Storyteller-in-Chief: Sculpting the city

The author (right) with sculptor Doug Jeck at PNCA (1997)

A Portland developer argues the city should hire a “Chief Creative Officer” as a way of incorporating art, and artists, into public policy decisions.

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Many people think of Dan Wieden or Phil Knight as pioneers of Portland’s creative class, but I’d argue that artists have had just as strong an impact on the city’s character. Michele Russo, an iconic Portland artist whom many credit with founding the city’s modern art scene in the 1970s, is a prime example.

As an impressionable young sculptor and Portland native, I had the fortune to meet Mr. Russo shortly after I graduated from the Pacific Northwest College of Art. And what he told me in that conversation has stuck with me ever since:

“Most history is bullshit,” he said. “It is the history of the ruling class. Art is the only history of man.” 

Beyond its brashness, the statement stunned me with its imperative: that a creative career comes with an important responsibility.Unknown 3 copy

Russo — along with other important artists like Manuel Izquierdo, Lucinda Parker, Mel Katz and Sally Haley — stepped up to that imperative in a big way, helping to shape Portland as a creative community that would become a model for many U.S. cities.

Most notably, Russo created the One Percent for Art program, a public acquisition initiative intended to provide financial and cultural support for artists. He demanded that artists be an integral, visible part of the community, and the program was one manifestation of that vision.

My plans to be a sculptor never materialized; after a climbing accident in Ecuador, I spent a long period in recovery, eventually emerging with a shifted set of priorities. But the impact of Russo’s words remained and even grew in urgency, leading me to understand that building community was one of the most powerful and truly meaningful creative acts I could undertake.

I founded Siteworks 22 years ago with the intent to make the community my studio. I like to say that Siteworks is at the intersection of art and industry — a characterization that intentionally fits the very Portland idea of “maker culture,” but also affirms the role that creatives can play in informing the city’s growth.

Siteworks has given me a platform to build — literally — on what Portland has been and can be, and it’s a way to use design and building to connect people to each other and their environment. We intentionally create structures that do more than house people; we aim to have them survive the test of time and imprint values of community. We create a legacy that serves the many, not the few.

That’s why I take the housing crisis so seriously. The presence of so many people living on the streets strains our values. The artists, teachers, chefs and local owner/operators who helped build the essential fabric of today’s Portland might be forced by rising housing costs to leave.

Why do we have a celebrated food scene? I believe it is because good food follows cheap rents. Are we ready to lose that? In a very real sense, we could end up erasing the city that Russo and his cohort helped create.

The housing crisis is a symptom of Portland’s ascension to big-city status, and I think Russo would’ve responded to it by advocating for the inclusion of creative voices in planning the city’s next era. Portland is awash with some of the world’s most creative people.

But the work of creatives is a product of its time, and when applied to planning, it stands ever after as a historical record of that era’s problems and solutions, and of the values and choices of its people. When we include them, the thousands of resulting conversations help direct our problem-solving efforts toward community building.

Today new channels are opening up for creatives inside all kinds of businesses, nonprofits and government entities.

Many of them have established a chief creative officer position, especially in organizations that realize innovation will help them succeed. Medical research groups are adding creative talent to their teams to help them look at problems in new ways, to deal with roadblocks more quickly and come up with solutions that are more meaningful.

At City Hall, it’s worth considering doing something similar by establishing a CCO position that would engage the local creative community.

Portland has an extraordinary opportunity to get the transition to big-city status right, and we shouldn’t waste it on entrenched bureaucratic thinking and typical investment strategies.

While the city welcomes an unprecedented in-migration, we risk suffering the fates of San Francisco and Seattle, where vibrant and diverse identities are hanging on for dear life in the face of typical anywhere-America safe investment.

We know that whatever the city plans today will be part of the market in two to three years. Like Russo was in the 1970s, I’d like to be part of an important conversation today that digs deep to answer the question of how we build a greater Portland on a human, not corporate, scale. I would like to advocate for the creative community that expanded this very Portland identity worldwide. 

Jean-Pierre Veillet is the founder of Siteworks Design|Build.

*A version of this article appears in the September issue of Oregon Business magazine.