There are few people who have had as big an influence on Portland's art community as Eloise Damrosch, the current executive director of the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC).
But the art warrior is saying her goodbyes by the end of June, as she defines the next chapter of her life in retirement.
She spent 13 years as executive director of RACC. The nonprofit receives funding from a variety of public and private agencies, and runs a number of programs and supports local artists through grants. Last year, it awarded grants to 129 organizations and 136 artists.
Damrosch, the face of public art in the city, has spent long days over the last couple decades fighting tirelessly so that all people can have access to art.
She was the proponent behind the Right Brain Initiative, a program that is a partnership of schools, local government, private donors and the city's cultural community to integrate arts education into curriculum. By this fall, the program will be in 73 schools, according to Damrosch.
Before her art activism in Portland, she grew up in New York City, spending time in South America for the Peace Corps and then lived in central Oregon for 15 years.
Since landing here, Damrosch also has shaken the arts scene on a political level, increasing the percent-for-art ordinances and championing the city's arts tax, which funds school teachers and art-focused nonprofit organizations in Portland.
The organization has tagged Jeff Hawthorne as the interim executive director once Damrosch sees her way out, and then RACC will engage in a nationwide search for the right candidate — who she is hopeful will be strong in equity and diversity outreach so they can better bring art to the city's underserved.
Damrosch sat down with the Tribune in her office in the RACC suite on Northwest Park Avenue to get some insight into her mind, reflections on her time and plans going forward:
Tribune: Can you tell me about yourself? Where did you grow up?
Damrosch: I grew up in New York City. I moved there when I was about 2 and I lived right in Manhattan. It was a wonderful time to live in New York because it wasn't quite as, well I mean New York sort of goes through its ups and downs. It was a pretty bad time when I got out of graduate school in New York; now, although I think it's a wonderful place but it's gotten so crazy expensive. It's fun to visit. So I've lived in Oregon since 1972.
In kindergarten through 12th grade I was just at a wonderful private school in New York. When my parents moved there, they had three daughters and we looked at the public school in our neighborhood and there were broken windows and it was looking pretty run down, so my parents scraped it together to send us to a fabulous private school. Then I went to college outside of Boston, and I didn't know what I'd study. I took an art history class my freshman year and within six weeks I was totally smitten, and I've worked in the arts truly ever since then.
And then I went to graduate school back in New York and got my master's at Columbia University. Then I taught for a year in Charlottesville, Virginia, at University of Virginia, when my brand new husband then, and former now, finished up law school. That was during Vietnam times, so after he finished and he was only 25 and draftable, we joined the Peace Corps and went to South America. We were there for three years without coming back to United States once. We were in Chile. I managed to do some art teaching. Then we moved to Oregon. My husband took the Oregon bar before we went to South America; we landed in central Oregon and stayed there for 15 years even though we only planned for a summer. We had a daughter and she needed better schools. That's when we moved to Portland in 1987.
The week after I moved to Portland, I interviewed for a job at Oregon Convention Center that was just being designed, and I started the next day. That was the beginning to my journey in public art and ultimately running RACC. So when the Car Talk guys say there's no future for anybody with a degree in art history I can prove them wrong. I've always been tempted to call in that show, but somebody else did it. I was cheering her on.
Tribune: What are your thoughts on Portland's art scene — how has it grown and changed?
Damrosch: I would say since '87, it's gone from a very promising arts community to a flourishing one. The major arts organizations were all in place, the big ones, the art museum and the symphony. Portland Center Stage had not quite evolved to that yet. But anyway, what has really changed in my mind is both the influx of creative people who have moved here for a variety of reasons, bringing a richness of diversity and culture, and it's not just the young creative hipsters, it's the immigrants and new Portlanders who've brought a wealth of culture to what had previously been a pretty white environment — it was in '87, but it's radically different now. Which is what I find is a very positive thing.
On the flipside, what's been a challenge for us, and I think a lot of funders here, is that we are in the process of trying to become more equitable in the distribution of public and private funds, so that everyone here has the same access to arts and culture opportunities that were previously a much more limited pie. So ... we have to be very careful right now to not upset the balance of investments in arts and culture and in so many other serious problems, like homelessness.
Right now that's very big one, and equally big is the creeping unaffordability of working and living here. When I talk to friends from Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose, all those cities, they say "You've got to do something about it," because if that happens you can't go back. I'm delighted there's realization in City Hall, in the county, where people are looking at this seriously because it's true, we've seen artists leaving, seen artists moving to the fringes of the region, and that's going to drain the life blood out of the community.
Tribune: Tell me about the success of the Right Brain Initiative.
Damrosch: That's a big shining star. In fact we just found out that we've broken the next 10 mark of number of schools, we're going to be in 73 next fall. That program just constantly is improving on itself, gaining belief and advocates and recognition nationally, and really the most important thing is it's making a difference for kids. It's making a difference to teachers who are learning to teach in creative, more engaging ways. Schools that do it, you can feel it in the air when you walk in there. I hope it can continue.
Tribune:: What are your retirement plans?
Damrosch: Well, I'm deliberately trying not to do much of anything right now. I said to myself last September, because we were working so hard last summer, that I didn't feel like summer even happened. I vowed to myself that I wasn't ever going to let that happen again. So I knew somewhere between January and July 1 I was going to retire ... we wait so long for a beautiful summer and summers in Portland are so amazing and I just want to spend this summer being outside as much as possible and living without a schedule. I'll figure out what I want to do. My list is growing. I don't have any big travel plans, and certainly no big work plans. And I have a 1-year-old granddaughter who lives in Eugene. I don't want to have to work her into my meeting schedule, which is what I'm doing now.