One of my favorite things about summer in an arts organization is that you get a couple of precious weeks where, in between the planning and the subscription mailings, there’s a little fallow time where you can sometimes rise above the fray and say, HEY. What are other people doing right that we can steal for next year?

Lucky for me, my hometown is developing a bit of a reputation for stealworthy ideas in the arts these days. So I don’t have to look too far afield to restock my pantry with delicious artsy engagement opportunities to test drive this season.

This year’s watchwords seem to be participatory engagement- how can we reach beyond the proscenium and give people thrilling, unexpected opportunities to interact with artistic processes in a meaningful way?

More importantly, how can we structure those moments of engagement so they generate, not just warm-fuzzy feelings, but actionable results that improve the art and increase the commitment of current and future arts supporters?

Here’s three Portland-based projects that are getting it really, really right.

The Big Idea: Transform Vintage Snack Machines into Art Vending Fundraisers for Local Schools
Steal it from: WK12 (Wieden + Kennedy’s young creatives incubator) and Creative Advocacy Network (the political advocacy group trying to pass a citywide tax for art and music education and non-profit arts support)

What They Did: WK12 calls itself the experiment disguised as a school masquerading as an agency. They are kind of like the junior academy for Weiden + Kennedy, the Portland ad agency that finally supplanted its rep as “that company that invented The California Raisins” with a new rep as “that company that created the most viral commercial of all time (The Man Your Man Could Smell Like).” This project was an art show called “Insert Change Here” and it was designed as a fundraiser for arts education. It took vintage vending machines and repurposed them to sell everything from printmaking projects to tiny performances as a fundraiser for CAN. Oregon Ballet Theatre had the pleasure to donate some dancers to perform in the “Perform-o-mat” machine, a teeny tiny one audience member coin-operated theatre that also featured musicians, actors and other performance artists. The Draw Bot (pictured above) had a real live human inside of it that would draw whatever was requested in the ticket inserted with the $5. Other vending machines had teeny tiny works of art vended in lieu of candy and chips.

What’s stealable: This is the most entertaining and effective mechanism I have ever seen to separate potential arts donors from their charitable cash one teeny tiny arts experience at a time. And, frankly, it sounds like it was probably one of the more entertaining art shows to happen in Portland in a while- so interactive! so engaging! so cross-disciplinary! I have a hard time imagining any decent-sized arts community that couldn’t have just as much fun and be just as effective with a few fancied up vending machines and some donated time from the local performing and visual arts community. Your town has one of those inevitable parking lots where vending machines go to die, right? Get on it.

The Big Idea: Give a Bank a Blues Break
Steal it from: Portland Center Stage and Umpqua Bank

What They Did: Umpqua Bank wasn’t interested in just another corporate sponsorship. When they decided to become Lead Corporate Champions for Portland Center Stage, they insisted on a partnership that would go beyond private receptions and logos on the postcard. One of the outcomes: During a recent performance run of Ain’t Nothin but the Blues, Umpqua Bank invited Chic Street Man, one of the blues artists from the show, into their bank headquarters to lead a morning “motivational moment.” Chic taught an object lesson in syncopated rhythm, asking different groups of bank staff members to repeat simple phrases and wander around the room. The group discovered that when their individual simple components layered over each other, the result was a complicated rhythms more beautiful and satisfying than the sum of its parts. A tidy team building lesson… and a transformative interaction with art all at the same time. Read all about the visit here.

What’s Stealable: First of all, how cool is it that a bank has a daily motivational moment? Especially one that doesn’t end up feeling like the awkward real-life incarnation of those posters in Barney’s office on How I Met Your Mother? In all seriousness, though, the integration of meaningful corporate support for an arts organization with truly integrated arts experiences in a work environment seems like a classic win-win… and it also seems scalable for all different sizes of arts/business partnerships. How can you take a simple element of your artistic process and re-purpose it as something that can motivate, engage, and get people in your town’s corporate community moving?

The Big Idea: Sometimes Artists Need to Get Locked in the Woods Together
Steal it from: Portland-based Broadway Producers Brisa Trinchero and Corey Brunish

What They Did: This idea seems particularly apropos to some of @walt828’s ongoing rants/advocacy about the need for greater inclusion of rural areas into the larger arts conversation. Brisa Trinchero started out working for Portland Area summer musical theater company Broadway Rose, a well-respected local company that produced fully staged productions using a suburban high school auditorium as their primary venue. Corey Brunish is a local actor and arts patron who has recently gotten involved in producing a few Broadway shows. Skip ahead a few years and, after Brisa helped Broadway Rose successfully complete a capital campaign to fund a new venue, she found herself at a national musical theatre conference sitting next to a Broadway producer while some nearby writers were lamenting the lack of space for geographically scattered collaborators to convene to work on new projects.

It just so happened her family had a vacation home near Mt. Adams. Before she knew it, she’d started the premier new musical theater incubator in the country, Running Deer Labs. There, she works with producers like Brunish to bring writing teams together with composers and mix them up with local actors and artists to yield fruitful partnerships that have headed to La Jolla, Chicago, and yes, Broadway. The secret to her success? The artists she convene love the fact that they have the peace, quiet and time to get meaningful work done outside of the glare, competition and deadlines of the major markets. Get the details about how she made that magic happen here.

What’s Stealable: If you are currently making work somewhat far afield of the major cultural centers that currently premiere major work, look around you- are you an artistic oasis/incubator waiting to happen? Is there a scenic space in your area that would give producing teams an ideal blank canvas upon which to write the next Great American Musical/Play/TV series? And if so, how could your own creative community benefit by inviting these artists into your town to dream and devise? When you live in a smaller market, it can feel like your only access to major artists is the watered down touring shows that come to your nearest big barn ampitheater. Why not invite the artists you love to make your community their creative retreat of choice? I can think of no better way to spark art that truly reflects the diversity of American experiences than to encourage more of that art making by established artists to happen outside the bubbles of the major markets. CanĀ  you imagine how much more interesting our art could be?

That’s the latest stealable inspirations happening in my neck of the woods. What’s happening in your corner of the world that’s stealworthy? Do tell.


  • July 20, 2012
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