During the recent brouhaha over the half-million dollar cut to the city’s arts budget, various statistics were used to try and help people understand the positive impact the arts have made on the city’s economy. Most notable among them was that Indianapolis has made five bucks for every tax dollar it has invested in cultural pursuits.

That, just about everybody would agree, is a pretty good rate of return. I wish I could say the same thing about my IRA.

The problem with statistics, though, is that they’re just marks on a page. If they could get up and dance, they’d be a lot more convincing. Sadly, statistics don’t dance and this makes them easier to ignore. And so, in spite of its handsome return to the city, the arts budget was cut by a third.

Meanwhile, for the past four years, IndyFringe, the off-the-wall theater festival, has been making a similar case about what the arts can do for the city — but in three dimensions. For 10 days in late August, IndyFringe lights up the Massachusetts Avenue Cultural District, making statistics come to life. This year, 50 local, national and international groups put on 250 shows. They drew almost 10,000 people to Massachusetts Avenue for the entertainment, restaurants, bars and shopping. Want to know how the arts can affect public safety? You don’t need statistics to see that a street buzzing with people enjoying themselves is safer than a street where nothing’s going on.

In its brief span of years, IndyFringe has succeeded in upsetting what’s passed for conventional arts wisdom around here. People used to say that it was pointless to schedule arts events during the summer. IndyFringe is in August. They said there wasn’t an audience here for the eccentric, the experimental or the outrageous. But IndyFringe offers all three in one form or another. And IndyFringe appears to be succeeding in attracting two slices of audience that all arts administrators lust for: young adults and suburbanites. It’s not unusual to overhear Fringe goers commenting that this is the first time they’ve come downtown for fun, or that they’ve never visited such Fringe venues as the Athenaeum, the Phoenix or Theatre on the Square before.

IndyFringe is now attempting to build on this foundation by launching a proposal that could have a game-changing effect on the Massachusetts Avenue corridor. The Fringe recently acquired the old church building at 719 E. St. Clair St., just east of College Avenue and within hailing distance of the Beilouny. The building is in the process of being rehabbed to serve as Fringe headquarters, as well as to provide rehearsal space for performance groups and, ultimately, a knockabout venue for FringeNext, the young peoples’ branch of the festival.

This, in itself, is good news, a working example of how a creative enterprise can revive a neglected structure and lend a needed boost to a strategically important location. The IndyFringe site is at roughly the halfway point on the Massachusetts Avenue corridor. At the moment, this is a dead zone, a disconcerting glitch in what should be a continuous ribbon of energy stretching farther east.

But the IndyFringe board sees an even greater potential for the site. Together with the Riley Area Development Corporation and the Central Indiana Community Foundation, the festival is exploring the possibility of creating partnerships to construct a new building on land immediately adjacent to the old church. This building would serve as a major landmark for the Cultural District, in effect creating a kind of triangulation between itself, the Athenaeum to the west and the Coca Cola plant to the east. In addition to being an architecturally significant building, incorporating LEED Certified Platinum design elements, thereby reducing utility costs and the need to raise rents, the new structure would serve as a live/work space for the performing arts community, providing affordable housing, as well as rehearsal space for small and emerging groups, an outdoor theater and two black box theaters that could also be used for film programming.

The project would help IndyFringe become self-sustaining while, at the same time, provide a dynamic anchor at the heart of the Massachusetts Avenue corridor that could serve the community for years to come.

It would also offer the city a splendid object lesson in what creative enterprise can do. A way to make those statistics about the benefit of the arts get up and dance on a daily basis.

The first public meeting connected with a feasibility study regarding this project will take place Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. at the Wheeler Arts Building, 1035 E. Sanders St. in Fountain Square.


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