Culture = nature 

When Mayor Bart Peters

When Mayor Bart Peterson unveiled his Cultural Initiative in July 2001, many people, myself included, said, “At last.” We applauded a mayor who was finally recognizing that support for our cultural resources was about more than adding yet another line to the list of groups with a claim on the city’s largesse. By making culture a cornerstone of his approach to public policy, Mayor Peterson signaled his understanding of the kind of quality of life this city would need in order to effectively compete with other 21st century destinations. But “culture” is a slippery word. It’s like “love” — another term of great power that’s woefully imprecise. Ask 10 people to define love and, once you dial past the blurry generalities, you’re likely to find 10 different answers. The same is true when it comes to culture. In fact, my dictionary provides no less than five definitions, ranging from, “The behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought, esp. as expressed in a particular community or period,” to, “The growing of microorganisms in a specially prepared nutrient medium.” You know, that furry stuff that floats in your coffee cup when you forget to rinse it out. The word’s ability to assume whatever shape a particular person wants it to has meant that the mayor’s Cultural Initiative has been slower in taking off than many people, including, perhaps, the mayor himself, expected. As it happened, a lot of the people who stood up and put their hands together when Mayor Peterson announced his initiative two years ago were thinking “Arts” when the mayor said “Cultural.” These were the many representatives of arts organizations and institutions who packed the room. Others still — the folks from the Convention and Visitors Association, hotel managers and restaurateurs — as is their wont, were thinking “Dollars.” Since that day, the preoccupations of these two groups have pretty much defined how the Cultural Initiative has been talked about and planned and critiqued. Thus the initiative’s focus has been boiled down to an emphasis on a kind of combination of the two: cultural tourism. The problem with cultural tourism, though, is the sneaking suspicion many people harbor that, no matter how vigorously we pump our cultural self-esteem, Indianapolis is destined to remain a nice place to live — but a hard sell when it comes to tempting visitors whose idea of a good trip involves at least a whiff of the worldly glamour that transforms even soot into an erotic accessory for a night on the town. Sure, we have our share of great one-off events, but let’s be honest: Given a choice of cities and a decent credit card, would you pick Indianapolis for a random weekend? This may sound like a knock on our city, but it doesn’t have to be. Think of it, instead, as an invitation to imagine what might actually make this mid-size, Midwestern city truly irresistible — not just to tourists, but to the kinds of people interested in starting new businesses, or wanting to move their businesses to someplace better. It still means thinking about culture, but in a broader, deeper sense. Indianapolis is located on a great agricultural plain. We find ourselves in the midst of some of the most fertile land for growing things in the world. Where we live now was once a forest; we cut that down, which is a shame, but it’s not too late for us to use our knowledge of this history as a springboard to understanding the natural potential of this place. By this light, a true Cultural Initiative for Indianapolis doesn’t start with trying to figure out how to make our theater scene as good as what’s in Chicago. No, a true Cultural Initiative is based on enduring values that grow out of where we are. It starts with our determining to make our water and air the cleanest you can find in any American metro area; with not just conserving but creating green space; with proving to the world that, in the Midwest, the words “city” and “garden” can really go together. Does this sound overly idealistic? It’s actually a lot more practical than trying somehow to turn Indianapolis into a so-called “cultural capital.” In other words, it’s something we have control over versus something we don’t. The beauty of this proposition is that, given a community will to get there — which, by the way, is how genuine cultures express themselves — the goals I’ve just described are attainable. Cities around the country are discovering a variety of effective strategies for cleaning their air and water through the protection of open spaces, land use planning, brownfields redevelopment, new transportation strategies, as well as the implementation and enforcement of public health standards. We can do these things. It must also be said that turning Indianapolis into a model urban environment is not at odds with making the arts a high civic priority. In fact, when considered together, the arts and the environment form a powerful feedback loop. It is just as difficult to imagine truly compelling art emerging from a chronically-fouled nest as it is to expect environmental reform from a society that discounts or disparages self-expression. It’s said that words have consequences. Well, sometimes. This is only true so long as what’s being said is understood mutually by speaker and spoken-to. At this point, the mayor’s Cultural Initiative has succeeded in starting a conversation crucial to this city’s future. It remains to be seen whether our ambitions are equal to the words we’re using to describe them.

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David Hoppe

David Hoppe

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