Indianapolis Art Center, Joyce Sommers

You see tall, old trees, through the windows of Joyce Sommers’ office at the Indianapolis Art Center. The inherent elegance of these natural forms is somehow complemented by the clean lines and warm tones of the space we view them from. This is, after all, a Michael Graves building we’re sitting in. It holds its stretch of Broad Ripple with the casual, unhurried flair one might easily associate with certain fantasies of aristocracy.

Given these outward appearances, anyone settling for a drive-by glance at this arts institution might conclude they’ve just passed another.Northside outpost for the privileged class. But that would confuse appearances with reality. And it would grossly underestimate the mission of the Indianapolis Art Center.

Sommers, the Art Center’s longtime president and energy source, describes art as a kind of joyous faith. “We believe that art is intrinsic to human development, that it’s critical.” She explains that the Art Center aims to educate, enhance, and enlighten the lives of anyone who will let it. “Art,” she says, “is a way to develop one’s self and survival in the future.”

Art, in fact, is so important to Sommers and her Art Center board members that they realized early on the center’s mission would never be fully realized if they camped their building and waited for people to come to them. Instead they created an aggressive, creative program, ArtReach, designed to reach into many of the city’s toughest neighborhoods.

ArtReach connects kids who might not otherwise ever receive arts instruction with the chance to learn from genuine artists and to make works of art themselves. It might even save a few lives.

From the 1950s into the ’80s, the Art Center sponsored outreach programs that sent volunteers into the prison and mental health systems to teach art classes to convicts and the mentally disabled. Then the Department of Housing approached the IAC about the execution of a mural program at the public housing site. The Art Center put Indianapolis muralist Carol Tharp-Perrin in touch with the project and within a month it was completed. Housing officials were so pleased with the results they began a collaboration with the ARt Center to provide arts experiences at 10 housing sites around the city.

Art Center staff member Bill Spaulding helped grow and formalize the program. Spaulding saw its potential for enhancing the lives of inner-city kids. He was a powerful advocate for the program with the ARt Center’s board as well as with a variety of agencies throughout the city. Spaulding was succeeded by David Thomas, who instituted a discipline-based method of arts instruction and helped to see to it that ArtReach became a permanent part of the Art Center’s organizational structure.

“It’s not over dramatic,” says Sommers, “to say that art has helped so many kids find a way to find faith in themselves… when they start making art they are looking inside of themselves and they end up with a product and their self esteem builds. We use the instrument of art for that, besides its intrinsic value.” ArtReach has proved so successful — and the Art Center has become so sensitized to the power of reaching into all parts of the community — that Sommers says that delivering services to the lesser served has become a constant investigation.

Most neighborhood arts programming takes place during the summer and may not visit the same site twice. But ArtReach is in effect year-round. The program divides the year into three terms and serves 300 kids per term. ArtReach now visits 22 sites in Indianapolis. The program employs 15 to 18 artists as faculty members. These instructors generally hold fine arts degrees — all have a passion for social engagement. In addition, all members of the Art Center’s board and staff visit one or more of the sites to experience the program first-hand. “I think,” says Sommers, “our board feels this is our biggest reason for being.. and the staff understands it’s the epitome of what art can do for humans.”

The ARt Center board’s resolve to stand by ArtReach was tested when the federal block grant that funded the program was cut by Congress. This loss of funds not only made it potentially impossible to pay instructors, it compounded security problems at most of the ArtReach sites. “Our faculty has experienced drive-by shootings; we’ve had one child injured and even in our mentor program we had one young man killed,” recalls Sommers.

The loss of funding also threatened one of ArtReach’s most significant characteristics — it’s continuity. “We were committed to continuity,” Sommers says.”By hook or crook we had to keep that program going so when these kids came back they wouldn’t be disjointed.”

But in order to keep the program going the ARt Center board was faced with operating in the red, approving a budget deficit for the first time in its history. “I didn’t even have to make the case,” remembers Sommers. “The board made it for themselves.” The IAC board committed to going forward with a deficit in the belief they would raise the money locally for ArtReach — and they did. The program, which costs $160,000 a year to produce, is now funded by the Central Indiana Community Foundation, the Christel DeHaan Foundation and a number of individual donors.

Sommers sees the arts making a practical impact on the social fabric of the city. “I think we infuse the community with more creative ways of problem solving… We all benefit when the person with the most problems among us is enabled to live a more constructive life.”