A record crowd filled the Sagamore Ballroom last week for the Arts Council’s annual “Start With Art” luncheon. The event was notable for a number of reasons.
It was the first time in memory that a sitting mayor failed to show up and at least say hello. Mayor Ballard’s excuse was that he was in St. Paul, cheering on his fellow Republicans. That the convention up north provided handy cover in light of the mayor’s proposal to cut public arts funding by a third was duly noted by just about everybody in the room. Mark Miles, the leader of the city’s successful Super Bowl bid, stood in for Ballard, assuring everyone that the mayor “gets it” when it comes to the arts. This begged the obvious question: “But will he pay for it?”
Bart Peterson, seeming a little like the Ghost of Christmas Past, was in attendance. Whether this betrayed a former politician’s addiction to rubber chicken or a newfound taste for public mischief was hard to assess. Maybe it was an appetite for one more prolonged ovation. Peterson got one.
The keynote speaker, Col. Dean Esserman, the chief of police in Providence, R.I., was on hand to somehow buttress the idea that the arts contribute to public safety. He did this, sort of, by making an eloquent plea for us to love our children. Esserman clearly implied that providing kids with opportunities for self-expression and recognition can be counted as ways of loving that might otherwise be denied our most at-risk children.
What Esserman didn’t say, indeed, what he could not say, was that preserving the half million dollars Mayor Ballard wants to cut from the arts budget would demonstrably result in fewer Indianapolis homicides in 2009.
Esserman’s approach is what is commonly called nuanced. But nuance doesn’t cut it in Indianapolis — not, at least, when it comes to the symbolic issue of whether or not public money should be spent on the arts.
The Arts Council has loads of credible data showing ways the arts enhance economic development, neighborhood revitalization, educational attainment and, yes, public safety. The trouble is local politicians either choose not to believe it, or they find the symbolic power of cutting arts funding in an anti-intellectual town an irresistible way to make it seem like they’re doing something about spending without offending the people who contribute to their campaigns.
It’s possible that no argument the Arts Council can make for public arts funding can prevail in the current political climate. But it’s also clear that trying to make the case for the arts based on non-arts criteria isn’t sustainable. The Arts Council has a choice: It can keep rewinding these ineffective arguments, or it can use the current turmoil to reinvent itself.
Last year, the Arts Council paid a consulting firm to study the habits and tastes of young adults, or GenerationNext. The idea behind this research was to provide local arts organizations with insights to help them attract a new wave of audience members. It’s the Arts Council itself that should be attending to these ideas.
The Arts Council of Indianapolis was originally formed to channel public funds to the city’s landmark arts institutions, including the symphony, art museum, children’s museum and repertory theater. Those organizations still receive a large portion of the council’s money. This doesn’t make sense. Any arts organization with a budget big enough to allow for a development officer should be respectfully disallowed from competing for the modest amount of public funds the city makes available.
Those funds should be considered the equivalent of venture capital for creative enterprise — money aimed at seeding a local arts economy for new artists, arts groups and venues. Indianapolis, as we are endlessly told, has a problem attracting and retaining talented young adults. The Arts Council’s mission should focus primarily on helping these people gain some traction here. This would not only be a measurable goal, it would also place the Arts Council’s efforts squarely on the side of support for art and artists, rather than social services by another name.
A measure of any group’s success should not be that it is big enough to attract public arts funding, but that it has outgrown the need. The Arts Council is uniquely positioned to help with this project. By making this its focus, it might help itself as well.