Has anything really changed?

David Hoppe

The Herron building

The red arrow has been retired. The year of cultural convergence is at an end. A lot has happened. But has anything in Indianapolis really changed?

2005 was supposed to be the year Indianapolis kicked its cultural life into a higher gear. How this would happen had less to do with a grand plan than with the momentum of events already set in motion. All it took was for someone - Keira Amstutz in Mayor Peterson's office gets the credit as far as I'm concerned - to appreciate everything that was going on and give it a name.

When Amstutz looked at the calendar for 2005, she saw the completion of high-profile construction projects, the arrival in town of national conventions for museum and music professionals, a particularly juicy array of festivals and, of course, given that culture here is often spelled s-p-o-r-t-s, the prospect that maybe, just maybe, this would be the year the Colts or the Pacers put it all together and brought home a championship.

By throwing a conceptual lasso around all these happenings, Amstutz did at least three things. First, she gave the Cultural Development Commission, the volunteer group responsible for driving the mayor's cultural initiative, a much-needed focus. Up until this time, the CDC had, like the mayor's initiative, been a good idea in search of some real world impact. But, also like the mayor's initiative, the CDC had found itself mired in seemingly endless rounds of meetings, surveys and pep talks. Declaring 2005 the year of cultural convergence gave the CDC an instant to-do list. This, in turn, gave the cultural initiative a welcome kick in the community assets. Finally, it had the virtue of stating the obvious: Indianapolis' cultural business is, in fact, picking up.

And so a marketing campaign was born. Large, rather ungainly, red arrows began not so much falling as being planted at events all over town. Whether these darts symbolized scarcity or abundance was debatable. That the arrows almost immediately became superfluous was not.

Bricks and mortar

For anyone who paid attention, there was a hell of a lot to do in Indianapolis - and not just on weekends. Whether enough people living here were aware of this to support the people and organizations presenting new work - or whether they cared for what was on offer - was another issue.

In any event, they had a bouquet of new and bigger places where they could look at art than they had ever had before.

Local architect Jonathan Hess pulled off a kind of hat trick by being hired to design three of the city's four major cultural building projects, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Eiteljorg expansions, and creation of the Herron School of Art and Design. If it hadn't been for the preemptive presence of Michael Graves at the Indianapolis Art Center's Artspark, Hess might have snagged that one, too.

Hess is an undeniable talent and, as architect of record at the Eiteljorg, might have had dibs on what to do with that building. But that one individual, whether by chance or design, should wind up leaving such a large imprint on the city's built environment has got to be called, at the very least, a lost opportunity.

Recently, museums in Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Cincinnati have made international news through bold architectural statements, turning themselves into significant works of public art. Given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the boards of the city's arts institutions ducked.

The city, of course, is still better off than it was before. All three institutions have been significantly enhanced. But nothing (short of the Super Bowl, that is) gets the attention of the rest of the world like state-of-the-art architecture. Since getting this kind of attention has been an explicit goal of the cultural initiative, the failure of these building projects to put Indianapolis on the architectural map must be scored a disappointment.

Awash in contemporary art

What's on offer in these buildings is another story. The major beneficiary of the expansions has been the audience for contemporary art. Suddenly Indianapolis is practically awash in the stuff. At last the Eiteljorg has a gallery to display its formidable collection of contemporary work. It could stand being larger - there still isn't enough of the work acquired through the extraordinary Fellows program on view as far as I'm concerned - but it's a start. Herron has doubled and upgraded its gallery on the IUPUI campus, creating a handsome downtown venue. Finally, the IMA's new Contemporary Galleries are almost a museum in themselves. Curator Lisa Freiman's dual passions for internationalism and integrating the works of local artists into the collection is, at once, visionary and sensible. And isn't that what the Indiana experience should strive for?

If the city's architectural projects drew blanks from the national media, "Otterness in Indianapolis," an outdoor installation of 25 bronze sculptures around the city by international art star Tom Otterness, succeeded in putting us on the radar. This was a coup, pulled off by the Arts Council's Mindy Taylor Ross with financial support from the CDC and Deborah Simon. The seeming whimsicality of the pieces barely disguised a biting critique of how contemporary capitalism manifests itself in today's urban spaces. "Otterness" was a promising first step toward the integration of art by significant contemporary artists in our public spaces. While it can hardly be called a setback, the current display of the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres' photograph of an open hand on public buildings and billboards around the city seems so enigmatic as to be virtually invisible.

Festivals with differing themes not only took pride of place throughout the city's summer months, but served to break new ground. Especially welcome was the return of a full-fledged Indy Jazz Fest following a temporary hiatus. The American Pianists Association succeeded in reorganizing the financially ailing event, which continues to bring some of the world's top musicians to town.

In August, Indy's first international Fringe Festival drew several thousand people to theaters in the Massachusetts Avenue cultural district for an eclectic mix of alternative performance art. Indy Fringe didn't just draw crowds, it appeared to attract people who had never before set foot in spaces like the Phoenix Theatre and Theatre on the Square. What's more, the event served as a kind of coming-out party for a number of this city's emerging theater companies, including productions by the Arden Theatre Co., Red Dragon, NoExit, Foreal, Rough Magic, Ganas, Indianapolis Art Theatre, Theatre Non Nobis and Peoples Playhouse. The collective presence of these companies signals the arrival of a new generation that's eager to redraw the boundaries of Indy's theatrical map.

The rub

Hardly noticed in this eventful year was a newfound stability at the Arts Council of Indianapolis. After Ramona Baker's resignation, a hush seemed to fall over the AC's offices, which, as time went on, began to feel like self-assurance. Ultimately, veteran administrator and interim director Greg Charleston was put in charge.

The existence of the Cultural Development Commission has allowed the Arts Council to stop trying to be a one-stop shop for art in Indianapolis. This has enabled the AC to sharpen its focus and could help to make it a more dynamic advocate for real arts progress. It could, that is, if the CDC is refunded in the coming year.

Funded with $10 million by the Capital Improvements Board and the Lilly Endowment, the CDC will be out of money at the end of '06. I've had my quibbles with some of the choices the CDC has made but, through it all, have applauded that board's entrepreneurial spirit. In addition to Otterness, the CDC has supported public art acquisitions, the Great Ideas competition and supplied a raft of fast track grants that have enhanced projects all over town.

And there's the rub. What happened in 2005 was not a culmination but a table-setting. How much Indianapolis has been changed by this year won't be clear until we have a chance to put our new facilities, special events and the many new people asking for support to the test. 2005 set the business of our cultural life at a higher pitch. Whether we can sustain that (and whether the Colts will win it all) is the question for 2006.