has a long tradition of mayors who have supported the arts. How do you fit into that?
One of the key attributes making Portland what it is, is arts and culture. I love live music, so I'm especially proud when our local groups do well. Portland has a great arts and culture DIY vibe. Seattle has the grunge sound. Portland's is very eclectic. I don't think you could say there's a Portland sound. We've got all this great, independent-minded music.
How have you grown the resources for the local music scene?
Every chance I get, I try to increase money for arts and culture, through the Regional Arts and Culture Council, who in turn support great nonprofits like the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls. Arts education is way behind as a nation, and we're suffering here as well. I recently was in Benson High School, and we were having a meeting on education in the former band room that used to have musical instruments on the bare cupboards that surrounded us. We've got a local company, Rumblefish, working with us [on Listen Local] to put local music on the city's on-hold system. We've got the PDX Pop Now summertime City Hall concert series. When I'm out and about, we're always promoting local bands, whether it's Storm Large, Pink Martini, Yacht or Shaky Hands. Portland has an amazingly rich music scene.
In addition to the art and music, Portland also has high unemployment [10.7% in November 2010, according to the Portland Business Journal] and teacher layoffs. In the face of this issue, how do you justify spending money on the arts?
If you want to live in a one-dimensional city, I respect anyone's right to do so. I don't. I want to live in a city that has many dimensions to it . . . the more arts education we offer, the lower our dropout rate will be. The more arts and culture we have in the city, the more innovative we'll be in all other endeavors. It can't be an innovative city and be bereft of arts and culture, or have a weak arts and culture scene. My goal is to allow for more full-time, living-wage arts and culture jobs.
I was in a meeting the other day where this exact thing came up. I was meeting with area legislators, because we are trying to get the film and video tax credit renewed, and this particular newly elected legislator talked about how rural parts of the state don't benefit from these fancy film and video jobs. I just reiterated the facts that most of the jobs in arts and culture are accessible; they are not the on-air talents. Behind every successful video, film, every successful music, entertainment offering are multiples of jobs.
I think Portlanders for the most part get it, and our polling shows that Portlanders would be willing to spend more money to promote arts and culture. They want artists to be for-profit and actually profitable. They support their local nonprofit institutions. We have... some of the highest arts and culture attendance of any city per capita in the United States. Arts and culture has always been a key attribute of what Portland is all about; it's in our DNA. Beyond that, I want Portland to be successful. I want Portland to offer great quality of life and also a great place to do business. Arts and culture is a key part of that.
Do you hear from Portland-based corporations like Nike and Intel that the city's art and culture scene helps attract top-tier talent to the city?
One of the reasons we have the kind of corporate support and foundation support for our arts and culture community is because it helps us to recruit and retain some of the best talent in the world. The best of the best talent can work, more than ever, wherever they want.
Good schools are absolutely key, arts and culture offerings are absolutely key when I'm out pitching Portland as a place for businesses to locate. It's a reason we have businesses that stay here. Not only is it a key industry for us, but one of our most visible exports is arts and culture-as is evidenced by "Portlandia" and the Decemberists. Not only is it an industry in its own right... but it supports our other industries.
What are your legislative priorities for the arts and music in 2011?
I'd like to expand the film and video credit. If you go on our website, the write-up for last year's arts and culture just shows you how many jobs [there are]. It's a clean industry, and an industry that benefits not only the city but the entire state and region, because they rarely just have one location in the city of Portland.
The state is facing some massive cuts -- they've raided the arts and culture budget before, and I want to protect that. Smaller things that are very important for the music scene is to continue to protect all-age access to venues that have alcohol, but offer arts and culture as well, so you can have separated crowds. There have been attempts to close that down altogether, even though we have not had significant problems with that, with the way we've done it.
Locally, the Creative Advocacy Network, which I helped found, is moving forward on looking at a dedicated local arts- and culture-funding revenue stream. That work goes forward in this next year on a regional and local basis. We have an economic development strategy where we promote exports in industries where we have competitive advantage. In the art for money category, software, digital development, athletic, outdoor, and design is another targeted industry. In the next year we'll be taking those strategies on the road.
I want to continue to support artists' efforts to have national and global audiences, to have national and global customers, to provide more economic security for more artists to be working full-time at arts and culture.
What's your favorite Portland band right now -- and favorite Portland group of all time?
That is a question that always gets me into trouble. I'm absolutely infatuated right now with the new Decemberists album. Of all time? Well, I grew up when Nu Shooz were very popular, and they're still here; they're still around, they're still playing, and they're great. I'm not going to say my favorite, but my longest has definitely been Nu Shooz.