"What Caroline Mecklin told me 

The city’s artists and arts advocates gathered at the Artsgarden last week for the Arts Council’s awarding of grants and fellowships. Outside it was 90 degrees and dry as an old stick, but inside the Artsgarden it was air-conditioned and the sunlight seemed commissioned especially for the celebration.

The Arts Council is marking its 20th anniversary this year and, as a kind of birthday present, it released the findings of a national study undertaken by Americans for the Arts measuring the arts’ economic impact across the United States. Called “Arts & Economic Prosperity,” this study gathered data in 116 cities, including Indianapolis, allowing us to see how we compare to other places in ways that have never been possible before.

The news is encouraging. The Arts Council’s Dave Lawrence announced that Indy’s arts economy has been growing at twice the national average, generating nearly half a billion dollars in economic activity. This is a far cry from the bad old days when the City-County Council had to be cajoled to approve funding for the arts at levels that were embarrassing compared to other cities. Now it seems the politicians and policy-makers have embraced the arts. As the old saying goes, they may not know much about the arts, but they know what they like: the color of money.

One of the pleasures of going to a get-together like this is the opportunity it affords to mingle with old friends. I hadn’t run into the artist Caroline Mecklin in ages, but there she was, standing in the shade of a potted tree. I think Caroline is one of the most interesting painters working in Indianapolis today. She’s fascinated by the human body, and her work challenges us to really look at what Shakespeare called our mortal coil. Ultimately, this means that Caroline challenges us to think about the ways we regard our most intimate selves.

It happens that Caroline and I were in the same class at the same liberal arts college, a school called Macalester, in St. Paul, Minn. We were barely acquainted in those days and so had no reason to keep track of one another. Somehow we both wound up in Indianapolis.

Caroline and I exchanged a few artful pleasantries at the Artsgarden. Then she told me that Antioch, one of the most venerable liberal arts colleges in the country, is closing.

Antioch College is located in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Apparently it is going broke. The student body has fallen to less than 500 students; faculty and programs have been cut. The plan now is for Antioch to close as of July 1, 2008, undertake a massive fund-raising campaign and, hopefully, reopen in 2012 with a new “state of the art” campus and a reconceived curriculum. We’ll see.

The so-called liberal arts education provided by schools like Antioch appears to be an endangered species. The skyrocketing cost of a college education and the resulting debt burden being carried by most recent graduates has prompted many students to demand a more market-oriented approach to higher ed. When you consider that most kids graduate from college owing $18,000 or more in loans, their interest in being able to make payments as quickly as possible isn’t academic.

But this situation confuses training with education. The liberal arts education that Caroline and I experienced allowed us the time and flexibility to explore a variety of disciplines, to understand creative processes and to make unexpected discoveries — qualities, by the way, that many business leaders now say they’d like to see in more job applicants.

We not only learned from our teachers, but from fellow students in a scene that freely mixed artists with psych majors, economists with dancers, biologists and poets. In the house where I lived, we had a painter, a historian, two English majors and a political scientist. Hanging out with those people was an education in itself.

The liberal arts education has never been for everybody. But that fewer and fewer of us can afford one is a looming cultural problem. For several generations in this country, the liberal arts education has been the bullpen for the arts, the arena in which young adults taste and try on a variety of unfamiliar arts experiences, from the classical to the avant-garde. These students have gone on to become the arts’ core audience in most cities.

That’s why I’d guess Antioch’s closing was on Caroline Mecklin’s mind when I saw her last week at the Artsgarden. Sure, the sun was shining and the news about Indy’s arts economy was good. But outside our glass bubble the breeze was hot, the land sorely in need of rain.



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