Do we need to be?David Hoppe

News that the newly expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York is charging adults a $20 admission fee has sent a shiver up the spines of culture vultures everywhere. Twenty dollars! Why, that's almost what it costs to sit in the nosebleed section at a pro basketball game. But never mind. The concern is that the dark side of America's ballyhooed art museum building boom could mean higher ticket prices everywhere to look at great works of art. Are we really supposed to be competing with Chicago? If so, put this in your pipe: Earlier this fall, the Cultural Development Commission celebrated its funding of five public art projects to the tune of $250,000. This was a significant step for us. But last summer Chicago completed its long overdue Millennium Park in which one piece of public sculpture, "Cloud Gate" by Anish Kapoor, cost $16 million.

Just as pornography is a test track for imagery that finds its way into advertising, the admissions policy at a flagship institution like MOMA is an early measure of what the upscale art crowd will bear. While it's tempting to applaud MOMA for chucking politically correct pretense about "outreach" like so much bad old '80s baggage, 20 bucks a pop is so, well, Marie Antoinette.

It makes one nostalgic in advance about our own Indianapolis Museum of Art, which, after a lifetime of free service, will be initiating a $7 fee upon completion of its expansion next May. These things happen. Doubtless there are business plans the size of cookbooks in the desk drawers of arts administrators all over this land explaining the necessity and justification for the corporate, swimming-with-the-sharks mode that's the current rage in the museum world. Tony Hirschel, who abruptly resigned as the IMA's leader just before Thanksgiving, probably had a small shelf of these tomes. You have to wonder if staring down the road at a lifetime of fund-raising is what got to him. I mean, he probably got into his line of work because of the art.

For Hirschel, and a lot of others like him, it must feel, sometimes, as if all the art in the world was finished a long time ago. Now they're stuck pushing business plans, market surveys and polling data around like they were deck chairs on a cruise ship. All the while begging for more money.

There's got to be another way.

While the creation of new and improved venues for the arts here in Indianapolis is encouraging, it's never been more important for us to remember the source material that gives these buildings their reason for being. I'm talking about art, of course, but not just that. The community, or scene, in which art literally takes place also has to be accounted for.

Our city administration's decision to make the arts a public policy priority was a smart move in terms of bringing Indianapolis up to speed with the 21st century. At the rate we're going, another 10 years or so and we may reach our very own version of Y2K. But this is where that $20 MOMA fee comes in. Maybe it's time for us to decide whether it's catching up we need to be doing - or whether something else is what's required.

What, for example, does it mean to be a "city" of a million souls or so in the middle of the Middle West? Are we really supposed to be competing with Chicago? If so, put this in your pipe: Earlier this fall, the Cultural Development Commission celebrated its funding of five public art projects to the tune of $250,000. This was a significant step for us. But last summer Chicago completed its long overdue Millennium Park in which one piece of public sculpture, "Cloud Gate" by Anish Kapoor, cost $16 million.

Are we there yet?

Do we need to be?

There are a number of ways that Indianapolis can distinguish itself as a unique cultural destination that needn't involve keeping up with the Chicagos or, for that matter, the New Yorks. We can start by taking an unvarnished look at what we need to do to demonstrably improve our overall quality of life. We might think about how it would feel, for instance, to be able to tell ourselves that we had one of the best public schools systems in the country. While we're at it, we might consider what it might do for our collective self-esteem to be able to say that we have the cleanest air and water for a town our size. Or that our public transportation system is second to none.

These things may not seem like cultural amenities. But not one of them is possible without a real, working, local culture. A place, that is, where people share values about what's important and can express themselves in a public way. Failing that, we get the culture we're more familiar with - one based on increasingly pricey entertainments and art objects. A culture, in other words, that has more to do with alienation than community.

Alienation, it turns out, is easy. Community building is hard. I'd like to think that's where the arts come in. "The answer is not discussion but direct experience," says Peter Brook, the legendary theater director. By creating works that put people in touch with this place in new and unpredictable ways, artists here have an opportunity to be indispensable agents in the city's cultural renewal.

Whether they will be able to afford admission to the institutions created in their name is another question.

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