Arts leaders brainstorm for new funding streams

Taxpayer support for the arts is shrinking fast, and Indianapolis has yet to find a way to replace more than $20 million that public entities have funneled into the cultural scene over the past six years.

IBJ on Jan. 30 convened a panel of experts to discuss ways the arts community could bolster its financial future—with or without taxpayers’ help. The panelists—representing long-established organizations, grass-roots groups, philanthropy and grant-making—identified many obstacles, but a few themes emerged:

Audiences hold the key to increasing philanthropy, and are the most effective lobbyists for government support.

Suburban arts patrons could be tapped to shore up cultural institutions in the heart of Indianapolis.

Arts groups must get better at raising money, reaching new audiences and raising the profile of the whole scene.

The level of competition within the local arts scene quickly became apparent during the discussion. Jim Walker, who manages a youth-writing project called The Second Story and is a founding board member of Big Car Gallery in Fountain Square, complained that a few well-established organizations garner half the Arts Council of Indianapolis’ annual grant distributions, leaving grass-roots groups to compete for the rest.

Noting that arts attract young professionals to live in the city, Walker said, "A lot of the funding goes to organizations that aren’t targeted at that younger population you’re talking about."

Simon Crookall, CEO of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, didn’t argue with Walker’s assertion, but said, "I hope the current constraint isn’t going to force us into in-fighting."

Brian Payne, president of the Central Indiana Community Foundation and founder of the Cultural Trail, said that with the city cutting its arts funding and the Capital Improvement Board funneling food-and-beverage and hotel tax revenue toward sports venues, there isn’t any tax money to fight over.

"That’s used up now, that opportunity," Payne said. "Those tax dollars are going to Lucas Oil [Stadium]."

Philanthropist Frank Basile said arts groups need to become more creative fund-raisers.

"There’s money left on the table all the time," he said.

Basile advocated creating a not-for-profit umbrella organization that could solicit donations in the workplace, like a United Way for the arts. He argued that such a campaign would net donations while raising awareness and cultivating new audiences.

"What actually happens is, you end up with a bigger pie," he said.

Greg Charleston, president of the Arts Council, shot down the idea.

United-arts campaigns in Louisville, Cincinnati and Fort Wayne that have existed for decades grew alongside the arts organizations, he said.

"I think it would be problematic [to start afresh]," he said.

Charleston’s group this year received $1 million from the city, a source of funding that is expected to dry up. He said arts patrons need to lobby political leaders.

"This table alone can’t change those votes because they expect those views," he said.

Janet Allen, artistic director of the Indiana Repertory Theatre, agreed.

"It’s the consumers who have an impact on leaders," she said.

But the panelists were at a loss for how to rally the sort of broad-based public support the Indianapolis Colts have enjoyed. The team received public financing for Lucas Oil Stadium, its $720 million venue that opened last fall.

Allen noted that, for years, arts organizations have pointed out their economic impact.

"It’s clearly not the right argument because it isn’t working," she said.

Payne said Indianapolis has rallied around efforts such as the 2012 Super Bowl because of corporate leadership. He said corporate leaders back professional football because it gives them access to prestigious-looking luxury suites.

Sharon Gamble, managing director at the Phoenix Theatre, suggested piggybacking on the sports scene: "How about an artist in each of those suites?"

Cultural institutions could take another cue from the world of sports and recreation, Payne said, by tapping the wallets of suburbanites who come downtown for entertainment.

"They [would] have to pay a user’s tax, which goes into arts and culture," Payne suggested.

Payne envisions collecting the fee through ticket sales to non-residents of Marion County. He likened the idea to municipal rec centers charging higher admission to non-residents.

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