Carmel’s play for the arts: Some fear it will come at Indianapolis’ expense

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The $80 million-plus Carmel Performing Arts Center, a neo-classical-styled concert hall designed to be an acoustical masterpiece, is still two years from opening.

But it’s already the source of some dissonance in the Indianapolis arts community to the tune of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19, in C major.

On one hand, Indianapolis-area performing arts groups would sacrifice to theater god Dionysus for a chance to perform at the 1,600-seat music hall or at its adjacent 500-seat theater.

But others fret privately that the center, along with Carmel’s emerging “Arts & Design District,” will compete for audience and financial support with the region’s core cultural institutions in Indianapolis.

Carmel’s population is an important audience for certain Indianapolis arts institutions. Its older, well-to-do residents tend to most actively patronize the arts and are valued season-ticket holders. With more to do in their own back yard, will they come to Indianapolis or stay at home?

“Nobody knows,” said Jenny Guimont, director of the Indianapolis Cultural Development Commission. “The climate is very uncertain right now.” Another arts executive had a different word for it.

“I think it’s awful Carmel is trying to compete with Indianapolis. It’s not like we’re in [Los Angeles] or something,” said the head of a prominent arts organization who asked not to be named.

One local arts executive who has heard that refrain said the Carmel initiative comes as arts groups struggle to convince northern suburbanites to come back downtown for arts events after a commuting-weary week of working downtown.

“In this economy, it’s a struggle to maintain an audience,” said Kathy Nagler, executive director of the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art.

Not to mention funding. Many groups are uncertain what kind of arts support to expect from the city of Indianapolis, not to mention private funding.

“There’s no doubt about it, the competition for private corporate dollars is fierce. Throw [Carmel] into an already-competitive fund-raising climate and it just adds to the anxiety levels,” Guimont said.

Complement or competition?

But up in Carmel, where construction cranes rise over a massive downtown retail and cultural complex that will include the performing arts center, the conductor of cultural development is trying to soothe concerns.

“It’s very, very important that downtown Indianapolis succeeds,” said Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard.

He sees Carmel’s efforts as adding to the Indianapolis-area cultural offerings-not competing with them.

“That project was meant to fill a hole in the regional basket of amenities,” Brainard said.

Whether it is the Indianapolis symphony’s converted Vaudeville-era Circle Theatre or Butler University’s Clowes Hall, Indianapolis’ facilities weren’t built specifically for music. Sound bellows up the fly tower above the stage, or flitters off into the wings on each side of the stage. In Carmel’s performing arts center, however, music will be played essentially in the same space as the audience.

“As a city gets bigger, you’re going to have more specialty venues,” Brainard said. “We have to get beyond that parochialism, the idea that there are two sides to 96th Street.”

Yet speculation about the impact of the Carmel Performing Arts Center has amplified some sour notes that until recently were played pianissimo from both sides of the county line.

For example, last month, The Indianapolis Star published an editorial that merely questioned whether Carmel’s performing arts center would drain resources from Indianapolis’ redeveloped downtown and devalue its cultural treasures.

It provoked a fiery response from Carmel City Council member Ron Carter, who also heads the city’s redevelopment commission.

Carter said Marion County doesn’t hesitate to ask Hamilton and other counties to help pay for a mass transit system or for Lucas Oil Stadium, the new home of the Indianapolis Colts. But the suburbs “must not build anything first-class, leaving that solely to the one mile square around Monument Circle…. The Indianapolis power structure has no intention of adding to the performance venues available for cultural activities. They had no thought of building a world-class concert hall in Indianapolis, even though the acoustics of the current halls are, at best, mediocre.”

Predictably, opponents of the Carmel performing arts center accused Carter of possessing an elitist attitude typical of, well, Carmel.

Carter told IBJ that the performing arts center should be viewed as a prize for the whole region. The “vast majority” of people in the area have not experienced a true concert hall, he said.

Offer an acoustically superb facility and one can attract musical acts that now bypass Indianapolis for bigger cities such as Cleveland or Chicago, Brainard said.

“Maybe,” concedes Carter, “we need to do a better job selling that distinction” in halls.

Rise of the suburbs

The model for Carmel is The Music Center at Strathmore, a 1,976-seat facility that opened in 2005 in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Carter calls Strathmore one of the four true concert halls built in the last 25 years in the United States. It draws some of Europe’s top orchestras, including the Warsaw Philharmonic.

The facility halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., became the second home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, whose primary venue is Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore proper.

According to Brainard, the Strathmore had a negligible impact on attendance at BSO’s downtown theater and, if anything, strengthened the symphony’s ticket base.

“Their audience didn’t decline, maybe 1 percent, essentially,” he said.

Brainard argues that Indianapolis cultural organizations shouldn’t regard the potential audience for the performing arts as finite but, rather one ripe for growing.

Brainard notes the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s participation in Symphony on the Prairie, the summer-long performances at the Conner Prairie living history museum in Fishers. The ISO attracts untold numbers of people at Conner Prairie who would never attend a performance at the symphony’s Circle Theatre home, he said.

The ISO has said it would be interested in perhaps as many as a half-dozen performances in the Carmel center, said Simon Crookall, president and CEO.

But it would be limited, as “we’re committed to our series at Circle Theatre,” he added.

The Carmel Symphony Orchestra is slated to be the Carmel center’s home orchestra.

Carmel is not unique: Around the county, a number of fast-growing suburbs are striving to create their own cultural identities and destinations, said Greg Charleston, president of the Arts Council of Indianapolis.

Among them: Arlington County, Va., across the river from Washington, D.C. Arlington County is aggressive, with a staff of 24 in its cultural division. It operates an arts incubator-akin to a business incubator in that it provides space on the cheap to startups. It also recruits groups from Washington and the surrounding area.

Arlington County didn’t start out to make a cultural splash as much as to make its arts better reflect a changing immigrant population. Even some of the traditional Western European influences got a new twist-including an all-nude version of “Macbeth” and a version of “Caligula” that put women in key roles traditionally played by men.

You won’t find that at The Kennedy Center, across the river.

“We wanted to be more avant-garde, to do more risk taking,” said Norma Kaplan, director of Arlington’s Cultural Affairs Division.

The Carmel conundrum

Carmel’s conservative bent doesn’t make it a threat to siphon off Indianapolis’ riskiest offerings, but that leaves many targets.

All of which poses a conundrum of sorts for Indianapolis arts organizations. To the extent that Carmel’s effort increases the participation in the arts regionally, “How can you not be supportive of a new development in that respect?” asked Charleston.

On the other hand, Charleston noted that much has been invested in reinvigorating Indianapolis’ downtown in recent years.

“To be honest, we’re in a tough position,” he said.

Indeed. Overachieving Carmel has shown it can play in the world of big-city culture, even before the performing arts center and theater have opened.

Last month, Brainard stood next to internationally acclaimed pianist and vocalist Michael Feinstein to announce that the performing arts center would become headquarters to the Feinstein Foundation for the Education and Preservation of the Great American Songbook.

The foundation had been looking at other larger and better-known cities, including Las Vegas and Palm Beach, Fla.

“I think there are probably 50 opportunities out there like the Feinstein Foundation,” Brainard said.

As it is now, Carmel’s new music and theater complex is to become home to dozens of local groups, as well, ranging from those now “playing in the basement of churches” to Carmel-based Actors Theatre of Indiana.

Currently, the bulk of Actors’ season is at the Pike Performing Arts Center, on Zionsville Road south of West 71st Street.

“Our plan is to call the [Carmel] center our home and have a full season there as the resident professional theater company. I am sure we will probably continue our Cabaret series at Oak Hill Mansion” in Carmel, which runs a couple of times a year, said Artistic Director Judy Fitzgerald.

So might the Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre group, which has had conversations with Carmel officials about possible opportunities at the theater being built across from the center.

The 500-seat theater would fill a niche for the Hancock troupe, what with other halls in the Indianapolis area often too large or too small, said owner Gregory Hancock. “We’re kind of lacking those in Indianapolis … It’s pretty amazing what [Carmel is] doing.”

Meanwhile, Indianapolis-based Dance Kaleidoscope is gathering information about potential guest opportunities in Carmel but “we are not in negotiations to move our concert season to Carmel,” said Jan Virgin, executive director.

“This would only supplement our Indianapolis performances.”

In fact, Dance Kaleidoscope is trying to broaden its audience base, which would have the effect of not making it as dependent on patrons from northern suburbs. It’s using part of a grant from the Indianapolis Cultural Development Commission to beef up marketing in Hancock, Hendricks, Monroe, Morgan and Shelby counties.

The group also launched summer shows that traditionally weren’t part of its schedule here. Virgin said attendance has been strong, although Dance Kaleidoscope is trying to analyze whether marketing to the south and west is driving any of that interest.

Competing in other segments?

The performing arts isn’t Carmel’s only target.

The city’s so-called Arts & Design District is already thriving. A request for proposals Carmel issued previously for a public relations firm is illustrative, noting a focus on drawing “medium to high income families from within 100 miles” to visit the district. Among “competition” listed in the RFP is the hip Indianapolis Massachusetts Avenue corridor.

“They have made blatant overtures to art galleries,” said Bill Brooks, publisher of Indianapolis-based newsletter Urban Times, which serves several downtown neighborhoods, including Massachusetts Avenue.

That Carmel should try to grow its cultural amenities, “I don’t begrudge them that,” Brooks said.

“But raiding us, if they do that, that’s another thing altogether,” said Brooks, who tweaked Carmel in a recent column.

One of those approached by Carmel was the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art-not to lure it from Indianapolis but to open a Carmel location in addition to its downtown space at Senate Avenue and Vermont Street.

Carmel offered incentives worth about $200,000, as Nagler recalls. But the museum’s current budget is closer to $500,000. And Carmel officials wanted extended evening hours to take advantage of Monon Trail foot traffic. Even at minimum wage, it would have been a challenge to afford to operate a Carmel branch.

“It just did not make financial sense for us to go up there,” Nagler said. “I just don’t think they realized how expensive it is to run a museum.”

Carmel officials do, at least, know how expensive it can be to build a performing arts facility.

Brainard and other community leaders wanted a more elaborate center than what could be comfortably raised through taxes on new development in the downtown area, which is covering part of the cost.

So the mayor is leading an ambitious effort to raise $50 million of the cost, including a number of upgrades. How much the private effort has raised neither Brainard nor others will say at this point.

But one member of the Brainard administration said it wasn’t until word came that private money would go into the center that some in the Indianapolis arts community started worrying that Carmel’s gain would be at Indianapolis’ expense.

The official who asked not to be named said Brainard’s $50 million fund raising for the performing arts center is viewed by a number of Indianapolis groups as competing against their own, alreadychallenging fund-raising efforts.

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