One percent for the arts still too much for Indy

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You have to wonder who got to Mayor Ballard.

Who was the last one to whisper in Ballard’s ear, just in time to make sure he vetoed John Barth’s Percent For Art ordinance?

That, of course, is what happened.

The mayor, with his administration down to its final days, chose to snuff a program that had just been passed by the City-County Council by a vote of 18-9. On Dec. 14, that veto was sustained by the Council, 16-13.

With his veto, Mayor Ballard made sure Indianapolis would continue to be an outlier city in terms of cultural policy. As John Barth told the Indianapolis Star, there are as many as 350 Percent For Art programs operating in cities and towns across the country. This, in other words, is standard practice. It not only helps make urban neighborhoods more attractive, it’s a building block for an arts economy. Percent For Art programs take the work that artists contribute to construction projects as seriously as any of the other building trades.

Here is what Ballard said after killing the bill: “I tried hard to get to ‘yes’ on this proposal. Conceptually, I am in agreement with the intent. However, it has been made clear to me that the business/development community, the community most affected by this proposal and a group that I believe would be largely supportive, was not ever consulted. That is unacceptable. Not taking into account the views of all those affected is shortsighted and bound to create undue friction.”

Funny how the mayor is so concerned about “taking into account the views of all those affected.” The business owners who woke up one morning to find crews installing BlueIndy charging stations in spaces where their customers used to park would have appreciated a heads-up.

Over the course of his two terms, Ballard has managed to convince most of us that he’s been a sensible, if hardly visionary, mayor. If he hasn’t been what you’d call an arts leader, he hasn’t been an antagonist, which probably lulled city arts advocates into thinking there was more substance there than was actually the case.

Ballard’s made a point of showing up at arts events previous mayors would have skipped. His enthusiasm for projects like IndyFringe seems genuine — he can appreciate the kinetic charge it lends Downtown.

Like virtually all the city’s leading politicians, Ballard has learned to talk the talk about the importance of the arts. Where, back in Steve Goldsmith’s day, local pols viewed the arts with a mix of incomprehension and barely disguised contempt, they now freely pay lip service to the creative class.

They do it freely, that is, as long as it doesn’t cost them anything.

The trouble is, Indianapolis, like all cities, needs constant refreshing. Its fabled sports strategy has worked beyond expectation, but that was cooked up in the 1970’s. At some point, the city is going to have to show that it can do something else really well, like support an arts economy.

Percent For Art was a step in that direction. But somebody got to Ballard and told him one percent was too much.

Originally published at

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