When I was in city hall in the late 1970s, the goal was to make Indianapolis a “world class” city. That wasn’t just rhetoric used by Mayor Hudnut. It was echoed by the City Committee (now long defunct) and by Lilly Endowment, which generously facilitated the goal.
The decision to turn Indianapolis into an amateur sports capital wasn’t made because city leaders loved sports. It was based on a hardheaded analysis of where Indianapolis had a comparative advantage. The goal was city-building, and sports were a means to that end.
That was then, and now is now. There is no longer a City Committee, and the endowment—while still generous—no longer partners with city officials. Our current mayor is not a visionary (to put it kindly). Worse, Indianapolis has lost many of the corporate headquarters from which we used to draw private-sector civic leadership.
Now, we are in danger of seeing the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra—a symphony befitting a world-class city, a symphony of which we have been justifiably proud—become a part-time (read “second-class”) enterprise.
The symphony faces significant financial problems. It will obviously be important to determine the cause of those problems and the prospects for long-term viability.
I have no idea what the problems are. But I do know one thing: In addition to being a beloved part of our city’s cultural scene and a point of pride, the symphony is important to our local economy.
Nationally, not-for-profit arts organizations generate $135 billion in economic activity annually, supporting 4.1 million jobs and generating $22.3 billion in government revenue. Investment in the arts supports jobs, generates tax revenue, promotes tourism, and advances our increasingly creativity-based economy. One study determined that the typical arts attendee spends $24.60 per person, per event, not including the cost of admission, on items such as meals, parking and baby-sitters. Attendees who live outside the county in which the arts event takes place spend twice as much as their local counterparts.
Thus, a symphony season has far more impact on the local economy, and especially downtown businesses, than football.
Early in my academic career, I co-authored a paper with Mark Rosentraub, an expert in the economics of sports. I learned that the economic impact of sports comes from intangibles—public relations, the value of raising the profile of the city, that sort of thing. There is little or no direct dollar benefit. Yet we pump large amounts of public money into privately owned sports teams and venues.
Indianapolis distributes a comparative pittance in public support to arts organizations. If funding levels mean anything, the arts are not a priority.
I am not suggesting that long-term public funding is the answer to the symphony’s current problems. Obviously, figuring out what happened, correcting missteps as possible, and developing a plan for future sustainability is critical, but that process takes time. If Indianapolis weren’t so starved for revenue, some sort of “bridge” loan or grant to keep the symphony going during that time would make a lot of sense, because maintaining what you have is easier and less costly than trying to rebuild it once it is gone.
I am suggesting that we need a community-wide conversation about the symphony’s situation, ideally led by the mayor (who has thus far expressed no concern—at least publicly—about losing an irreplaceable urban amenity).
Indianapolis used to understand that world-class cities require constant attention and inspired leadership. These days, we don’t seem to have either.•
Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send comments on this column to email@example.com.