TOM HARTON Commentary: Crime takes indirect swipe at the arts

September 11, 2006

In Indianapolis, when the crime rate goes up or kids' test scores go down, it's not uncommon for people to point the finger at publicly funded sports facilities.

"Our priorities are screwed up," observers opine. "We spend too much money on these playgrounds for the rich, and not enough on cops, courts and public education."

The sports establishment here has been batting away this criticism for years. It goes with the territory in a city where sports is an important economic development tool. Arts organizations, on the other hand, are unaccustomed to such attacks. Most of them don't have much money to begin with, so they're less often accused of stealing funds from school kids and cops.

But the recent spike in crime is putting a target on everyone's back.

The Arts Council of Indianapolis learned this lesson at an Aug. 10 city budget hearing, where a member of the City-County Council suggested the arts group's meager $1.5 million in city funds should be diverted to crime fighting.

Councillor Earl Salisbury, a Republican representing the west side, said at the hearing that he's a big fan of the arts but doesn't think they should get public money unless the arts programs funded can be proven to reduce crime.

Fortunately, the Arts Councils' two hundredths of one percent of the city's total budget seems safe, in spite of Councillor Salisbury.

Sure, the crime rate is up, but it might have been an even bloodier summer if not for the $223 million leveraged annually by the city's meager contribution to the arts-money that pays for, among other things, arts programs that reach inner-city youth and residents of juvenile justice centers and other correctional facilities.

We'll never know how many, if any, crimes were averted by that tiny line in the city's mammoth budget, but we know spending the money is the right thing to do. It makes art accessible to those who can afford it the least but need it the most. And it's a worthwhile investment for a city that's trying to place the arts alongside sports as an economic development tool.

The arts as a deterrent to crime isn't an easy sell with some budget-makers; it's impossible to measure the effect. But with economic development and the arts, it's easier to keep score.

The Arts Council says last summer's exhibition of whimsical, bronze sculptures by Tom Otterness resulted in $6 million in earned media and put Indianapolis on the map among artists who specialize in public installations. Among them is Julian Opie, an English artist whose Signs exhibit opens here Sept. 28 at 11 locations around the city.

Opie's stylized drawings, brought to life using advertising technology and sign-making techniques, will be well-known to Indianapolis residents of all economic strata by the time the show closes next Sept. 1. Signs promises to be every bit as popular as the Otterness exhibit, but Signs promises a more direct benefit to local businesses.

Long Electric and Sign Craft are among the local firms hired to make Opie's designs come to life. They'll fabricate or light some of the larger installations, and in doing so gain not only a paycheck but also experience that can be used to solicit work from other artists.

"Anytime you have exposure to something outside your normal operation, it opens up other doors for you," said Steve McVicker, Sign Craft's vice president.

Whether the arts is a business opportunity, a deterrent to crime or merely a visual escape, it deserves a line in the city's budget.

Canceling this project would be a crime

The crime spree has people stirred up on another front. Upon hearing that the latest proposal for high-rise condominiums at the former Market Square Arena site was going nowhere, some suggested the city scrap the idea of building housing on the site and build a new courts building instead.

But lack of land for a courts building isn't the problem. The city bought a half block immediately north of the Marion County jail for that purpose almost 30 years ago. It's not land our justice system lacks. What we're missing is the political will to find the funding.

And don't buy the other popular argument for canceling the high-rise condo project: the sentiment that Indianapolis "just isn't ready" for high-rise living. We've had high-rise apartments since the 30-story Riley Towers complex opened in 1963. And condo towers are springing up in downtown Louisville, Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio.

Mayor Peterson should be applauded for disregarding these defeatist viewpoints and sticking to his vision for the site. It's the development team, not the product, that needs fixing.

Harton is editor of IBJ. His column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tharton@ibj.com.
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