Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


A Conversation With

portland-sign

(Photo: Christopher.Michel/Flickr)

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

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.