State’s new arts leader plans to take more public role: Indiana Arts Commission’s strategy calls for Executive Director Lewis Ricci to be a vocal advocate for funding

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In the fall of 2005, the Indiana Arts Commission started a rigorous study to draft its next five-year strategy. After public hearings around the state, the full 15-member arts commission voted this summer to adopt the new plan.

And now commissioners have someone to implement it.

The chosen man, Lewis Ricci, is itching to take over the spot and turn the commission into a bully pulpit for the importance of the arts-and the need for public funding.

“Advocacy is one of the key elements of the job,” Ricci said. “Indiana has some fiscal challenges and is also fiscally conservative. But we have a good case to make for how we can be a part of the state economy.”

Dorothy L. Ilgen stepped down as executive director at the end of July after more than a decade at the helm. Commission members are confident that Ricci, director of the International Jazz Collections at the University of Idaho, can lead the group in branching out from its traditional role as the overseer of state and federal grant dollars.

“The overarching theme [in the new plan] is to sell the public value of art,” said Ron Stratten, chairman of the Indiana Arts Commission. “In Lewis, we saw someone who had a significant passion about artists’ public value.”

Ricci’s goals

Ricci said he’s looking forward to his first day Oct. 2. He said the commission needs to sit down with groups it hopes to recruit as part of its strategy and make sure they’re on board with the implementation.

The national reputation of Indiana’s role in the arts is stellar, he said, from strength at universities in theater and music education to an active visual arts community.

In fact, he and colleagues out West have a joke about an “Indiana arts mafia” because of the vast Indiana ties in many arts fields.

But, he said, the state hasn’t kept up with public funding for the arts and doesn’t necessarily understand its influence, something he’d like to change.

“We’re not doing as well [in public funding] as our [national] arts prowess would indicate that we should,” Ricci said. “Usually, people don’t understand the value of what they have as much as outsiders do.”

That means keeping on top of grant funds to make sure they’re spent well, but also getting out to meet lawmakers and leaders to talk about the arts.

“The arts are the pinnacle of a great society or great culture,” he said. “Culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum without support via funds and other resources attached to it.”

Well-rounded education

Ricci, 49, was drawn into the arts world through music. He grew up in New Jersey, studying piano since he was 4 years old. He took classical voice classes for a number of years and branched into popular music in high school and college.

But he also has a strong analytical side and got his undergraduate degree in biology at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. After graduation, he decided arts administration would be the perfect field to meld his strengths.

“The two sides of my personality fit well into this field,” Ricci said. “I get to be around the creative part of things that I love and use the mental discipline for the business side of administration.”

He graduated from Indiana University with a master’s degree in arts administration and worked in promotions for a Bloomington public radio station.

In the early 1990s, he served as staff director for the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis and oversaw the 1991 Cole Porter Centennial.

From 1991 through 1996, he was the executive director of the Columbus Area Arts Council where he started a visual arts festival, set up an arts-education endowment, and led development of a long-range cultural plan.

A colleague from his time in Columbus describes Ricci as very organized, personable and easygoing.

“He made an impact [in Columbus] in terms of helping the arts to be more visible in the community, and that continues to live,” said Chuck Wilt, the city’s director of parks and recreation.

Wilt worked with Ricci to coordinate the new arts fair and to establish a public amphitheater that still hosts performances. “I think he’ll be a good face for the statewide arts community,” Wilt added. Ricci then spent six years in various fund-raising positions for Pennsylvania State University before moving to Idaho.

What he’ll be taking on here

The Indiana Arts Commission was created in 1965 as a 15-member board charged with stimulating arts and cultural development throughout the state. The state sets aside money for the commission, which also acts as the overseer of federal dollars that come from the National Endowment for the Arts. Eleven staff members help evaluate grant applications and track spending.

In 1997, the commission was revamped to give more grants and more closely work with a chosen local partner in 12 regions. The commissioners, who are all appointed by the governor for staggered, four-year terms, oversee its direction.

With the new strategy, the group will branch out from its traditional grant-giving role to become a more active advocate for the arts, according to Commissioner Sandra Clark. Clark oversaw the task force that drew up the strategy and the hiring committee that selected Ricci.

“We need to make sure that the arts are not forgotten, that they’re not seen as a frill, but as a cultural driver and a factor for businesses and new residents considering locating here,” Clark said.

She said art groups need to have a seat at the table for economic development discussions. And advocates need to sell the impact of the arts to ensure there will be future grant money to dole out.

Clark said Ricci is a good fit for that job because of his fund-raising experience.

“He has a clear vision of the strength of the arts in Indiana and he is a great relationship-builder,” she said.

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