David Hoppe

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:: The Palladium's boffo budget

Moscow on the White River

By David Hoppe

If some of our local arts administrators have looked in need of a shot of Pepto-Bismol, maybe it's because of the latest news from Carmel, our plush cousin to the north. Last week, Steven Libman, the president and CEO of Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts, informed the good people of his adopted town that he will need $4 million in taxpayer's money to keep his stages humming for another year. That's over $2 million more than the city of Indianapolis invests in all the arts over a 12-month period.

Hence the heartburn among some of our arts workers.

As of the 2010 census, some 829,718 people reside in Indianapolis. Carmel is less than a tenth this size, at 79,191. But as America's Great Recession has so ably demonstrated, the hard times in this latest economic downturn have not been shared so much as parceled out, with the majority taking it on the chin while a small but affluent fraction have actually fared pretty well.

Well enough, that is, to build a $175 million complex that, since it opened last January, has attracted performers ranging from the Kronos Quartet to Clint Black.

And well enough to enable the Carmel City Council to ante up $2 million - more, it bears repeating, than Indianapolis' entire annual arts budget - each year for the past two years in order to cover Mr. Libman's administrative expenses.

The latest $4 million request doesn't really come as a surprise. At least it shouldn't. Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts has made no bones about its ambition, which is to establish itself as one the top concert venues in North America. Carmel's mayor, Jim Brainard, has been clear about this from the start. That's why he chose to make a performing arts complex the centerpiece of his plan for downtown Carmel's redevelopment. From his point of view, a world class arts venue sends a message 'round the world that Carmel (oh and, yes, the Indianapolis "metro" area) is a major league destination.

Running such a venue is not cheap. Even though the Palladium, the acoustically glistening neo-Victorian pile that serves as the Center's star attraction, has reportedly sold 93 percent of the tickets for its inaugural season, that revenue only covers less than half of the costs associated with this kind of enterprise. "It's more popular than we ever believed," Mr. Libman told the Star , adding, "The people in this community aren't going to settle for mediocrity. They only want the best, and that's what we will give them."

"Libman knows what he has to have," the Star quoted the infelicitously named Carmel council President, Eric Seidensticker. "The city's on the hook for the cost and Libman has that leverage point."

On one level, arts fans in this notoriously funding-stingy part of the world have to love this. Here you have Carmel, one of the most famously conservative communities in the nation, not only hitching its downtown development wagon to the arts, but effectively adopting a government-sponsored arts funding model that you'd expect to find in Amsterdam in the '80s or, for that matter, Moscow in the '60s.

And so the Center's 2012 budget is projected to be $13 million - which is almost twice what was originally estimated. Where Mayor Brainard once said the city would need to pitch in somewhere between $300,000 and $1 million every year to keep the Center going, now there is a request for $4 million.

"I'm not privy to the city's budget," Steven Libman told the Star, sticking it, you might say, to Eric Seidensticker. "What I do know is you don't build a performing arts center like this and abandon support."

Not that anyone is suggesting abandoning Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts. As has been noted, ticket sales have been great; the line-up of acts is impressive. People might, however, wonder just how much walking around money Steven Libman and his celebrity artistic director, Michael Feinstein, actually need in order to make the Center succeed.

It's great that Carmel has invested so plentifully in the Center. One hopes, with Mayor Brainard, that the arts will, in fact, fuel Carmel's continued growth and development. But those of us who advocate for the arts in this otherwise cash-strapped region also have cause to be concerned by the way Mr. Libman is playing his hand. No matter how successful the Center is, it will never, in itself, constitute what many creative people have been a trying to build in these parts -- a multi-dimensional cultural scene. Yet the funding demands being made on behalf of the Center could easily suck the air out the room for other initiatives - in the larger metropolitan area, as well as in Carmel.

What's more, if the Center should prove less than a spectacular hit in the long run, falling short in both commercial and civic terms, the story of its outsized demands could be used by arts skeptics as proof that their abiding suspicions - that the arts are self-indulgent, oversold and unsustainable - are justified.

There's a lot on the line in Carmel. So if your local arts administrator looks a little green, pass them something soothing - and give them a hug.