Changing the culture 

I took a walk downtown

I took a walk downtown one afternoon not long ago. There was a slight chill in the air, but the day was bright and the city seemed to almost glisten with the energy of people on the go. On days like this, with the redbud and dogwood still in bloom, you practically see the potential of this place. It’s stored like the life that’s gathered and released in the blossoms on our trees. My first stop was beside the canal, at the Historical Society, for a gathering billed as a “Cultural Forum.” The purpose of this get-together was to acquaint people from various arts and cultural organizations, as well as downtown business people and anyone else who might be interested, with the current state of the city’s planning for cultural tourism. First, we were all invited to participate in the cultural tourism equivalent of a community sing. Instead of belting out choruses of “Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here,” we took a carefully allotted 15 minutes to tell each other where we liked to take out-of-town visitors. For some folks that meant a drive down Meridian Street. Someone else mentioned canoeing on the White River. Crown Hill Cemetery, Fountain Square, the War Memorial and Lockerbie were among the other spots that made our collective hit parade. Then we turned to the main event. You’ve heard about the “brain drain”? The city is developing three, interlocking initiatives to stop it with a plug made of creative public works. For starters, the Cultural Development Commission (the office responsible for coordinating these activities) has declared five parts of town to be Cultural Districts. These include Broad Ripple, Fountain Square, the White River Park area, the Wholesale District and Massachusetts Avenue. Ideas are now being solicited from people in all of these neighborhoods about ways to take what’s there and make it, well, even cooler than it is already. One way of doing this will be through the creation and deployment of public art. This might mean the appearance of kinder, gentler lamp posts and waste receptacles, or it could take the form of the sort of monumental sculpture that gets people arguing about art instead of class basketball when they gather round the coffee maker on Monday morning. Finally, there’s the Cultural Trail, a pedestrian-friendly walk- and bikeway connecting several downtown neighborhoods with our booming Greenways system. When Mayor Peterson announced his cultural initiative almost three years ago, many people in the city’s arts community leapt for it. They could hardly be blamed for this. Artists and arts organizations in this town had suffered years of neglect and condescension. Peterson’s recognition of their importance to the city’s future was like catnip. But take a flagging economy and add to it the persistence of Hoosier suspicion of anything east of Richmond or west of Terre Haute and you begin to see the political difficulty of making culture a priority. Under these circumstances, Peterson’s three-pronged focus seems ingeniously calculated to visibly enhance the city’s quality of life for virtually everyone — while offending hardly anybody. Instead of “cultural initiative,” the mayor’s programs might better be called “cultural catch-up.” These projects will bring us the kinds of amenities other cities have been enjoying for years. They are the platform upon which the mayor’s grander vision of Indianapolis as cultural destination might be built. But realizing that vision — for the city, for the state — seems a long way off. When the Cultural Forum broke up, I walked over to the Statehouse for a rally by Indiana teachers. The great, three-story rotunda of the Capitol Building was filled with several thousand people, mostly women, dressed in black and wearing pink armbands. The armbands symbolized colleagues and programs pink-slipped in the past year. I saw signs from Michigan City and Evansville, Knox and Bremen. The balconies, also crowded, shook with chanting: “Save Our Schools: NOW!” Victoria Candelaria, head of the state’s Federation of Teachers, had to stand on tiptoe to reach the microphone but her voice filled the hall. She said that teachers in Indiana were in “a vice,” squeezed between demands for higher achievement and diminishing resources. Sure, there’s a war on. And we all know about the state’s fiscal crisis. But kids are only kids once. Eugene White, the superintendent of Washington Township, reminded everyone that “freedom isn’t free … it comes at a price,” adding, “Never before have so few given so much to so many with so little.” Here, in the Statehouse, was the reality check to the plans being described across the canal at the Historical Society. There’s nothing wrong with a Cultural Trail, better-looking streetscapes or even the occasional sculptural monstrosity. But if the kids in our schools can’t paint or make music or dance because their arts programs have been cut; if their theater teachers have been laid off and their school newspapers discontinued; if the fieldtrips to plays and museums and galleries are cancelled … Don’t get me wrong: This is not an either/or issue. Indianapolis needs a cultural tourism initiative to hold its own with other cities. Cincinnati just doubled its arts budget in tough times. But cultural initiatives can’t be sustained unless the state’s culture is changed. The recently approved increase to the state’s education budget won’t restore lost programs; it only holds the line against further cuts. Unless we stop paying lip service to kids and the (mostly) women and men who educate them and start treating them like the resources they really are, all of our so-called attractions will lack authenticity. They’ll wither like buds in a spring freeze.

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David Hoppe

David Hoppe

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