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Arts in Indianapolis: Change we could live without

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We like to say that change is good. But when it comes to the Indianapolis arts scene, this is a proposition that's been sorely tested in the past year.

A simple listing of the cultural leaders who have, for a variety of reasons, stepped down or moved on from long-held posts is but one indicator of the extent to which change has overtaken a scene that has, for the better part of a decade, enjoyed steady, if incremental, growth.

The 2009 season opens with no Mario Venzago conducting the musicians at the Indianapolis Symphony; no John Green in charge of Butler University's theater program; no Greg Charleston leading the Arts Council; and no Mark Ruschman opening his gallery on the first Friday of every month. Joyce Sommers no longer presides over the Indianapolis Arts Center and Mindy Taylor Ross isn't developing public art projects. Cynthia Bates has left the Walker Theatre Center and Kathy Nagler and Chris West have flown the coop at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art.

Personalities, of course, come and go. Overshadowing these individual transitions has been a combination of larger, institutional blows that have seriously undermined the local scene's fiscal health and challenged its institutional standing within the larger community.

It was just about a year ago that Mayor Ballard and the City-County Council, alarmed by a $40 million budget shortfall, cut almost a third from the city's arts budget, dealing a blow to the Arts Council and all the groups it channeled money to in the form of grants.

More bad funding news followed when it was revealed that the Capital Improvement Board, another major source of arts support, would have to zero-out its arts contributions due to red ink brought on by a failure to budget for on-going maintenance at Lucas Oil Stadium. This further weakened the Arts Council and effectively terminated the Cultural Development Commission, a board created under the Peterson Administration to nimbly direct funds to special cultural projects.

Then, this spring, state government got into the act, axing the Indiana Arts Commission's budget by 20 percent -- a larger percentage cut than was inflicted on almost any other department.

Compounding the pain was the grim financial news hammering all aspects of the economy. As investments tanked, endowments that larger arts institutions counted on for interest income were depleted. The loss in stock values also meant that philanthropic donors have had less money to give. Nonprofit arts organizations now find themselves in direct competition with all other forms of social services for fewer dollars.

Really disheartening has been what this situation reveals about the blatant cluelessness of our public officials. Yes, the economy is bad. Yes, state and local governments must live within their means. But the arts have never received more than minor funding allocations relative to other public interests. And so while arts budget cutting has done serious damage to the city's cultural investments and standing, it has had virtually no impact on either the city or the Capital Improvement Board's financial problems.

This reckless trashing of city arts assets has, however, made for a low form of political theater. State and local politicians who have shown a marked lack of nerve in actually facing the hard facts of fiscal life here have taken every opportunity to self-righteously chew up the civic scenery over the need to cut "frills."

If there's a silver lining in such gratuitous wreckage it's that maybe, just maybe, it leads to an overdue rethinking about how we make and fund cultural policy.

This is important, because whether our current fearless leaders and their followers realize it or not, Indianapolis' future, including its ability to recover from current economic woes, will depend to a great extent on whether or not the city is perceived to be a culturally attractive place.

Cultural policy must become an integral part of city government through, for example, the creation of a Department of Cultural Affairs with a mayor-appointed leader and its own line in the city budget. The head of this department would report directly to the mayor and help in the development of strategies designed to advance any given administration's ideas about how best to enhance and promote Indianapolis' quality of cultural life. Just the process of appointing a person to this position would help an incoming mayor realize that culture was not only part of his purview, but also a potential opportunity.

Bart Peterson was either unwilling or unable to get this done. The result was not so much a cultural policy as a jerry-rigged patchwork of initiatives that, in the end, proved all-too vulnerable to political whim.

For too long the operating assumption about public arts support here has been that, in the name of independence, it's preferable to keep a facilitating organization like the Arts Council at arm's length from the city's political machinery. But this kind of independence is also a form of disenfranchisement. It fails to embed the arts in the city's institutional reason for being. It also, unfortunately, perpetuates the impression that cultural policy, unlike public safety, say, or metropolitan development is, as its detractors like to claim, a frill.

This, unfortunately, is the way the arts have been treated for the past year in Indianapolis. It's been a change we could have lived without.

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