The Starting Five, 2/3/2015

 

The city budget is in a state of shock. Officials will

have to cut $22 million in 2011 due to a shortfall in tax revenues. So this

might not seem like the most opportune time to be talking about how

Indianapolis should grow its cultural policy and fund the arts. After all,

the arts community is still catching its breath after learning last week that Mayor Ballard

isn't proposing further cuts to an arts allocation that's already been slashed

by over 50 percent.

Shouldn't

we arts advocates just hunker down and be grateful for what we've got?

I

think this is actually the perfect time to reconsider Indianapolis' arts

agenda. The recent cuts to public funding have revealed deeper, structural

flaws in the way the city tries to address the arts. These flaws have prevented

us from developing a coherent cultural policymaking apparatus. The result has

left the Arts Council, the city's non-profit arts agency, without any real

political standing and, worse, with an arts community that has yet to even

approach the realization of its full potential in terms of benefits it brings

the city.

It's

time for Indianapolis to create a Department of Cultural Affairs. If the city

is ever going to successfully add the arts to its portfolio of competitive

assets, it must get serious about how it engages with its cultural resources.

At

the moment our cultural life is largely left to chance. Some would argue that

this is by design, that the arts need to be independent and above political

considerations. But being above politics also means that the arts sit at the

children's table when the grown-ups make policy. And so-called independence

means that, too often, the city misses opportunities to help turn good events

into great ones.

Two

recent examples come immediately to mind. For the past three summers, the

Heartland Actors' Repertory Theatre (HART) has produced a Shakespeare play in White

River Park. Each production has drawn a considerable crowd, bringing people

outdoors and downtown, creating needed activity along the Canal Walk, and

demonstrating a genuine demand for free theater. This is a community tradition

that's practically readymade.

Yet

HART was unable to raise the money to produce a second play this summer — and

the city missed a great opportunity. A Department of Cultural Affairs might

have seen in HART's success the chance to make a strategic investment, enabling

HART to mount a summer Shakespeare season while, in the process, enhancing

downtown's identity as a cultural destination for everyone.

A

Department of Cultural Affairs could also help make even more of our already

successful IndyFringe Festival. So far, the Fringe has been a boon for the

local theater scene. But, in spite of its best efforts, the Fringe has yet to

translate into a dynamic street event. You can walk down Mass Ave during the

Fringe and not be aware that there's a major performance festival taking place.

This

is not the fault of the Fringe, which has its hands full, producing a great and

incredibly diverse 10-day event. The city, however, is guilty of a failure of

imagination for not using its offices to create incentives that would encourage

the creation of a street festival — a Taste of Indianapolis, say — and make the

Fringe a full blown urban celebration, attracting people from across the

region. The trouble is that no such offices currently exist.

Critics

will inevitably complain about the cost of creating a new city department. The

arts, they'll say, should pull their weight in the marketplace. But this

ignores the fact that city government has intervened substantially and at great

cost in virtually every other aspect of urban development. The Colts and Pacers

have, between them, benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars of public

investment designed to keep them in Indianapolis. Corporations are given tax

abatements and free real estate to locate here.

You

have to be blind, lazy or both not to see the part the arts play in the success

stories of other cities around the world. To disenfranchise one of the most

basic urban building blocks by cavalierly saying it should pay its own way is

like hoisting a white flag over Chase Tower proclaiming our stubborn refusal to

invest in our creative class.

But

disenfranchise the arts is what we've done. The mayor inadvertently adds insult

to injury when he suggests that the city might somehow assist the battered Arts

Council in raising private funds to make up for the public money it has lost.

Apparently he doesn't get that this could put the Council in competition with

the arts community it was created to serve.

This

would unjustly undermine an organization that has played a necessary role in

the development of Indianapolis' cultural resources. That role, though, has

reached its limit. For Indianapolis to attain the next level of urban

development, we need to change the terms of the cultural conversation by making

cultural affairs an official part of city government. This isn't merely about

supporting the arts — it's about how best to use the arts to support the

city's aspirations.

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