Arts Council of Indianapolis and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Corporate Philanthropy and Artists and Arts/Culture and Public Art and Visual Arts

Arts Council ready to play matchmaker

February 5, 2007

Fresh from a six-figure score on behalf of local artists, the Arts Council of Indianapolis is continuing to broaden its approach to arts advocacy.

Leaders of the 20-year-old organization say they'd like to act as a cultural broker of sorts, making sure local artists are connected with possible patrons.

Its nascent efforts already have paid dividends. A Dallas architecture firm overseeing the $170 million expansion of Community Hospital North this fall agreed to spend $300,000 of its $400,000 art-commission budget in central Indiana. It had been planning to work primarily with out-of-state artists.

Project managers from Dallas were a bit reluctant to use local artists at first, said Bill Kingston, president of Community Hospitals Foundation, a not-for-profit that raises money to help support the hospital's mission

"They were skeptical that we had quality art that would fit the needs," he said.

But after Kingston put the architects in touch with the Arts Council--which arranged meetings and studio tours with local artists--the out-of-towners were convinced.

"They were blown away with the local work," Kingston said.

That's just a day at the office for the Arts Council, a local not-for-profit that's a clearinghouse of sorts for arts groups and artists alike. The agency oversees Indianapolis' much-heralded public art efforts, helping the city land the 25-sculpture Tom Otterness exhibit in 2005 and the current installation of Julian Opie's signs and other pieces.

But it does much more. In addition to managing the downtown Artsgarden, the agency offers educational programs, distributes city and state grants, and commissions research to track the economic benefit of the arts. Staff members also do what they can to make sure city and business leaders consider a cultural component when planning capital projects.

And the agency is helping local arts organizations bolster attendance by getting young adults involved. Currently in the second phase of a study of youngsters' attendance habits, the Arts Council is hosting a nationwide summit in April on how to reel them in. Confirmed speakers include the top national marketing guru for Starbucks Corp.

Now it's looking to become more of a matchmaker.

President Greg Charleston said the success of the Community North project has leaders looking for additional opportunities to be an art broker of sorts, hooking artists up with local commissions.

After all, the Community Hospitals Foundation made a $10,000 donation to the Arts Council as a thank you for the assistance.

The Arts Council first acted as a go-between about 2-1/2 years ago when it established a database of visual artists and arranged meet-and-greet sessions for them and local interior-design and architecture firms. The online database now includes more than 500 local visual artists and soon will include video and sound clips so musicians and dance troupes can take part.

Charleston said the agency also is working to get public art included in large city projects like Lucas Oil Stadium and the Indiana Convention Center expansion.

"It's about getting the arts at the table for discussions in all of these areas," he said.

The cost of art

Founded in 1987, the Arts Council has grown from just three employees to 16 full-time and three part-time workers. It runs on an annual budget of $5.5 million, including $2.5 million from the city and $554,000 from the state. Foundations, corporations and individual donors contribute another $1.9 million.

But more than half of that money flows right through the organization-$3 million goes out the door each year in the form of grants to local arts groups and individual artists.

Most large cities have an arts council to handle grants administration and to carry the load for audience development, said Michael Rushton, a professor of public arts administration at Indiana University in Bloomington. He said individual arts groups often can't afford to do the marketing necessary to get people interested in turning off their TVs and heading to cultural events.

And many of the arts councils get some kind of government support, he said, a funding source that's far from guaranteed.

Indeed, the local organization's revenue has been in flux in recent years. Indianapolis cut funding to the Arts Council 5 percent, to $2.5 million, in 2006, and the state cut its support 7 percent, to $554,000. This year, both the city and state flat-lined funding.

Still, the Arts Council's total budget increased $240,000 from 2005 to 2007, due mostly to the group's ability to line up $375,000 more in gifts from corporations, foundations and individuals.

But even without an increase, the current city funding level is a large increase over the not-so-distant past. Under Republican city administrations, aid to the Arts Council remained at $770,000 for years, said Republican City-County Councilor Earl Salisbury.

He said his constituents don't care as much about the arts as not having property taxes go up.

"My voters are working-class citizens ... and seem to have little or no interest in the arts," he said, adding that some residents of his west-side district rarely make it downtown to see the public art installations.

Given that mind-set, it may be difficult for the Arts Council and other arts supporters to convince Salisbury and others to sign on for the next big step in the agency's strategy-identifying a permanent source of city funding.

In the next three years, leaders would like to forgo the annual appropriation debate in favor of an earmarked funding source-such as a portion of an existing hospitality tax, a new entertainment tax or a city ordinance requiring a portion of any construction spending to go into a public art fund.

New York City, for example, requires 1 percent of eligible city-funded construction budgets be set aside for artwork. Wisconsin has a program requiring two-tenths of 1 percent of any state construction project's budget to go for art.

"An annual appropriation is just so tough because it's always based on what's happening in the politics and with the other needs of the city," Charleston said.

Salisbury said he's no fan of any idea that would entitle the Arts Council to automatic funding.

"I've loved the arts since I was a young man, but I don't go for taxpayers paying for it," he said.

IU's Rushton said cities and states that set up automatic funding streams for public arts programs usually have more success.

"You don't want cultural organizations to constantly be lobbying for their line items," Rushton said. "They should be focusing on [their mission]."

That would be just fine with local artists, especially those who landed some of the Community North commissions.

Indianapolis-based sculptor Scott Westphal said the $25,000 he's getting for a 12-foot-tall bronze sculpture will be the largest commission so far in his career.

"It's a wonderful opportunity they're giving local artists," Westphal said.

The Arts Council introduced painter John Domont to foundation officials. Domont has already completed a large commission for Community Hospital East. Now he's tackling a handful of paintings for Community North.

"For me to do public art at this stage in my career is a boon to my creative energies," he said. "I'm very, very grateful."

Rushton said there are some cautionary tales to learn from cities that haven't handled arts growth well, however.

A city has to understand what its goals are and whether the art is meant for residents or to lure tourists, he said. Indianapolis aims to do both, but Rushton said the tourist appeal is often oversold.

He gives the example of "Tilted Arc," a sculpture by Richard Serra that the federal government commissioned for a plaza in New York City. Installed in 1981, the 120-foot-long raw steel wall immediately drew the ire of area office workers who said it split up the plaza. Arts groups lobbied to have it remain, but in 1989, the federal government tore it down.

The main lesson, Rushton said, is that public art "must be something you're comfortable living with," not just something splashy to draw visitors.

"The vast bulk of arts consumption in American cities is by local residents," he said. "Indianapolis can invest in the arts, but the long-term health is going to depend on appealing to residents."

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