"What Ballard better understand

In 1998, a year before he ran for mayor the first time, Bart Peterson called NUVO and requested a meeting. Actually, it was Michael O’Conner, the man who would be Peterson’s campaign manager, who made the call. This was a strong tip that although Peterson had yet to declare himself a candidate, an announcement was in the offing.

The reason for the meeting, we were told, was that Peterson wanted our take on the city’s cultural scene. At the time, NUVO was located in a broken-down building off the canal in Broad Ripple; we used black plastic garbage bags for ceiling tiles. I’d be lying if I said that a prospective mayoral candidate soliciting our opinions about anything wasn’t a little flattering.

But I’ve also got to say that my colleagues and I walked out of that meeting rolling our eyes. We had gone in with high hopes. It’s worth remembering that this was the burnt end of the Goldsmith Administration. On his best days, Stephen Goldsmith had a take-it-or-leave it attitude about the city’s cultural life. At his worst, he seemed to view the arts scene here as a nest of political adversaries. The result was one of the lowest big city arts budgets in the country. That Peterson was even curious about Indianapolis arts was good news. There was just one problem: As our meeting unfolded, we got the distinct impression Peterson was culturally clueless. When we asked him what he liked, he couldn’t name a single thing. And when we asked what accounted for his interest in the arts, he gave us the same answer that Goldsmith was wont to fall back on: He got a kick out of seeing the pleasure his daughter derived from her elementary school arts activities.

Imagine our surprise, then, to find that, within a matter of months, now candidate Peterson was going around town not only talking about the importance of developing a cultural policy for the city, but sounding smart about it.

This is what I’ll miss the most about Bart Peterson.

His great instincts and capacity to learn made it possible for him to see the importance of developing a cultural policy here before it was fashionable for the tasseled-loafer crowd to talk about the “creative class.” Although he may not have been able to articulate it at first, Peterson knew something was seriously lacking in Indianapolis, something that was keeping this city from taking its rightful place among urban destinations in our region. The evidence was plain to see, most notably in our notorious “brain drain,” the city’s inability to attract and retain the young, educated adults who comprise the human capital necessary to create and sustain new, knowledge-based businesses.

After a few false starts, Peterson’s cultural initiative finally found its legs in the development of cultural tourism, the formation of neighborhood cultural districts and creation of a Cultural Development Commission that has served as a funding catalyst for projects and programs. In the meantime, we have seen public funding for the arts increase to $1.5 million a year, a total that places us at a respectable level with peer cities.

These efforts haven’t completely solved the brain drain, but there is no denying they’ve made things substantially better. There are more reasons for young adults to want to live in Indianapolis than ever before. And for the bean counters among us, there’s this: Earlier this year, a national study found that cultural enterprise in Indianapolis adds half a billion dollars to the local economy.

For all its problems, Indianapolis is a far more interesting place to live today than it was eight years ago. But there’s no denying it’s the city’s problems that have come to the fore lately, and that’s why Bart Peterson is no longer our mayor.

Anger is what defined this mayoral election. Greg Ballard’s slogan, “Had enough?” was sufficient to get him elected in a low-turnout contest. But now that enough is enough, the question for Ballard is, what’s next?

What little he’s said on cultural policy so far isn’t encouraging. He’s called the arts “nonessential,” an easy, and inaccurate, thing to say. Ballard has been right to place an emphasis on fighting crime; he may also be right in how he wants to do it. But now that he’s mayor he’s got an entire urban ecosystem to sustain.

Surely Ballard knows that it will take more than cops to get crime under control. Economic vitality is the basis for a safe city. If he’s as shrewd as his successful campaign suggests, he should see that, for relatively little cost, the city’s investment in its cultural resources has paid dividends many times over.

Bart Peterson got this and Indianapolis is better for it. Now it’s Greg Ballard’s turn. 



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