An ax to the arts 

I guess they just don’t believe it.
The people, that is, who hold the purse strings in this city. They don’t believe what they hear about the impact of the arts in Indianapolis — because if they did, they wouldn’t be contemplating deep cuts to the city’s arts budget.
That’s the buzz making its way around arts organizations. At the moment, it’s a rumor. But it’s a rumor with heft, given recent news of local budget woes coupled with our new mayor’s promise to cut $70 million worth of “fluff” from the city’s budget over the next three years.
Obviously, when you’re cutting fluff, you have to start someplace. You might wish, though, that whoever wields the knife might show a little common sense.
Some history is in order. Up until 1999, Indianapolis had one of the lowest levels of public arts funding for a city its size in the United States. The annual allocation through the Department of Parks and Recreation was $750,000. This comparatively paltry sum constrained the local nonprofit arts scene. That’s because public arts funding should be thought of as a kind of venture capital for new ideas. It’s a way for a community to invest in itself. Without upfront money to prime the pump, the local arts economy had a hard time gaining traction in a marketplace dominated by commercial interests.
This began to change when Bart Peterson became mayor and the arts and culture became part of his public policy agenda. Over eight years, public arts funding grew to $1,543,500 — a respectable amount compared to peer cities, if a drop in the bucket given the city’s overall budget of over $1 billion.
This investment paid off. The current economic impact of the arts on Indianapolis is estimated to be $468 million. The arts also generate $52 million in taxes each year. In short, for every dollar the city puts toward the arts, it gets $5 back.
But the city has been living beyond its means in other areas. Not only did we have to borrow $234 million to get through the first half of this year, we’re having to borrow $154 million more to get into 2009. Budget cuts are expected across the board.
This is where those rumors come in. Word has it that the city administration could be thinking of cutting public arts funding by a third in 2009, with another cut of $500,000 in 2010 and possibly eliminating what’s left by 2011.
What gives these rumors their extra heft is the fact that last September, City-County Councilor Bob Cockrum proposed cutting public funding for the arts back to a pre-Peterson level of $793,000 — an amount, Cockrum magnanimously pointed out, actually 5 percent higher than under Peterson’s predecessor.  
Since then, Greg Ballard has taken over as mayor. Bob Cockrum is president of the City-County Council.
And Indianapolis is on the verge of acting like the 21st century never happened.
If arts cuts of this magnitude should come to pass, they will not only represent a flagrant disregard for the positive impact of smart public investment, but a willful refusal on the part of the city’s leadership class to recognize the role the arts play in making Indianapolis a worthwhile destination for college students, young professionals and those of us who continue to hope that this city might one day make its quality of life something more than a happy accident.
Over at the Arts Council, they’re planning on bringing in the police chief from Providence, R.I., to talk at the annual Start With Art lunch about how he’s used the arts to help fight crime. I hope this gets some policy-makers’ attention, but I doubt it will. We’ve been down this road before — showing how the arts can play a part in everything from neighborhood redevelopment to higher math scores. All of these things are verifiably true. But they also miss the larger, really crucial point.
As long as people are incapable of being moved by the intrinsic value of the arts, it will be easy for them to dismiss the arts as just another form of recreation, a luxury item or, worse, fluff. And it won’t matter how many facts and studies you have on your side, if the people you’re trying to convince don’t feel like they have to believe you, they won’t.

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David Hoppe

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