Advocacy and arts intersect for Subashini Ganesan
Diversity of artists have always been in the arts and performance realms, said Subashini Ganesan, Creative of Laureate of Portland, but now with various social justice movements, more people have moved into the spotlight.
And, it's a great thing, said Ganesan, a person of Indian descent who grew up in Singapore.
"The work has always been done and continues to be done, whether we're seeing it or not," she said. "Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx, disability artists — everybody's been doing the work.
"But, thanks to this movement of social justice, outcry, revolution and health crisis, where it's very clear that inequities have just been imbedded, we're able to see more organizations, more funders, more venues, and we're able to elevate the voices of the people who are leading these important social change moments. ...
"It's a good time, with the education and space we're in, the social and mental states, this is a real moment where artists are culturally diverse, gender diverse, and they're getting the light shined on the diversity and richness. It's going to help our humanity ... and with my artistry, and fellow colleagues' artistry, I can help to the best of my ability."
Ganesan, 47, is the second Creative Laureate of Portland, following the path set by Julie Keefe. While it's not funded to the extent of the Oregon Poet Laureate — currently Anis Mojgani and administered by the Oregon Cultural Trust — it's an important ambassador role that Ganesan hopes to expand during her tenure.
Creative Laureate of Portland was established under then-Mayor Sam Adams in 2012 and Keefe remained in the role into Mayor Charles Hales' time in office. The late City Commissioner Nick Fish became the city's arts portfolio manager and wanted to bring in somebody new, and Ganesan assumed the role in 2018.
She was meant to pass the baton this year, but the COVID-19 pandemic, and society (including the arts) coming to a screeching halt, and it being an election year, Ganesan has stayed on for an additional year.
"I'm building the job as I go," she said. "A lot of work I've done has been about going out and speaking about what it means to be an artist and leader and provide some advocacy work for our arts community.
"I work closely with organizations, to see what an arts organization needs, but my passion has been to take care of freelance and independent artists. It is that community that gets forgotten in the ecosystem. ... We've built a robust system so we can shine the light on different artistic disciplines and passions, and the nexus between artistic life and civic life, which is important — how do we keep that front and center?"
Ganesan continues to perform as a disciple of the Bharantanatyam style of southern India, and she founded and leads New Expressive Works, which supports about 200 independent, multi-cultural artists, among other professional associations. She's been heavily involved in Beaverton's annual Ten Tiny Dances event. She's received many grants from the Regional Arts & Culture Council.
Still active as a dancer, she participated in "Pavement" last weekend, a collaboration of Risk/Reward Festival and Boom Arts in which dancers and other artists literally performed in a Central Eastside parking lot in a drive-in-inspired event for audience members in vehicles.
After the pandemic and government restrictions shut down the arts in mid-March, Ganesan teamed with former Poet Laureate Kim Stafford to immediately form PDX Artist Relief, to raise money for struggling independent and freelance artists. It was launched March 18 with $55,000 in hand; they received 650 applications in the first 2 1/2 weeks, and distributed $170,000 to 405 artists (although collective need was estimated to be $1.5 million).
It's one of the many efforts to help artists. Regional Arts & Culture Council and Oregon Cultural Trust also have stepped up with substantial funding campaigns.
"Our plan was to do something fast and in a very boot-strapped manner," Ganesan said. "What's lovely to see, through the span of two months, was RACC started a relief fund, different counties started relief funds, (as did) Literary Arts, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art and most recently Portland Art Museum.
"We're constantly thinking what's next. Larger, well-staffed organizations are stepping in and the cascading effect is happening."
Ganesan's parents migrated from South India to Singapore, where she was born, raised and educated. Her father worked as a civil servant (engineer for the water department) and her mother served as a teacher.
She learned Bharantanatyam, which originated in the Indian state of TamilNadu, at an early age. It's a style based on emotions, melody, rhythm and composite of dance and dramatic storytelling. "You understand the dance if you understand the equation of (the word's) language," she said. "There's a lot of percussive rhythms."
She added, of her spin on the dance: "I'm more thinking about contemporary universal human condition. What does it mean to be devoted as a human being? What does it mean to be lonely? With (dance piece) 'Listening to Silence,' it's about how we can listen in silence."
She moved to the United States in 1991 and attended University of Rochester in New York. Later, she worked in Washington, D.C., in public policy (emphasizing sustainability) and women's equity. Ganesan moved to Portland in 2001, because she wanted to live on the West Coast, working for another nonprofit.
Yearning to get back into dance, she established the dance school Natya Leela Academy in 2008, and then New Expressive Works in 2012. She's heavily involved in the arts, and sits on the boards of foundations.
She said she hopes to further enhance the Creative Laureate of Portland role.
"I'm a pragmatically optimistic person, and a warrior," she said. "Let's see where we go. I would love to see this position be something that is sustained. Our city does benefit from this kind of advocate and ambassador who lives both worlds."
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