If you drive west on 38th St. and turn right on Lafayette Rd., the first thing you're likely to see is Don's Guns, our city's hellzapoppin' shrine to the Second Amendment.
Next door to Don's is a city landmark of a different sort: the work-in-progress known as the Service Center for Contemporary Culture and Community, a former Firestone tire dealership and the latest project by local avant-garde arts collective Big Car.
The site-specific juxtapositions are enough to make even the most pomo of post-modern heads spin. The Service Center sits like an island in an asphalt sea, surrounded by the Lafayette Square Mall and a virtual archipelago of fast food joints, ethnic eateries, nail parlors and the occasional gentleman's club. Cars and trucks barrel by; pedestrians take their chances.
But this turns out to be a promising environment to test the Service Center's premise that social practice art - an approach aiming to turn otherwise overlooked neighborhoods into beachheads for creative opportunity - can reenergize not just those neighborhoods but the city as a whole. Funders, from Pepsi to the Allen Whitehill Clowes Charitable Foundation, have climbed aboard. Even Mayor Greg Ballard has turned up to lend a hand shoveling mulch in the Service Center's community garden.
The leap into social practice art represents the latest stage in the evolution of what began in 2005 as the Big Car Gallery in Fountain Square. An artists' collective including, among others, John Clark, Kipp Normand, Tim Burris and Anne Laker, a large share of Big Car's ability to thrive can be attributed to the indefatigable energies of Shauta Marsh and Jim Walker, a couple who are creative partners and life partners, as well.
"What we figured out when we started working with Big Car was that visual art and performance and music weren't connecting," says Walker, sitting in the Service Center's glass-walled workshop space. A large room that once showcased tires can now accommodate classes, poetry readings and gallery exhibitions. The space provides a lending library with materials on the arts, cooking and gardening, plus a do-it-yourself publishing operation. There's also a screening room, which currently has a series of videos featuring mini documentaries about several of the ethnic restaurants in the neighborhood. Still to come: a large-scale performance space where the garage portion of the center used to be.
In Big Car's formative days, Walker and Marsh saw a lack of connection between the arts and potential audiences. They were troubled by the extent to which the arts they loved had become creatures of the academy - colleges and universities.
"It's almost a class division," says Marsh, "a gap between fine art and people."
"We started Big Car because we loved it," Marsh continues. "We made no money, in fact we lost our personal money - everybody did. But everybody chipped in. When you're excited about something, you do a good job with it and people notice."
"We liked things that were experimental and different, that we weren't seeing around here," says Walker. "We wanted stuff that wasn't here. We wanted to make it happen."
Finding Fountain Square
Crammed into what had once been a shower space used by nuns, and intended to serve as a kind of studio where members could go to write or work on other personal art projects, Big Car grew into a gallery, thanks to the encouragement of Phil Campbell, the local arts entrepreneur who acquired the abandoned Murphy Building in Fountain Square. "I think we owe a lot of who we are and where we are now to Phil," says Marsh.
But in those days, Fountain Square wasn't the urban destination it is now. "At the time, a big part of what we did involved getting people down there to our space," says Walker. "That's part of the reason we had so much going on all the time."
A typical evening at Big Car could involve a show of surrealist collages, a multimedia video happening and an all-ages concert by a traveling band from another part of the country.
"For a long, long time, whenever we had an event, I would go and walk the block looking for people who looked scared or lost," says Walker. "We could have a drastically different show from one month to the next. That was sometimes a knock people had with us. There was a lack of consistency. But I think that was part of the idea. You bring a whole variety of people in. Maybe one month it was an abstract painting show, but then it was something different. They all had the same goal of bringing something you didn't see other places."
Walker says the gallery's nonprofit status encouraged risk taking. "We were able to take chances on all kinds of things and not worry about making money."
From the start, Big Car cultivated an environment that was open to all ages. "When I think about America versus other countries and how we treat youth, I think our kids are a little sheltered and we don't trust them enough to understand art," says Marsh. "We want to keep them in a certain place in our minds because we don't want them to grow up. But when you have all-ages shows, the kids are so into the experience of it."
Big Car became a place where parents and their teenagers could share an experience. "They can be in the same place," says Walker.
Big Car and, by extension, Fountain Square, began to take on a gritty urban aura with a distinctly Indianapolis flavor. Walker suggests that maybe that had something to do with where many of the Big Car crew came from. "A lot of us grew up in the country," he says. Walker grew up in Warsaw, Indiana, Marsh in Greenfield.
"The whole city is a lot of small towns," Walker says of Indianapolis. "Fountain Square is a small town. We came in and got to be part of making that small town happen."
Walker and Marsh came by their interest in Fountain Square honestly, having lived in the newly christened Wheeler live/work artists' building since it opened in 2000. They brought their first child, a daughter, home to the Wheeler immediately after she was born. "We were really interested in seeing that part of the city thrive," says Marsh.
Although Fountain Square has continued to be their home base, Marsh and Walker have expanded their focus to include Indianapolis as a whole. In part, this was a matter of necessity. Uncertainty over the future of the Murphy Building at one time prompted Big Car's team to think of what they did independently of any one particular space. For over a year beginning in 2009, Big Car became a gallery without walls, producing Made for Each Other, a sequence of performances, gatherings, workshops and happenings in various venues and neighborhoods. Among Big Car's collaborators during this time were the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Operational support also came from contemporary arts patron Jeremy Efroymson.
"I started thinking more about being a community arts organization," says Walker. It was at around this time he discovered the Service Center on Lafayette Rd.
A kind of critical mass was beginning to form in the city involving funders and urban design advocates who were increasingly interested in finding ways to integrate the arts into neighborhood redevelopment projects ¾ not as add-ons or embellishments, but in the formative stages. The west 38th St. corridor and, in particular, the Lafayette Square area had already been identified as a preferred target for civic investment. So when Walker happened on the abandoned tire dealership hanging on the edge of the Lafayette Square Mall's massive (and largely empty) parking lot, it was if the stars came into alignment.
"I saw this building and I thought it's already on the street, it wouldn't be hard to chew that much asphalt up with something on top of it," he says, referring to a couple of the goals planners had emphasized ¾ moving buildings along Lafayette closer to the street and finding ways to neutralize or eliminate the preponderance of asphalt in the neighborhood.
Walker brought some of his Big Car colleagues to see the building and encountered members of the mall's security team. They informed Big Car that the mall owned the building and gave Walker a contact number, which he called the next day. "We made it clear we didn't have the money to rent the space," he says.
That didn't matter. Mall ownership was more interested in finding a tenant. Before long, Big Car had a space in which to create what many hope will provide a model for using the arts to help with neighborhood revitalization.
Practice not product
"The neighborhood has really embraced us," says Marsh, joking that Don of Don's Guns wondered aloud about what they were going to do with the enormous pile of mulch that was delivered for the creation of the community garden.
"We look at the garden as an art installation," says Walker. "It has these shapes and different ideas." Consisting of seven raised beds, including a large one in the shape of Indiana, the garden is growing a wide variety of produce, including peppers, sweet potatoes, squash, corn and cucumbers. Anyone is free to come pick whatever they can use. Over 150 volunteers have worked on the garden so far.
"It's about people working together," says Walker. "It's a collaborative project, but it's practical. People can eat what's grown here. It's not just stacking a lot of static stuff in front of the place to make it look like an art center."
"We're challenging peoples' ideas of what art is," says Marsh. "I know Richard Serra said that if it's not useless, it's not art. Well, we're calling this art and it actually is useful. We're challenging old ideas that distance people from appreciating art, even though a lot of people who come through here don't consider it art."
This begs the question: Just how is what Big Car does different from activities offered at, say, a social services center?
"The practice of it is the art," says Walker. "Not the product. The practice is really similar to social services, but the difference is in the creative and artistic approaches."
Walker relates how he and members of Big Car got people involved in making collages at a community picnic. "We had kids and adults and people we would never have interacted with and who would never have interacted with each other, making art together. Collage-making is the practice, and the social aspect is bringing people together. The product is secondary. We're using art as a vehicle to the social, to maybe help a neighborhood, to bring people together."
Artists, says Walker, also bring a kind of engagement to the process that is different. "You give social workers this collage idea and they're going to have a different attitude about it because it's not their thing. Collage is an artform of mine, so I'm going to sit there and make one. When you have a social worker, a lot of times, unless they're really into it, they're going to stand back and they're going to watch. It's the same thing, sometimes, with teachers. A teacher who's teaching writing should be down there, too. If they're just standing back watching the kids write, it shows they don't really like writing themselves. Why should a kid like it? I think that's a big difference. If you're an artist, you're going to be in it with them and your passion is going to come through."
Marsh adds, "A lot of times, when we go into these projects, we go in with an idea, but we don't know the outcome. It's like when a painter starts. They have an idea, but they don't know for sure the direction it's going to take. Instead of a painting being at the end of what we do, there's an explanation of what we've discovered and documentation."
Big Car's social practice art represents a 180-degree turn from Modernist principles, which favored the artist as a rugged individualist who, first and foremost, was engaged in a search for personal truth. "No one's that interesting," laughs Walker.
Walker also distinguishes social practice art from the art of political protest that was in vogue during the 1980s and early '90s. "It's actually providing some support for a solution," he says. "We're not going to solve world hunger by growing a garden out here. But it is a small thing that could provide an example. Maybe other people will start to use parking lots for gardens when they can't get access to space."
Marsh gestures to a blizzard of colorful post-it notes that have been attached to the walls -- answers that workshop participants have put to questions, like "What condition is your condition in?"
"Fair to good," says one note. "Pert plus," says another. "Ready for anything," declares a third.
Another question asks, "What do you believe in?"
"I believe in a big table. You are welcome there," is one reply.
This is not your typical arts outreach approach, says Marsh. "When I do these projects, I don't feel like I'm doing people a favor. I get real excited about the stories they tell me and, at the end of the day, I feel really lucky to get to meet these people."
And there's something more. "I worry about destroying the planet and our effect on the world," Marsh says quietly. "Instead of throwing our hands up in the air, there's this desire to make our art be something that helps."
[A+E] Film + TV
[A+E] Classical Music
[A+E] Classical Music
[A+E] Classical Music
[A+E] Classical Music, Theater + Dance