The news that Marsh Supermarkets reached an agreement with the Maurer family to acquire the Atlas site at 54th and College for a new grocery store had a resonance that went beyond real estate and business dealing. Sure, it's nice that Northsiders will have a neighborhood market to go to instead of, say, a disco or some kind of low-rise condominium development. From what little we know about it, Marsh's plan to put a high concept store there stands a good chance of not only being successful, but of enhancing the neighborhood.
But, for those of us who made Atlas a regular part of our Indianapolis lives, it is impossible to hear this news without reflecting once again on what a remarkable treasure Atlas was and on the accomplishment of its owners, Sid and Eleanor Maurer.
Atlas was a grocery store, an independently run, family operation in one of the most competitive categories in American business. It was also as personal an expression of how one man happened to see the world as any work of art. Sid Maurer, with Eleanor's unflagging support, presided over Atlas the way a great conductor directs an orchestra. Whether Sid was standing up in his blockhouse, checking the accounts, or down on the floor, recommending a wine or knowing exactly where the bottles of pomegranate molasses were stacked, there was never a doubt that Atlas was a handcrafted operation in which every detail was accounted for.
Given the unforgiving complexities of the business, it had to be that way. Any breach of discipline could prove fatal. But it was clear that Sid's attention wasn't exclusively focused on the bottom line. He paid attention because that also enabled him to improvise in ways that other stores couldn't - or wouldn't. This meant that Atlas carried goods you couldn't get anywhere else; that if you asked for something, Sid would get it for you and stock it, too. For many of us, it also meant that if you were in a tight spot and money was short one week, you could get a break at Atlas, Sid would let things ride.
When you walked into Atlas, past the bustling check-out counters and those hanging, Pepsi generation light fixtures, you could feel the organic integrity of the place. It was the genuinely urban rush that comes when you find yourself somewhere that's able to welcome a wide variety of people with little or no visible effort. Atlas, in other words, felt like home to an awful lot of us. It was a great place to go if you had the blues, but it was just as nice to be there when things were going great. I'm convinced it was Sid's basic decency that allowed this to happen.
Sid seemed to understand business as a collaboration between equals - himself, his workers, customers and the neighborhood. Of course, he was the one in that lineup who was taking a risk. But Sid also seemed to understand that sincere collaboration was the best way to minimize that risk. To this day I still carry a blue Atlas check cashing card with Sid's initials written across one corner. It reminds me of the way public things are meant to be.
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The Cultural Development Commission recently announced that it was spending $250,000 on five public art projects. That's $50,000 more than was originally budgeted, but the commission members were so pleased by the projects being recommended they voted unanimously to authorize the money and go ahead. As is often the case in this town, there was virtually no public discussion.
I wish I could be as happy about these projects as they were.
Don't get me wrong, all five of the projects - 1) a request to support the Biennial Sculpture Exhibition at the new Herron sculpture park on the IUPUI campus, including acquisition of a permanent piece by James Wille Faust; 2) acquisition of two site-specific works by Truman Lowe for the Eiteljorg and the Indianapolis Art Center's ARTSPARK; 3) an Indianapolis Museum of Art-sponsored billboard campaign featuring a work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres; 4) permanent installation of the "Brick Head 3" piece on Massachusetts Avenue; and 5) installation of a Don Gummer sculpture that's been slated to go on a plaza outside the Lilly offices on South Meridian Street where the Farris Building used to be - consist of quality work. This is a net benefit for the city.
Acquiring works of art, though, for places that are accessible to the public is different from commissioning public art. The vast majority of the public, we know, rarely, if ever, goes to museums, art centers or college campuses. We might wish it otherwise, but that's the way it is. That's why public art - art that finds people in their everyday coming and going - can be so valuable. It adds to public life without anyone's having to make a consumer decision.
While some of these projects meet this criterion, the Herron, Eiteljorg and Art Center projects do not. Compounding the problem is that two members of the six-member Selection Committee, Lisa Freiman and Jennifer Complo McNutt, represent the IMA and the Eiteljorg. They are well-qualified and ethical professionals - which means they must feel at least a little uneasy with the incestuous appearance of the way things turned out.