It used to be easy to say that Indianapolis was a hard town for artists, but a great town for arts administrators. That's because risk-averse funders preferred to spend their money on things like bricks and mortar and board development; things, in other words, that tended to make arts here more corporate than controversial.
But that was then. The meltdown of the financial markets in late 2008 exposed the flaws in the bubbly corporate grow-or-die approach to life. Suddenly swimming with the sharks seemed foolhardy instead of cool.
It seems no one's been immune from the market crash. And even though Wall Street's made a considerable comeback since last March, this hasn't kept our arts institutions, whose endowments absorbed significant hits, from laying off workers.
The problem's been compounded by the fact that things are tough all over. With rising unemployment, more demands than ever have been placed on social service agencies. Private funders who might once have been counted on for contributions to the arts have begged off in order to direct their resources to such primal concerns as food and shelter.
But that's raised another issue: priorities. While no one can deny the importance of food and shelter, it seems there's been a shortage of voices prepared to speak up for the primal importance of the arts to the life of the community, especially those parts of the community associated with children, the disadvantaged and the disabled.
It was a shift in priorities, not a lack of funds, which prompted the Indiana Department of Education to walk away from longtime provider Very Special Arts Indiana, an organization dedicated to connecting artists with special needs kids in schools and community centers. Those programs have now been virtually eliminated.
Young Audiences of Indiana, the state's leading arts education programmer, has also seen many of its funding sources wither. In light of these developments, one has to wonder how or whether kids in Indiana public schools will have any firsthand experience of the noncommercial arts.
Damaging as these cuts may be for kids, they are dire for Indiana's artists. This is a state with a tissue-paper arts economy. For many artists, work in schools is a primary source of income. The loss of VSAI and YA monies means that many artists will have to find new forms of livelihood — or seriously consider leaving the state.
This is not to say the local scene was without its bright spots — occasionally in unexpected places. The City-County Council, for instance. The CCC had a chance to pull the plug on city arts funding this year; indeed, they had taken a meat cleaver to it in 2008. But when the Capital Improvement Board, in the midst of its own fiscal blood-letting, killed its share of arts funding, councilors seemed to wake up to the gravity of the situation. Members of both parties spoke of the arts' importance to the city's vitality in ways rarely heard under the City-County Building's unforgiving fluorescent lights. It almost seemed as if these hacks had found religion — it was just a shame they came to this realization at a time when there was so little they could do about it.
Meanwhile, it was hard not to detect a generational shift in the city's arts scene. If a lot of familiar faces, from the ISO's Mario Venzago and Butler University's John Green, to David Kwasigroh at the Art Center and the Murphy Art Center's Phil Campbell, took their final bows, other, younger aspirants rushed in to try their hands.
Larry Jones and Craig Von Deylen took possession of the Murphy Art Center in Fountain Square, holding out the promise of not just reinvigorating that cultural landmark, but building on it by entering into an agreement with contemporary art space iMOCA to create a permanent home for that enterprise.
As if that wasn't enough for Fountain Square, the White Rabbit Cabaret, a performance art spin-off of Motus Dance Theatre led by Deborah Silveus, has staked a claim across the street from battle-tested new music destination Radio Radio.
Indeed, after a long stretch of playing second cousin to the city's visual arts and music scenes, a new wave of performing artists are vying for attention. The annual end-of-summer IndyFringe festival has played no small part in this development. By making sure that performers get 100 percent of their gate receipts, IndyFringe may be the only place in town where a group can perform and actually make a little money. It's the performance equivalent of a mushroom garden.
But IndyFringe isn't the only game in town. Rod Isaac's Theater Within at the Church Within (Fountain Square, again) has become a kind of actors' lab. And John Green's influence during his years with Butler University's theater department is paying dividends through the collaborative work of NoExit, a group made up largely of Green alumni. Their site-specific production of Antigone on the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art last fall was one of the most assured and adventurous performance pieces this city has seen.
Film may also be finally coming into its own in Indianapolis. Anne Laker at the Indianapolis Museum of Art has had a hand in this, both through her own programming in the new, ultra-cool Toby Theatre, and by offering this high-toned venue for use by local festival organizers. The Indianapolis International Film Festival and the LGBT Film Festival both used the Toby to showcase their increasingly ambitious line-ups this year. The Toby is beginning to look like the arthouse cinema that local film fans have longed for. Now we'll see if there are enough of those fans to support it.
Which, ultimately, is the question facing the city's creative class, whatever their medium or message. As artist and gallery impresario Casey Roberts told Julianna Thibodeaux in a recent NUVO story, "I think the Indianapolis art scene has been distilled down to its base." He was describing a tendency to see the same 100 people everywhere he goes. That has to change. The generational shift we're seeing in presenters and creative entrepreneurs needs to carry over to audiences showing up to support the work and, yes, the institutions that provide the venture capital necessary not just to lift new ideas, but to sustain them.