"The cost of competition’s going up

The smiling crowd that gathered at the Artsgarden last week had good reason to be happy. The Lilly Endowment, like the Seventh Cavalry in an old episode of Rin Tin Tin, was coming to the rescue of the city’s Cultural Development Commission.

The CDC is a volunteer board that was formed five years ago to bring energy and focus to Mayor Peterson’s cultural initiative. Its members include the leaders of the Arts Council, Indianapolis Downtown Inc., the Convention and Visitors Association, the Central Indiana Community Foundation and the Mayor’s Office. It was initially funded in 2001 with $10 million, half of which came from the Lilly Endowment. The other half was provided by the Capital Improvement Board, which continues to serve as the CDC’s institutional sponsor. This amount was to be used over the course of five years, which meant that the CDC would run out of money on Dec. 31, 2006.

That would have been a shame.

The CDC has pretty much done what it set out to do. Its funding has raised the profile of public art in a city that paid scant attention to such things. Last year’s subtly subversive Tom Otterness show enlivened downtown streetscapes; a collection of installations by the English sculptor Julian Opie promises to do the same this summer. The CDC has also supported such smart, if modest, efforts as the Great Ideas competition, the creation of site-specific art pieces in downtown windows and the resurrection of the poetry on the buses project — all of which have served to engage local artists.

Thanks to the CDC, the city now has a collection of cultural districts, a useful organizing principle for the development of creative, neighborhood-oriented projects. The CDC has also been responsible for promoting and marketing Indy’s cultural scene, at home and throughout the region. These efforts culminated in last year’s Cultural Convergence campaign, which sought to capitalize on a bevy of openings, expansions and special events. CDC “Fast Track” grants have enabled arts entrepreneurs to get the word out about new projects and take advantage of late-breaking opportunities.

The CDC, in other words, has played a significant role in helping Indianapolis recover its cultural pulse after years of official neglect. Let’s face it: Before Peterson and, by extension, the CDC, this city was on cultural life-support, a place with enduring potential and zero recognition. The CDC has managed to put some balls in motion, but little, in fact, has been accomplished here that couldn’t easily disappear tomorrow without continuing support.

So the Lilly Endowment’s coming up with another $2.5 million to see the CDC through to the end of 2008 is good news. “Our cultural development initiatives have certainly built strong momentum, and this grant assures our focused efforts will continue to solidify our city’s reputation as a world-class destination,” said the mayor, adding, “We plan to leverage even more resources and generate more creative ideas to help our city grow and prosper more culturally so that we can attract and retain talented workers.”

Get it? Investing money in the arts isn’t just about making the city more amusing. This is economic development we’re talking about, our city’s ability, as Fred Glass, the head of the Capital Improvement Board, noted, to be “competitive.”

But if competition’s what we want, $2.5 million isn’t close to being enough. Take a gander at what’s happening in a Midwestern city that rhymes with Indianapolis: Minneapolis. This summer, Minneapolis is making headlines thanks to a series of architecturally adventurous projects, including a new Guthrie Theatre complex, a new public library by Cesar Pelli and a major addition to its Institute of the Arts by Michael Graves. Last year they added a new contemporary art center by the architects who created Tate Modern in London.

While Indianapolis brags about moving from 24 to 21 in American Style magazine’s list of 25 arts destinations, magazines that people have actually heard of, like Travel + Leisure, are naming Minneapolis one of its top five travel destinations for 2006 (the only American city on the list). Smithsonian Magazine proclaims the Twin Cities are hot and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine rates them No. 2 among its “smartest places to live.” Two weeks ago, the Chicago Sunday Tribune devoted almost three pages to what’s happening in Minneapolis.

According to a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, the Twin Cities have a “long history of generous corporate and private support for the arts and culture.” The Guthrie project also received $25 million in bonding from the state Legislature — imagine that. The artistic director of the Guthrie is quoted saying something arts advocates in Indianapolis are used to repeating in their sleep: “We just have to try harder. We don’t have a mountain range or an ocean or other things to attract people.”

They’re spending half a billion dollars on these projects up north. If that sounds like a lot of money to you, check out the pit they’re digging south of the Convention Center. The new football stadium will cost more than all those Twin Cities projects put together: over $600 million. That’s not to say it’s necessarily a bad idea.

But the cost of competition’s going up.