Fall is upon us, the start of a new arts season in Indianapolis. Amidst the flurry of openings and anniversaries, the relocation of the Arts Council of Indianapolis to 8,500 square feet of prime office space overlooking Monument Circle is of special interest. These are handsome digs, featuring great views, an abundance of dark wood, nifty custom-designed doorways and, yes, even works of art by local artists. As an act of public presentation, the ACI"s new offices do exactly what they"re intended to: project an air of institutional - no, make that corporate - success. A visitor coming here for the first time would be hard-pressed not to feel that whatever Indianapolis might be doing for its artists, its arts administrators are doing very well indeed. Don"t get me wrong: I"m all for arts administrators working in great places and being paid professional-level salaries for the important work they do. The sad fact is that, for the most part, arts administrators are among the most highly-educated, over-worked and under-paid people you"re likely to meet. Nor do I begrudge the Arts Council its new home. But context is everything - and ACI"s move, coming as it does a little more than a year after the launch of Mayor Peterson"s Cultural Initiative, tells us more, perhaps, than we"d like to know about how this Initiative is likely to work. For a town that prides itself on having a certain "can-do" spirit, Indianapolis also has an odd predilection for building self-perpetuating bureaucracies. Maybe this is because the city has a history of top-down, even autocratic, management. If you want something done, you fill a room with an inner circle of powerful people who decide what to do and, after the wheels are turning, tell the public the "good news." This is how we put an interstate where a culturally significant African-American neighborhood was. It"s how we rebuilt downtown and became a so-called sports capital. Bureaucracies tend to form around those projects where the potential for dollar signs isn"t as obvious. In Indianapolis, these bureaucracies are often called "the not-for-profit sector." They raise money to do studies that show needs and opportunities so that more money can be raised in support of things, like the arts, that people agree are important but whose money-making potential remains in doubt. And so in Indianapolis we find the Arts Council cranking out one study after another that shows the arts do, in fact, make money. The arts, say the studies, attract tourists and provide jobs. Since, when it comes to the arts, the attitude of most of this city"s movers and shakers is less "can do" than "show me," the ACI is also ready to demonstrate that the arts are good for redeveloping neighborhoods, helping troubled youth and attracting young business executives. The problem with this approach to not-for-profit work is that it confuses goods and services whose value can"t be calculated with things that don"t make money. This confusion isn"t the sole possession of business people - it"s shared by many not-for-profit leaders as well. For 20 years, not-for-profits have been told that if they were "run like a business" their problems would be solved. The boom years of the 1990s prompted organizations to load their boards with business people who told them that the key to success was "growth." The result, particularly in the arts, hasn"t been a flourishing of creativity and free expression. Rather, we"ve seen the creation of a parallel marketplace where the best jobs are reserved for administrative numbers-crunchers and where art has become part of the service economy, valued not for itself, but for its ability to conform with a variety of civic agendas. Which brings us to the mayor"s Cultural Initiative and that corporate sparkle winking off the Arts Council"s new front door. The ACI"s offices project a greater fluency with the languages of business and bureaucracy than the arts and artists that give the organization its reason for being. One imagines artists showing up there being handed blazers to wear, after the fashion of old-time, upper-crust restaurants. If the ACI succeeds in wringing dollars for artists from the corporate community this might be acceptable. In the meantime, what seems more apparent is that artists are the least important constituency to be served by the ACI and, by extension, the Cultural Initiative. Designed (painstakingly) by bureaucrats to serve the needs of business people, the Cultural Initiative would make Indianapolis a nationally recognized cultural destination. This isn"t just a worthy goal, it"s vital if this city is to compete effectively for the talent necessary to build and sustain economic success. Studies - the kinds that not-for-profits like the Arts Council have become so adept at - consistently show that an authentic cultural scene makes an important contribution to a city"s viability. But it"s art, locally produced and nationally recognized, that will make this happen. And for the art to be good, artists have to be able to support themselves. The Arts Council could improve conditions for artists in a number of ways: ï Create artist registries for public art commissions ï Create a directory of qualified potential board members ï Provide legal, real estate and financial guidance ï Work with other organizations to offer artists health insurance ï Drum up more and yet more dollars for the creation of new work Up to this point, the Arts Council and its partners in the Cultural Initiative have shown a disconcerting unwillingness to actively engage real, live artists in their planning. For example, the roster of the initiative"s 13-member Cultural Development Commission is packed with names drawn from the city"s executive and administrative classes, but just two artists are included, Walter Knabe and Alpha Blackburn. Perhaps this is because the bureaucrats and business people prefer discussing things they consider important - things other than art.
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