Ramona Baker's resignation from her position as head of the Arts Council of Indianapolis was as unexpected as it was abrupt. Over the course of ten years on the job, Baker had seemingly managed to build a tremendous fan base among the leadership class in this town - the movers and shakers in our political, philanthropic and business circles. What's more, the Arts Council has been positioned to play a key role in the Mayor's on-going cultural initiative.
In her first years on the job, Baker proved to be adept at building bridges between the Arts Council and politicians and business leaders who could barely conceal their contempt for the arts, let alone cultural policy.
From a professional standpoint, Baker's work appeared to be paying off. So her explanation of her decision to leave: "I realized that it was time for me to find my next challenge ... I want to take a little break before I move on to my next opportunity. I want to spend some time with my parents in Alabama and I want to do some traveling ... " can't help sounding disingenuous.
Although we may never know what's behind Ramona Baker's departure, it is clear this event marks a major transition point in the cultural life of our city. The process by which her replacement is found, and the new relationships between cultural workers and organizations that may now be possible here, represent a tremendous opportunity.
It is impossible to assess Ramona Baker's impact on our local scene without recalling what things were like when she took over the Arts Council ten years ago. Stephen Goldsmith was Mayor. Privatization of everything from the parks to the bus system to the arts was in. Indianapolis was spending less than a million dollars a year on the arts, making this one of the stingiest cities of its size in the United States. The Arts Council was practically a one-man band, operating on a shoestring out of an upper-story office in the Majestic Building.
Under these conditions, it must have been impossible for Baker to think about anything but survival. But survive she did. In her first years on the job, Baker proved to be adept at building bridges between the Arts Council and politicians and business leaders who could barely conceal their contempt for the arts, let alone cultural policy. It turned out she was a kindred spirit, sharing their autocratic style, if not their budget priorities. Baker's strategy for survival was to promote the Arts Council as the city's central authority on the arts and herself as the arts community's chief spokesperson.
Baker's approach proved well-suited to the city's insider political culture. The fortunes of the Arts Council improved accordingly. When arts advocate Bart Peterson was elected Mayor, it seemed Baker and the Arts Council had truly arrived. Not only did the heads of the city's two largest philanthropic organizations, the Lilly Endowment and the Central Indiana Community Foundation, Clay Robbins and Brian Payne, openly call themselves Ramona fans, so did the Mayor. Baker had what began to look like real power.
There was a problem, though. While Baker succeeded in convincing the city's power brokers that she was one of them, she failed to convince her primary constituents - the city's artists and arts administrators - that she had a foot in their camp as well. For all the cheerleading at Start With Art luncheons, the endless press releases and colorful mailings, what Ramona Baker actually knew about the arts or the lives of the people who created them remained a mystery. Not even the Creative Renewal Fellowships, a Lilly-funded series of cash awards to local artists and administrators, arguably the most innovative and bold initiative to take place on her watch, were sufficient to close the gap between Baker and the "community" she claimed to represent. In the end, too many people in that community believed that the chief beneficiary of the Arts Council's work was the Arts Council itself.
The perceived strength of Baker's position by her greatest allies, Mayor Peterson in particular, may have worked against her. Rather than understanding the strength of his cultural initiative as a cultural opportunity to open up the decision-making process to an array of people who had never been taken seriously by the city before, Peterson chose instead to place undue reliance on Baker and the Arts Council. The result is that a year into his second term the city has little to show in the way of tangible cultural renewal. What once looked like real power turns out to be a lack of ability to make things happen on the ground.
Absent an authority figure like Baker it will be interesting to watch what happens next. To her credit, Baker surely succeeded in proving to the city that a strong Arts Council is an undeniable asset. But we can also hope that, for its part, the city now realizes that a truly vital cultural life is bigger than any single office or administrator. To be truly effective, the Arts Council needs to be able to advocate credibly and with real creativity - for the artists and organizations it serves. We have yet to see what that's really like.