Don"t blow it When Mayor Bart Peterson spoke to the city"s first conference on cultural tourism, he told the crowd that his cultural initiative represented a "once in a generation" opportunity for the city. He also said he didn"t want to "blow it." That was two summers ago, June 2000. Now, in November 2002, it"s beginning to look as though Peterson"s worst fears may be coming true. His cultural initiative, an object of hope and enthusiasm for many of his most vocal constituents, appears to be foundering. What promised to be a key to the city"s 21st century identity seems on the verge of becoming a bureaucratic gimmick. I write this after having had occasion to sit in on a meeting of some of the city"s leading art gallery owners. Among those in attendance were Mark Ruschman, Doris Hails, Tom Battista, Jeff Martin, Jennifer Kaye, John Domont and David Kadlec. Their gathering was originally prompted by frustration. It seems they feel left out of the loop as the city"s planning for cultural tourism goes forward. What"s wrong with this picture? Here was a group including some of the city"s most dedicated arts entrepreneurs - people committed to making art a livelihood in Indianapolis. People for whom Indianapolis is already an arts destination. These professionals have managed to stay afloat in a challenging market - indeed, they"ve practically invented the local arts market. They are, in other words, experts. You"d think the cultural tourism planners could benefit from their input. But their input is not being solicited. In this, the gallery owners can take their place alongside a growing number of cultural activists who say that, when it comes to the mayor"s initiative, they feel like spectators. Though Marty Peters, hired to direct the initiative, frequently makes a point of referring to all the people she"s been networking with, somehow the owners of art galleries have apparently been left off her contact list. How is this possible? Indianapolis" art scene isn"t that hard to navigate; the Yellow Pages listing for Art Galleries, Dealers and Consultants fills about a page - you find it right below Army & Navy Goods. It seems, though, that Peters and the other architects of the initiative - the leaders of our Arts Council, Indianapolis Downtown Inc., the Convention and Visitors Association and the Capital Improvements Board - have decided, rather like Maoists during the Cultural Revolution, that arts expertise didn"t exist here before June 2000. From that time forward, the city"s cultural life will be what Arts Council surveys and Cultural Development Commission consultants say it is. It"s like Gannett buying The Indianapolis Star and cutting loose its corps of local writers and editors. While the old paper was nothing to brag about, a lot of people worked there who possessed an invaluable amount of local knowledge and professional know-how. Given a chance, they might have been deployed to great community benefit. The city is also blessed with a tremendous number of accomplished arts people - scholars, administrators and various practitioners - eager to help make the mayor"s cultural vision a reality. Instead of embracing them, city bureaucrats have preferred to hire outside consultants, a practice that threatens to turn the cultural initiative into an insider"s game, more about control than creativity. Many people, of course, have doubted the validity of the cultural initiative from its first unveiling. They tend to view the arts as decorative market commodities in need of little public policy attention. Having been won over by the mayor"s emphasis on tourism, they now see dollar signs where they didn"t before. For them, culture now equals whatever attracts consumers downtown. Pragmatic as this view of culture is, it doesn"t come close to explaining the importance of the arts to public policy - or why the mayor"s original vision was so enlightened. Wherever the arts are an integral part of public policy you are also likely to find a community that places a premium on citizen participation and process. The arts encourage communication, discourse and sustainable systems in which people can actually agree to disagree. In Indianapolis, a real cultural initiative could provide a platform where the city"s historical tendency toward exclusionary decision-making might be opened up, where neighborhood dialogue would be facilitated and individuality honored. Making the arts part of public policy is ultimately about changing the way public policy is made. Such an initiative becomes cultural in the truest sense of the word: It reflects a set of values that define a community and provide its identity. Seen in this light, the cultural initiative becomes the key to creating an urban environment capable of attracting not just tourists, but the professionals necessary to make Indianapolis a viable contributor to a knowledge-based, creative economy. In 2000, Mayor Peterson warned that the cultural initiative he envisioned would take 25 years to realize. "My fear," he said, "was the government tends to take a short-term view of things." At the time, this statement seemed to reflect a healthy sense of realism. Now, however, it sounds a little hollow, almost like a preemptive cop-out. Not because we"re two years down the road and miracles haven"t happened. But because we"re two years down the road and the buzz one hears about the cultural initiative is generated not by the city"s cultural workers, but by the purveyors of public relations. The mayor should find this troubling. His cultural initiative may be closer to being blown than he realizes.

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