Cultural initiative finds focusDavid Hoppe

There was a lot of excitement in a conference room up on the 19th floor of the Bank One Tower last week. The Cultural Development Commission was meeting there and, by their own admission, they are an excitable bunch. In fact, it seems that hardly anyone on the CDC board is able to begin a public utterance without assuring the rest of the group that he or she "is excited" about what happened at a recent neighborhood meeting, task force gathering or planning session. Being excited seems an almost ritualistic state for some of these civic enthusiasts. Ask one of these folks how they're doing today and instead of saying, "Fine," like the rest of us, they are likely to exclaim, "I'm excited!"

Being excited seems an almost ritualistic state for some of these civic enthusiasts. Ask one of these folks how they're doing today and instead of saying, "Fine," like the rest of us, they are likely to exclaim, "I'm excited!"

The only problem with this abundance of arousal is that it makes it difficult for observers like myself to tell whether or not these guys actually have anything to be excited about. To be honest, for the past couple of years the work of this group has been, shall we say, dutiful. They dabbled in advertising - the woefully under-funded, too easily parodied "Arrive Curious" campaign. They paid Freeman Whitehurst, a pair of top-notch consultants, to come up with recommendations about how the city should think about public art. They designated five neighborhoods "Cultural Districts" and took a year to get those neighborhoods to agree that they needed decorative signage to distinguish themselves. They gave a lot of grants to help organizations with self-promotion. And they have held seminars with local hospitality workers to instill a sense of, well, excitement about Indianapolis as a cultural destination.

What the Cultural Development Commission has been unable to do is get its collective arms around an idea or project that might make its work tangible to most people who actually live here. The result is that their work has lacked focus and urgency - but that may be about to change.

For a period of time beginning in the latter half of this year and then running throughout 2005, Indianapolis is going to be a busy place. As fate would have it, the city will see the completion of a number of major building projects, including expansions at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Eiteljorg, the new Herron School of Fine Art and Gallery and the Arts Park at the Indianapolis Art Center.

There will also be a number of significant anniversaries. The Symphony will be 75. Black Expo will be 35. The Artsgarden will be 10.

Several major conventions will be coming here for the first time: the American Association of Museums, the Association of Children's Museums and the National Association of Music Merchants.

Finally, the city's sporting calendar will, in addition to its regularly scheduled major league and motor racing events, offer the NCAA Men's Basketball tourney, the Women's Final Four, U.S. Gymnastics Championships and golf's Solheim Cup.

In her presentation to the CDC, Keira Amstutz, the mayor's special assistant for cultural affairs, was right to point out that this is a pretty impressive array of happenings for a city our size. She proposed that the CDC consider them in total, as a kind of festival. Doing so, she said, would give Indianapolis unprecedented opportunities to promote itself to residents and visitors, generate regional and national publicity and create opportunities for collaborations on special projects with arts and cultural organizations. All of these events, Amstutz suggested, would bring thousands of people to Indianapolis for the first time. The challenge, then, is to capitalize on these opportunities and make sure the city is alive with plenty of additional things for them - and us - to experience.

What Amstutz didn't say was that this constellation of events provides the CDC with the focus and sense of urgency it has, until now, lacked. 2005 is less than a year away. There's a hell of a lot to do for an organization not known for its nimbleness. But this proposal gives the city's cultural initiative a needed jump-start.

The proposal was met with enthusiasm - and maybe a touch of relief - by the CDC board. Several members, though, expressed concern that this be more than a temporary fling. They wondered about follow-up.

My guess is that, in this case, follow-up means that what happens in 2005 becomes the city's permanent state. The great virtue of this proposal is that all the events being talked about have been developed as part of the city's on-going business. By the same token, little is happening in 2005 that can be allowed to go away in '06 or '07 without a palpable sense of loss. Yes, there will be some grand openings - but the IMA and the rest will then be open forever afterward. The challenge for those institutions - for the city as a whole - will be to maintain a high pitch of ambition.

What's happening here in 2005 is what should be expected of any place aspiring to be a cultural destination. It means staying open seven days a week, 12 months a year - and providing the kinds of public and private support necessary to make that happen. It'll mean losing sleep and working hard with no end in sight. And, yes, that will be exciting.