What we can do
For three weeks in October I had the opportunity to be a cultural tourist. For the better part of a month I traveled to cities that people have considered destinations for centuries. So I went to London, Paris and Amsterdam, Bruges, Antwerp and Brussels. I didn't have an elaborate itinerary; my plan was simply to show up, to be a curious stranger and to see how easy these places made it for me to discover some of what they had to offer. The idea was that these experiences would help me put Indianapolis' efforts to brand itself a cultural destination in perspective.
Let me tell you: The trip was a feast.
But it was also perplexing. Trying to compare Indianapolis with any of these venerable cities is tricky. Sure, it's tempting to say that we want to aspire to be the Paris of the Midwest, but what does that mean?
All of the cities I visited had certain things in common. As I said, people have been traveling to them for hundreds of years. This means that these cities have had a long while to figure out how to accommodate folks who want to be entertained, aren't sure about where they're going and may not know the language.
Every city I visited had terrific public transportation. In London and Paris this means the Underground and the Metro, but in Amsterdam and Brussels there are streetcars, too. Every place has an extensive bus system and, of course, there are plenty of taxis waiting at the train station to get you and your luggage to wherever it is you plan on staying.
That's another thing. These cities all offer a wide range of places to stay, from hostels to five-star hotels. If you don't have a reservation, there are usually tourist information centers in places like the main train stations or the city center where, for no charge, someone will make a call and get you what you need. When my wife and I arrived in Antwerp, a city we hadn't planned on visiting, the guy at the tourist center immediately got us a room we could afford in a hotel on the river (a prime location), provided us with a map and instructions on how to get around.
It should go without saying that the cultural offerings in these places are abundant. Wherever you go there are museums to visit, concerts and performances to attend. But that's to be expected. State support for the arts in these countries is many times what it is in the U.S. Great Britain, with the stingiest arts budget in Europe, still spends five times more on the arts than we do in the States. People in Europe will complain that they don't get the philanthropic giving to the arts that we do, which is true enough. But when you look at the depth and variety of cultural offerings in European centers, it's hard not to conclude that their systematic approach to funding has fostered a cultural continuity and a level of sophistication that our more targeted giving can only approach.
Finally, as Americans like Mark Twain and Henry James so famously noted, Europe is old. It's got something called history. Walking up and down streets where people have trod for 200 or 300 or 500 years is a cultural experience in itself. In Paris you may find yourself enjoying a sandwich on the Place by the Hotel DeVille. Then a glance at your guidebook reveals that this picturesque square was once a spot where people had their heads lopped off during the revolution. These cities have absorbed the best and the worst that humans can do. They have a soul no amount of civic planning can replicate.
Does this mean that all we can look forward to in Indianapolis is the Conrad Hotel and a stadium with a retractable roof?
We can achieve a lot more than that, but I think our city's success depends on distinguishing ourselves in ways that emphasize our own story. Instead of bemoaning what we don't have, we need to focus on what's here. That begins with recognition of the talented people, especially those in their 20s and 30s, who make Indy home. We may not claim an enormous history or tremendous state support, but we do have the resources and the cost of living to make Indianapolis an incubator for emerging talent, a place where new ideas take off. By making a point of supporting the new and the up-and-coming, this city can also send a broader message about its support for entrepreneurs of all kinds.
We can reinforce this message by establishing residency programs that bring world-renowned artists here for the completion of commissioned works. These works will enrich the city, but the artists who make them will also learn about us, interact with local talent and go forth with the story that Indianapolis is a place that helps to make dreams come true. They will become ambassadors on our behalf - the best marketing imaginable.
And did I mention public transportation? I didn't drive a car in Europe, I didn't need to. Someday I'd like to be able to say the same thing about Indianapolis.
This is the last of four columns written with the support of a Creative Renewal fellowship from the Arts Council of Indianapolis and the Lilly Endowment.