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

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

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