David Hoppe

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:: The Indianapolis Department of Cultural Affairs

It's time we had one

By David Hoppe

The city budget is in a state of shock. $22 million will have to be cut in 2011 due to a shortfall in tax revenues. So this might not seem like the most opportune time to be talking about how Indianapolis should grow its cultural policy and fund the arts. After all, everyone is still catching their breath after learning last week that Mayor Ballard isn't proposing further cuts to an arts allocation that's already been slashed by over 50 percent.

Shouldn't we arts advocates just hunker down and be grateful for what we've got?

I think this is actually the perfect time to reconsider Indianapolis' arts agenda. The recent cuts to public funding have revealed deeper, structural flaws in the way the city tries to address the arts. These flaws have prevented us from developing a coherent cultural policymaking apparatus. The result has left the Arts Council without any real political standing and, worse, an arts community that has yet to even approach the realization of its full potential in terms of benefits it brings the city.

It's time for Indianapolis to create a Department of Cultural Affairs. If the city is ever going to successfully add the arts to its portfolio of competitive assets, it must get serious about how it engages with its cultural resources. At the moment our cultural life is largely left to chance. Some would argue that this is by design, that the arts need to be independent and above political considerations. But being above politics also means that the arts sit at the children's table when the grown-ups make policy. And so-called independence means that, too often, the city misses opportunities to help turn good events into great ones.

Two recent examples come immediately to mind. For the past three summers, the Heartland Actors' Repertory Theatre has produced a Shakespeare play in White River Park. Each production has drawn a considerable crowd, bringing people outdoors and downtown, creating needed activity along the Canal Walk, and demonstrating a genuine demand for free theater. This is a community tradition that's practically readymade.

Yet HART was unable to raise the money to produce a second play this summer -- and the city missed a great opportunity. A Department of Cultural Affairs might have seen in HART's success the chance to make a strategic investment, enabling HART to mount a summer Shakespeare season and, in the process, enhancing downtown's identity as a cultural destination for everyone.

A Department of Cultural Affairs could also help make even more of our already successful IndyFringe Festival. So far, the Fringe has been a boon for the local theater scene. But, in spite of its best efforts, the Fringe has yet to translate into a dynamic street event. You can walk down Mass Ave during the Fringe and not be aware that there's a major performance festival taking place.

This is not the fault of the Fringe, which has its hands full, producing a great and incredibly diverse 10-day event. The city, however, is guilty of a failure of imagination for not using its offices to create incentives that would encourage the creation of a street festival, a Taste of Indianapolis, say, and make the Fringe a full blown urban celebration, attracting people from across the region. The trouble is that no such offices currently exist.

Critics will inevitably complain about the cost of creating a new city department. The arts, they'll say, should pull their weight in the marketplace. But this ignores the fact that city government has intervened substantially and at great cost in virtually every other aspect of urban development. The Colts and Pacers have, between them, benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars of public investment designed to keep them in Indianapolis. Corporations are given tax abatements and free real estate to locate here.

You have to be blind, lazy or both not to see the part the arts play in the success stories of other cities around the world. To disenfranchise one of the most basic urban building blocks by cavalierly saying it should pay its own way is like hoisting a white flag over Chase Tower proclaiming our stubborn refusal to invest in our creative class.

But disenfranchise the arts is what we've done. The mayor inadvertently adds insult to injury when he suggests that the city might somehow assist the battered Arts Council in raising private funds to make up for the public money it has lost. Apparently he doesn't get that this could put the Council in competition with the arts community it was created to serve.

This would unjustly undermine an organization that has played a necessary role in the development of Indianapolis' cultural resources. That role, though, has reached its limit. For Indianapolis to attain the next level of urban development, we need to change the terms of the cultural conversation by making cultural affairs an official part of city government. This isn't merely about supporting the arts - it's about how best to use the arts to support the city's aspirations.