It was on the closing night of Profile Theatre’s production of Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca when they received the news that their lease would not be renewed. Theater! Theatre!, the space in Portland, Ore., they’d called home for 16 years, would be reclaimed by the owners to expand their own business. They were only halfway through their season.
It was a hard pill to swallow. In the prior six months Profile had invested quite a bit in improvements to the building. Those investments were now a financial loss.
But the closing had further ramifications beyond Profile’s case. Theater! Theatre! had another stage, rented out to Theatre Vertigo, and both Profile and Vertigo subleased their stages for income to other small theatre companies, comedy groups, educators, artists, and arts organizations.
The space sat in the heart of the Belmont neighborhood of Portland, just east of downtown. It’s a close-in neighborhood full of trendy cafés, hip bars, and tree-lined streets. An ideal space for small theatre companies, in short.
This was 2013. Since then several other Portland thea-tre companies have been forced to move. Action/Adventure, which often used Theater! Theatre!, ended up renting a small commercial space, converting a garage into a black box theatre. But each year it grew harder and harder to sustain enough funding to keep the doors open. “When it came time to do necessary upgrades and repairs, we didn’t have the money or capacity to do what needed to happen,” said managing director Pat Moran. “The pressures of running a space were exacerbated by the fact that, given the current state of Portland’s real estate market, we knew it was only a matter of time until we were priced out entirely.”
This hasn’t just affected theatres. In the last few years three small dance companies—NW Dance Project, Conduit Dance, and Polaris Dance Theatre—were forced to close or relocate after losing their spaces.
While Portland used to have a reputation as a cheap city where artists can thrive, that has begun to change in recent years. MaryKay West is a local commercial real-estate agent. She’s seen these changes firsthand. In addition to the new residents Portland attracts, it also attracts new businesses.
“Companies from larger cities see the rental market here as very cheap,” West says. This influx of new businesses creates competition for space.
What arts organizations and these businesses have in common is that they are both looking for buildings with wide-open spaces. But landlords know that for-profit businesses can afford to pay a lot more than arts nonprofits.
Since 2014, commercial rent for class C buildings (older buildings with limited amenities) in Portland’s central business district has increased 18.4 percent, while space along the perimeter of the CBD has increased 19.4 percent. These are precisely the kinds of buildings that nonprofits typically look for. Meanwhile, modern class A buildings have seen rents increase 25 percent and 22.5 percent, respectively.
Inner Southeast Portland, home to a large number of clear-span buildings, has seen rents increase 50 percent in the same period. The Independent Publishing Resource Center, a literary nonprofit in that neighborhood, saw their rent rise by more than 200 percent when their lease came up for renewal.
In a rental market that is squeezing out smaller theatre companies, one of the largest has stepped in with its own solution. Artists Repertory Theatre, located in downtown Portland, takes up an entire city block. The building has two stages, rehearsal space, and administrative offices, but for years there were long periods of time where the stages were dark.
When Profile found out they were losing Theater! Theatre!, they reached out to Artists Rep’s leader, Dámaso Rodríguez, and asked for a space they could use to finish their season. An informal relationship between the two companies emerged. A few years later Jerry Tischleder arrived at Artists Rep as part of Theatre Communications Group’s Leadership U grant, and now serves as a visiting artistic associate.
“Part of my pitch was wanting to understand Artists Rep and trying to get more ensembles and companies in the building,” said Tischleder. “I was very intentional in trying to find out how these organizations were occupying the building and trying to build synergy and infrastructure between them.”
Theatres renting out space to other companies is not uncommon, but the leadership at Artists Rep realized it could also be a service, subsidizing space and resources for other arts organizations. So the decision was made to codify the burgeoning program.
“We went to our funders and donors and asked them to support us,” said Tischleder. “It went over well with a lot of people.” Funds were allocated and Tischleder was hired as the director of the newly christened Arts-Hub, which boasts 4 resident companies, an art gallery, one training program, and 6 administrative offices.
But the program extends past these companies. Individual theatre artists and other organizations may also make use of the space on per-project basis, as can as arts and community groups from outside the theatre community.
“Last year there were 602 events by 61 organizations,” said Tischleder. “Right now there’s not a week open till the end of 2018. We’re starting to do stuff on Monday and Tuesday nights, on the sets of our shows, like readings or concerts.”
For Profile, being part of ArtsHub is not just about having a space to put on shows, says artistic director Josh Hecht. “It’s the comprehensiveness of the relationship. We get to use the rehearsal hall for all four productions, have readings, teach classes, and hold events in the lobby. We use this space all year round, far beyond the productions. Those are the hidden costs to running a company that rents space production by production.”
And because Profile contracts so much work through Artists Repertory, they can produce at a level much higher than a staff of five would otherwise allow.
Contracting these services creates a little more stability for Artists Rep, says Tischleder. “This has allowed us to move some carpenters from part-time to full-time. We can provide a living wage for people who would usually be contractors.”
There are tradeoffs to being housed in another company’s space, of course. “The calendar is not our own,” Hecht conceded. “We fill in around ART. For the last two years we’ve had a show that runs into the July 4th weekend. It’s not ideal.” There’s also the problem of branding—i.e., less signage or marketing materials for the resident companies. But these problems are minor when compared to the prospect of having to buy a prohibitively expensive space and convert it into a theatre of their own.
One of the few small companies to buck the trend of losing space has been Portland Playhouse. The company formed in 2008, taking up residence in an abandoned church in NE Portland. After a few years of operation, the City Council declared that a church was not an appropriate venue for a theatre company, but the neighborhood rallied around the company, showing up at City Council meetings to petition them to stay. They were allowed to stay.
The property was recently purchased by donors supportive of the company, and while Portland Playhouse still rents the property, they signed a 10-year lease in 2014. A capital campaign is underway to renovate the space.
This stability would not have been possible without the massive support of donors. If the funds aren’t there to hold onto a building it’s not going to stay. As Hecht said, “It takes a real capital investment to dream someone to the next level.”
Another place this kind of practical dreaming is taking place: in the west suburbs of Portland. Bag&Baggage Productions, a company in the city of Hillsboro, received notice that their theatre, the Venetian, was being put up for sale. Artistic director Scott Palmer always knew this was a possibility and had been searching for a new venue. With the support of the city through a 25-year loan, the company purchased a new building in downtown Hillsboro and started a capital campaign to refurbish the space.
Up in Washington State, Seattle has taken steps at the city level to address the issue of artists being priced out of the city. The Seattle Office of Arts & Culture began cataloguing arts and culture spaces, as this kind of inventory is an important first step for any city’s efforts to preserve arts organizations. The office has created an interactive map of the city online called SpaceLab NW, where users can see all the arts spaces in the city and see the data they have collected. The office also created a service called Spacefinder Seattle, which connects artists with venues that are available for rent.
West, the Portland real estate agent, thinks that arts districts or hubs might be key. The idea is to create a critical mass of small arts groups who would otherwise struggle to find one-off solutions on their own. “The idea is to bring enough small groups together to achieve economies of scale,” said West. “Ideally different but complementary ones: Pair performing arts with physical arts to include a retail component. You could have a bigger building partly occupied by tenets paying higher rents. It would create a buzz around the organizations.”
She conceded that such a project would need federal, state, city, or private support. But the need for big-think solutions is urgent, she said. “If we lose the arts in the central city, we lose a big piece of what makes Portland unique. And once we lose it, it won’t come back.”
This lack of affordable space for arts organizations runs in tandem with Portland’s larger housing crisis. Rising rents and housing costs are pushing more and more people to the edges of the city, including artists. City Hall has pushed hard to address the housing issue over the last few years, and while trying to figure out how to keep Portlanders housed, some officials have been working on keeping the arts in the city as well.
Jamie Dunphy is a senior policy director for Portland city commissioner Nick Fish. “Portland has long been defined by our creative economy,” Dunphy said. “The impact of our arts scene provides not only the cultural identity that we’re so proud of, but it is the backbone of our broader economy. The arts provide hundreds of jobs and literally billions of dollars into our local economy every year.”
Fish’s office has been working on a piece of legislation for two years, cosponsored by commissioner Chloe Eudaly and Mayor Ted Wheeler, with the goal of spurring new creative spaces and preserving existing ones. At press time the official announcement was expected some time in January.
“We have been working with artists, nonprofits, community groups, developers, realtors, neighborhood coalitions, small building owners, local businesses, and our partners in other cities to find a Portland-sized approach to this problem, and I think we’ve landed on a number of recommendations that will have a real impact,” said Dunphy.
For smaller theatre companies and the people who support them, the good news can’t come soon enough.