There were some people, close to the situation, who saw the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra crisis looming. I wasn't one of them.
From my vantage point, up in the peanut gallery, it looked like the ISO was getting most things right. The orchestra had a creative concertmaster in Zach De Pue who, with his fusion trio, Time For Three, was helping to bring new — and younger — audiences to the Circle Theatre.
The symphony notched another score with the hiring of conductor Krzysztof Urbanski a prodigious young talent with the kind of charisma tailored to make the city sit up and take notice.
In short, the ISO appeared ready to take its place among the top 21st century symphony orchestras in the United States.
It was nice while it lasted.
It was also important. Whatever you might think about symphonic music, the ability to support a full-time orchestra remains one of the universal measures of a city's standing as a cultural destination. Symphony orchestras employ people, most of them artists with a lifetime's worth of training. These professionals are paid solid upper middle-class salaries to perform in a variety of situations. Many of them also teach. Their presence in the community is an affirmation that this is a city that takes music seriously.
For decades, whatever else might or might not be happening in the Indianapolis arts scene, the symphony has been here, acting as a cornerstone and building block. It has been the city's cultural pole star.
But it is not my intention to expound on what the ISO means to Indianapolis. Nor am I interested in trying to dissect the he said/she said of the strike (or lockout) that has ripped the veil from the ISO's contrived image of cultural invulnerability.
What strikes me about the ISO debacle is what it says about the precariousness of this city's cultural life.
Seven years ago, in 2005, Indianapolis completed an unprecedented cultural building boom. The Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Eiteljorg both underwent significant expansions, and the Herron School of Fine Art and Design got itself a new home on the IUPUI campus.
The ISO celebrated its 75th anniversary.
This flurry of activity was the high-water mark of Bart Peterson's mayoral administration. Peterson was the first Indianapolis mayor to openly identify the arts and culture as a priority for the city's portfolio — a dimension necessary to build upon if we would compete for creative young professionals. Indianapolis, Peterson boasted, could be "the Paris of the Midwest."
The new buildings were great. But some of us wondered at the time whether the city had the financial capacity to consistently fill them with quality content.
Not to worry, we were told. There's plenty of money in Indianapolis. This has turned out to be true, particularly if you want to host a professional golf tournament, build a football stadium or hold on to the Pacers. But when it comes to the arts, there's a different story.
Look at the donors to our major arts institutions and you see a lot of the same names in the programs and on those bronze plaques they hang in the hallways. The circle of big contributors is remarkably tight. It also tends to be aged. Affluent Baby Boomers, people in their 50s and early 60s, who are today's moguls, are not making the kinds of large-scale financial commitments to culture that their parents and grandparents did. And as for people in their 40s — forget it. With the notable exception of Jeremy Efroymson, these folks are mostly missing in action.
This means that the same pool of donors is being importuned for money by an ever-increasing number of arts organizations. The fact that new creative initiatives are coming on line should be good news for Indianapolis. But the failure of succeeding generations to pass along a mutual sense of cultural ambition is stunting the city's growth.
Officially, of course, the city continues to say positive things about culture. This is because even the dimmest of our movers and shakers have come to see a value in what they call "the arts." They've heard of Richard Florida's book about the Creative Class. If the arts can help attract and retain young professionals, our city planners will encourage a scene. They love the energy. As far as they're concerned, the arts amount to a never-ending party.
Just don't ask them to pay for it. Happily, as long as they can get young artists to work for cheap or, better yet, for the "exposure," a minimal amount of cash is required. So while Indianapolis feels like a great place for young artists today, as far as mid-career professionals are concerned, people, that is, who need real money for what they do so they can pay a mortgage, the pickings are slim.
While this has long been true for local artists across a range of disciplines, I never thought it would apply to the seasoned musicians who have played for the ISO. But the city's lack of capacity to step up and rescue the ISO from becoming a second-rate ensemble should make all manner of creative people here question whether Indianapolis is the right place to be — or no place at all.