This is an age of planning. When so much seems beyond our control - from the climate to the latest school shooting - planning, we hope, will get us through. Planning, we bet, can compensate for, or overcome, our lapses in judgment, failures of imagination and the occasional temptation to overreach better known as greed.
This is especially true when it comes to cities. Cities are big and complicated, full of different kinds of people, many of whom don't necessarily get along. City planning helps make sense of the myriad activities that make cities dynamic and productive instead of grab-and-go jumbles.
Indianapolis is admired for its planning. A plan is credited for making the city's downtown a vibrant, viable place. Indy built a downtown mall to preserve its retail sector. A campus was created for a variety of public attractions, including museums and a state park. A concentration of stadia reinforced the idea that this was a sports destination. Most recently, a Cultural Trail, as its name implies, has provided an interactive way of defining downtown in terms of a variety of its cultural institutions.
If all this sometimes makes Indy's downtown feel like a movie set, well, that could be because most movies are nothing if not exercises in planning. Besides, who doesn't like a good movie?
But this begs a question. While planning may provide a certain comfort - after all, we have a plan! Some plans can result in a lack of what we now like to call authenticity. Plans can wring the spontaneity out of place, leaving streetscapes clean, but arid, skylines polished but uninspiring.
Plans can help make places, but they don't guarantee a distinctive sense of place. It takes people to do that.
Making it vivid
It is not clear that when the 431 Gallery was formed, back in 1984, that its founders had much of a plan in their collective consciousness. A mission, yes. Emphatically so.
In those days, downtown Indianapolis was a lot closer to being no place than somewhere interesting. The Massachusetts Avenue corridor was largely derelict. Opportunities to see and experience contemporary art were very few and far between.
This last point is worth pausing to consider. It suggests something many city planners, in Indianapolis anyway, often seem to overlook: that there may be at the very least an integral harmonic vibration between contemporary art - art, that is, being made now, in this time - and a place like, say, downtown Indianapolis.
Contemporary art and the people who make it bring something, a sizzle, if you will, an insistence on being present, to an environment. Whether you happen to like what they're doing or not is beside the point. What matters is that what artists do makes the present, if even for an instant, a little more vivid - and vivid is what makes a city memorable.
While we're at it, consider this, as well: in 1984, people didn't use computers, they used typewriters. Your phone likely had a cord on it. There was no internet to speak of, no worldwide web. If you wanted to see what was happening artwise in New York or Chicago or LA, not to mention Amsterdam or Berlin, you basically had to go there.
A sampling of work included in the Indiana State Museum's retrospective 431 Gallery: Art and Impact.
This was about to change, of course. The digital technology and communications revolutions would not only knock old school notions of provinciality for a loop by providing instant access to imagery and ideas that for generations had sorted the worldly from the rubes. It would also make the world of art an insistently global proposition.But, in 1984, the first order of business for the founders of 431 was defiantly local. They were artists. They were living in Indianapolis. They could leave, but that was an old story. They asked the questions: why not here? Why not us?
To the extent they could, the 431 artists made a world of their own in Indianapolis. It was informed by the Herron School of Art, then in a constellation of buildings that were no less funky for their historic provenance, and the Faris Building, a tall industrial hive on the near-south edge of downtown blessed with epic-size studio windows and definitive downtown views. Phil Campbell had a gallery on an upper floor there called Hot House, an appropriate name because the overall effect created by the 431 artists and their fellow travelers was to make Indianapolis a kind of hot house environment for making contemporary art.
If this is an age of planning, it is also one of celebrity and so it's easy to dismiss the 431 artists because none of them has been turned into a household name. This, however, would miss the meaning of their accomplishment.
Look, for starters, at how contemporary art helped transform Mass Ave. There may no longer be a row of galleries along that street, but it is hard to imagine Mass Ave becoming the destination it is today without those galleries first making it intriguing for people hungry for downtown experience.
Talk about an old story: The histories of countless urban neighborhoods have been made by pioneering artists adding value to low rent properties and effectively pricing themselves out of markets they created. The same thing happened on Mass Ave.
Something else happened. Contemporary art in Indianapolis became institutionalized. The Indianapolis Museum of Art created an entire floor in its honor, not to mention an extraordinary outdoor art and nature park. The Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (iMOCA), has established an ongoing presence. The Indianapolis Art Center continues to do its part, as does the Eiteljorg, whose Fellows program, honoring and collecting the works of contemporary Indian artists has long provided the city with a unique, if insufficiently appreciated, window on to new works.
Most important, the vocabulary of contemporary art pushed its way into the ongoing conversation about what kind of place Indianapolis wanted to be.
Would all this have happened without the spontaneous placemaking provided by the likes of the 431 artists? That's unknowable. What we do know is that 431 happened. So much that we take for granted about Indianapolis today came after.