Portland’s Arts Council Dumps Leader After Staff Complaints, Amid Funding Fight

Carol Tatch, executive director of the Regional Arts and Culture Council, has been let go.

Carol Tatch, executive director of the greater Portland tri-county Regional Arts and Culture Council, has been fired, The Oregonian reported Saturday. The newspaper’s Shane Dixon Kavanaugh wrote that Tatch’s last day at the private nonprofit council was Wednesday, and that Interim Board Chair Debby Garman had confirmed the separation. Tatch’s name has been removed from the RACC website‘s list of staff and board members, and no interim executive director is listed.

Tatch’s ouster comes amid an acrimonious battle between RACC, which has been the major funding organization for arts organizations in Portland and the tri-county area since the 1990s, and the City of Portland, which provides the lion’s share of RACC’s budget. Last fiscal year Portland paid $7.4 million of RACC’s $10.6 million budget. The majority of the agency’s grant money in turn goes to Portland-based artists and arts organizations.

For many months the city has said that RACC had not provided necessary financial statements despite repeated requests, a charge that Tatch disputed. Portland has been building up its own City Arts Program, led by Jeff Hawthorne, who had worked for RACC for many years. In July, Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan, who is in charge of the city’s arts programs, notified RACC that the city will stop funding RACC at the end of its current contract in summer 2024. And in early October the RACC board placed Tatch on paid leave and began an investigation, citing staff concerns that had been brought to the board.

Those concerns have never been made public. On Oct. 3 The Oregonian’s Kavanaugh reported that Garman had confirmed Tatch’s leave of absence, quoting her as saying, “This step is taken out of an abundance of caution to continue to demonstrate RACC’s integrity in transparently overseeing taxpayer dollars provided by the City of Portland, Metro, and Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties. Since this is an internal personnel matter, and the board respects Ms. Tatch’s privacy, we cannot share further information at this time.”

Tatch’s firing only adds to the impression of an agency in disarray, through its own fault or the city’s or a combination of the two: It’s tough to put a finger on what exactly has happened and how things stand. The entire process has been shrouded in secrecy, mystifying and frustrating many people in both arts and political circles. No reason has been given publicly for Tatch’s ouster, and Kavanaugh reports that Garman, RACC’s interim board director, denied that Tatch was fired, though she confirmed that she is no longer on staff. But Kavanaugh also wrote that a string of emails obtained by The Oregonian confirms that the board did, indeed, vote to oust Tatch, and informed her of its decision on Oct. 27.

The entire saga has frustrated many artists and arts organizations in Portland and the tri-county area who have been used to dealing with RACC and wonder what will happen if the agency goes out of business. Many argue that a regional approach to arts funding only makes sense in a metropolitan area in which companies based in Portland might also perform in the suburbs, and artists working with Portland companies might live outside the city but within the tri-county borders.

In the meantime, the city’s own plans remain unclear, although it’s begun a campaign to lay its thinking out. Commissioner Ryan has set up a series of free community “Art Talks” to “explore the dynamic arts landscape in Portland” with members of the City Arts Program and to hear people’s questions and suggestions.

The first of four meetings was Oct. 17 at Mount Scott Community Center. The remaining three are coming up soon:

  • Tuesday, Nov. 7, 6-7:30 p.m.:  East Portland Community Center.
  • Thursday, Nov. 9, 6-7:30 p.m.: Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center.
  • Thursday, Nov. 16, 6-7:30 p.m.: Multnomah Arts Center.

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