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A Conversation With

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Does the United States Need a Creative Laureate?

• January 23, 2014 • 6:00 AM

(Photo: Christopher.Michel/Flickr)

Noah Davis talks to Julie Keefe, Portland’s creative laureate, about what that title means and why the U.S. could use one.

At the end of 2012, Julie Keefe was a self-described community artist whose latest exhibit was in her chiropractor’s office when outgoing Portland, Oregon, mayor Sam Adams named her the city’s creative laureate. The two-year position came with a small $5,000 stipend, an open charter, and the responsibility to advocate for the arts however she saw fit. Fast Company recognized Keefe, who gained a certain fame in the art world for her Hello Neighbor project, as one of the most creative people in the world in 2013, and she has spent the past year figuring out the position. We talked to her about an onslaught of email, the failing of creativity in the United States, and why America needs a creative laureate.

It’s been about a year since you started in the position. What has surprised you about it?

That’s a good question. I’ve never thought about what surprised me, I think because the whole idea of having a creative laureate was a surprise for everyone. A very good friend of mine laughed. And other people have completely embraced it and gotten very excited about the fact that Portland would have such a position. And rightly so. People don’t know what it is.

One of the first things I did was meet with the executive director and her assistant. I asked them what they were thinking when they put this position together. They said that they were just doing what the mayor asked them to do, and then they asked me what it should be. I thought that was really interesting.

“Go to China and you’ll see why we need to embrace creativity. They are bringing it back like gangbusters over there.”

Everyone just kind of looked at me and said, “What are you going to do?” As a creative person, I have a million ideas, but I just wasn’t exactly sure what everyone else wanted me to do. Finally, I started thinking like an artist thinks normally. I didn’t care what everyone else wanted me to do. I was going to do what I wanted to do. While I feel that there’s a responsibility to bring something substantial to the position, it’s been a challenge like anything that’s brand new.

I want to bring something substantial because I want it to continue after me. I want to see it in every city in the country, and I really mean that. Anyone can start the conversation, through this position, about what’s important to them. The next person who is the creative laureate of Portland might be a filmmaker. Just this morning I read in The New York Times about what’s happening at Sundance and how few people are making money on documentary films. Maybe we talk about why those are important. We could really elevate the conversation around why filmmaking and documentary-making is so important.

One of the main roles of the position is advocacy. Have you been bombarded by people who want you to talk about their projects? Is it overwhelming?

I’ve definitely answered more email than I have in my entire life. That is a challenge because I am by nature a person who doesn’t want to offend people and I have to prioritize. It doesn’t always feel good. I’m trying to make sure I respond in some way, shape, or form.

The way I see my job is to help facilitate. A lot of people don’t know how an artist got to where she is or how they got funding for something. I feel that I have a responsibility to show people how they can do it themselves. It’s a pleasure to be able to do that and to share that with people, but it’s a lot of work as well.

You mentioned that you thought other cities should have creative laureates, too. Have other cities approached you about doing so?

I have had conversations with people. Luckily, Fast Company has publicized this, so I’ve had conversations, but no one has approached me about it. That’s one of the things that I want to talk about. Portland, on a small level, is getting a reputation for Portlandia. I would like to show the less amusing side of a city that really values creativity and talk about some of the great things that happen in Portland and not in other cities. I’d like to talk about why 1,000 predominately younger, predominately creative people move here every month. It’s a really rapidly growing city. Why is that?

I also don’t want to talk about only non-profit causes. I want big businesses to embrace hiring creatives and people who graduate in anthropology or social work for all I care. I’d like them to go into corporations and start dialogue. I think it would be good for America if we had more creative people in bigger companies. I sound like I’m some fucking patriot [laughs] but I don’t mean it that way, although I do love my country. 

Do you think the U.S. could use a creative laureate?

Absolutely. Why do we have a poet laureate? Bring on the criticism; create a dialogue. We need to have somebody who is honestly talking about why it’s important for our society to embrace creativity going forward. I went to China last month. Go to China and you’ll see why we need to embrace creativity. They are bringing it back like gangbusters over there.

I feel like we are really falling behind. We need somebody to advocate creativity on a nationwide level. It’s not like the National Endowment for the Arts hasn’t done that, but maybe we need a fresh face. Maybe we need something that is very non-partisan and can start a different way of dialogue, not necessarily government-mandated.

Noah Davis
Noah Davis is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @noahedavis.

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