2003 was an election year, which made it a milestone of sorts for the city’s cultural scene. The close of Mayor Bart Peterson’s first term, followed by his follow-up win in November, means Indianapolis has had a chance to see what four years of making the arts a prominent part of public policy here looks like.
No previous mayor has spoken out for making the arts a priority with the sustained enthusiasm Peterson has. That his cultural fervor has turned out to be good politics — not merely missionary work — says something important about how this city is changing. Peterson’s being first with a message crafted for our burgeoning creative class has won him a lot of goodwill and support. It has also meant that city arts and cultural concerns are now a part of our civic discourse in ways that could barely be imagined four years ago. Along with this talk, though, have come significant increases in public funding for the arts. Arts funding was slashed by many communities throughout the country in 2003. Although Indianapolis had its share of economic woes this year, prompting the mayor to freeze what has finally become a respectable arts budget, he refused to backtrack on the progress made. Peterson’s arts emphasis has almost certainly primed other pumps around town. In 2003, the Lilly Endowment continued funding the Arts Council’s Creative Renewal Fellowship program, providing $7,500 grants to 50 local artists and arts administrators. One hundred and fifty individuals have now received support through this program. On the heels of these awards, the new Efroymson fellowships for visual artists will provide five artists living in Marion County with $20,000 grants over a three-year period. This willingness to fund individual artists has become a rarity in the United States today.
Unfortunately, the generosity of these programs is not enough to constitute a viable arts economy in Indianapolis. While officially encouraging artists to live and work here, Indianapolis is still a small market for original work in all forms. If it’s hard for artists to make a living practicing in their chosen fields anywhere in America, it is especially difficult here. This has an undeniable impact on the quality of local work and the level of interest it generates. “There’s a lot of money in Indianapolis,” people say. But, so far, private money has yet to buy or invest in local arts enterprises to a significant degree. Indianapolis artists need more customers. Whether those customers need more types of art to choose from in order to become fully engaged remains an open question. One thing seems certain, though — there seem to be more artists trying to gain a toehold here than ever. We may be a small market, but we’re a market with a still reasonable cost of living compared to most urban centers. Recent college grads say they’d like to stay; established artists who discover this place are often pleasantly surprised by what they find here. So much potential makes one long for a bullet train to Chicago that would open a major market to local talent — without forcing that talent to migrate. Indeed, concern over the outflow of talented young professionals — in the arts and other fields — helped propel certain components of the mayor’s Cultural Initiative to the threshold of realization after what had seemed almost endless rounds of planning, meetings and brain storming. The city designated five neighborhoods “Cultural Districts.” These locations — Fountain Square, Broad Ripple, Massachusetts Avenue, the Wholesale District and the Indiana Avenue/White River State Park area — have all received grants to help them create features like better signage and decorative, gateway-style structures. These features, according to the mayor, will “make Indianapolis a more interesting place.” The proposed enhancements will doubtless add a little extra visual flair to their respective sites. Artists may make a little extra cash designing and fabricating them. But that it took the city, working with groups of neighborhood volunteers, almost a year to come up with these obvious gestures suggests the difficulties that could be in store for the more ambitious and highly touted public art dimension of Peterson’s Cultural Initiative.
Round or flat?
What the city really means when it says “public art” is open to question. Many artists who attended a recent meeting concerning how art might be integrated into the new airport expansion found that most of the planning had already been done without them. As one exasperated participant put it: “It was like being told you were going to the prom, who you were going to go with, what you were going to wear — but what kind of shoelaces would you like? Round or flat?” Word that the city plans on spending only a fraction of 1 percent of the huge airport budget for art — and that it seems to want to spend as little money for as much art as possible — is disheartening. This apparent lack of attention for art at the airport hits particularly hard in light of the recommendation made earlier this year by the Freeman Whitehurst Group, the public art gurus hired by the Arts Council to develop a public art blueprint for Indianapolis. A key recommendation of their report was that the city do what many other communities with successful public art programs have done: mandate that all public building projects budget 1 percent for art. This practice not only involves artists directly in planning processes, it contributes mightily to the creation of what we lack right now: a viable local arts economy. The airport expansion could have made an excellent test case. Though his enthusiasm for the arts seems unabated, Mayor Peterson has, for the most part, chosen to husband support for his arts and cultural programs by making deals that circumvent the City-County Council. This has been shrewd strategy. But it has also meant that, apart from annual budgets, the mayor has yet to put his cultural initiative up for a vote. A 1 percent ordinance could build the arts into the fabric of the way this city does business. Whether or not Mayor Peterson is willing to expend some of his considerable political capital to make this happen bears watching.