While Indianapolis has built itself into a go-to destination for conferences and sporting events, it has never formalized a long-term vision to guide its arts and culture efforts.
That’s changing, as the city’s Department of Metropolitan Development embarks on the creation of the city’s first cultural-equity plan—an effort to guide investment and resources into arts and attractions in a way that serves the entire community and grows Indianapolis’ reputation as a place to live and work.
“We have this Midwest-nice thing that we have to be humble about, and we don’t sell Indianapolis as we actually should” to both residents and nonresidents, said Lourenzo Giple, DMD’s deputy director for preservation, planning and urban design. “We’ve been doing some pretty dope things the last few years, right? Let’s get behind this and actually be able to push this [news] out. We are more than just the amateur sports capital of the world.”
Cultural plans are a basic part of many cities’ planning documents, typically used for making decisions about programming and funding related to the arts, tourism, attractions, history and more. Most include a section about equity and inclusion—including efforts to ensure the programming is available to all people and that it addresses diverse cultures—but few explicitly build their plans around those concepts.
Indianapolis is set to be among the few that do. DMD released a request for qualifications in late March directed toward companies that want to take on the task of pulling together the city’s plan and making recommendations for implementing it. Responses are due June 29, and interviews are planned for August.
“We are looking at culture from the perspective of: Indianapolis is made up of many pieces and many parts and many cultures, right?” Giple said. “How do all of those pieces come together to form the identity of Indianapolis?”
Officials say the exercise is less about place-making than it is about place-keeping and place-owning—for residents, visitors and developers to know what Indianapolis already has to offer and to consider what gaps could be filled.
Culture is organic and community-driven—but it’s also constructed.
Governments make grants to arts and culture organizations. They build and operate cultural facilities. They market their offerings.
“Many cities and counties actually invest a lot of money in arts and culture,” said David Plettner-Saunders, a partner at Cultural Planning Group, which has offices in CaliforniaFlorida and Pennsylvania. “That requires good master planning. And the reason is, essentially, you want to align the city’s investments and policies with a community’s needs and vision. And that leads us to equity.”
Cultural equity, according to not-for-profit PolicyLink, “explicitly values the unique and collective cultures of diverse communities and supports their existence in physical spaces, in public policies and investment, and in expression of civic and spiritual life.”
For Malina Simone Jeffers, co-founder of Indianapolis cultural startup GangGang, cultural equity is a “fully realized creative economy,” robust enough to support those who produce local culture.
According to the request for qualifications, the city hopes to establish a policy framework for culture planning, integrate equity into all its decisions, add to the local economy and boost the city’s identity.
Through its plan, Indianapolis hopes to note what cultural amenities it has, any room for improvement and anything that’s missing. The firm that gets the gig to lead the plan’s creation will produce the document itself, specific recommendations, implementation steps and assignments to the responsible entities, and presentation materials.
And while arts and tourism agencies often lead work on cultural plans, in Indianapolis, the DMD is doing the job. That means the resulting plan will also guide land use and economic development decisions.
“A cultural equity plan … not only identifies and plans cultural services and artistic services that are already in the city, but it can really lay the foundation for bringing in history, culture, and then bringing it over to the city-services side,” said Carmen Lethig, DMD’s administrator of long-range planning. “[We’d be] making decisions with land use development processes, incentives, and in our policies and other kinds of official documents.”
Out-of-town developers and others will also be able to use the plan to understand the historical significance and context of areas like Indiana Avenue, a downtown street that historically was home to Black businesses but lost that identity over the past decades, Giple said.
New Haven, Connecticut, is one of the few cities that has created a cultural plan explicitly conceived around equity. The 60-page document, with hot pink accents, is written to the reader. The plan itself explains what it is, how to use it, how it was made and more.
It asks readers to engage via a series of activities. “What values do you bring with you into this work?” it asks. “List three people who will help you hold yourself accountable for implementing the ideas.
“Map the ways in which you’ve engaged with local culture over the past year,” it suggests from below a big, pink-bordered box.
“It is a call to action,” said Adriane Jefferson, New Haven’s director of cultural affairs. “That’s the beauty of culture. … Everyone can contribute to it, has very unique ideas on what culture is. So, instead of us trying to give it an identity, per se, we’re saying all of this matters and all of this contributes to who we want to be, who we’re aiming to be as a city.”
The plan has been in the works since New Haven Mayor Justin Eliker began transitioning into the office in 2020. The city is majority non-white, but public arts and culture spending and other resources are focused on traditional institutions in the city’s downtown, Jefferson said.
The new plan might “allow for a broader definition of what culture is,” said Kim Ochilo, senior project manager at Hester Street Collaborative, a consultancy that worked on New Haven’s plan. He described how culture for some communities might look like front-porch gatherings or collaborative work on community gardens.
New Haven’s plan identifies dozens of action items to address now, in the medium term and in the long term, such as asking traditional cultural institutions to hire locally and to embed everyday residents into their planning processes.
“This is a work in progress. The report is a living document that people should be engaging with throughout,” said Lillian Cho, also a senior project manager at Hester Street Collaborative. “Everyone’s working towards something. It doesn’t stop once the report is out there and published.”
New Haven released its report in January and is launching a series of community conversation sessions to talk about it, Jefferson said. And the city wants more funding to tackle some of the bigger goals.
Who and what is Indy?
The Arts Council of Indianapolis offers a glimpse at the kind of change that can occur when an organization focuses on equity as part of its larger arts mission.
The group reworked the evaluation criteria for its annual grants program in 2019, and its decisions hinged on a central choice: Either add racial diversity, equity, inclusion and access as a distinct category for grantmaking, or integrate such practices into its trio of existing categories.
Ultimately, the organization went with the latter option, said its CEO, Julie Goodman. The Arts Council now looks at representation in applicants’ staffs, leadership teams, artists and participants; how decisions get made; and more.
The city’s forthcoming plan is meant to be an expanded version of the council’s concepts.
“A policy framework for culture, you know, hallelujah. We really need that; it does not exist. But to build equity and culture into decisions, this is huge,” Goodman said.
Though arts and culture organizations typically have their own missions and strategies, some said DMD’s plan could still be a critical guide for their work and Indianapolis more broadly.
“This is going to help engineer this next iteration of our city,” said GangGang co-founder Alan Bacon.
GangGang leaders said the organization supports all artists by whatever means are most effective, with an emphasis on those who haven’t historically received proper payment or recognition for their cultural contributions.
“Having artists that aren’t leaving the city and going to produce in other cities, having them stay here, increases culture in the core of our downtown and in the greater Indianapolis area,” Bacon said. “Having our creative economy being stood up as a legit industry with public and private support will only aid our evolution.”
Local arts and culture organizations have identified wages and pay disparities, access to capital and networks, and professional development training as stand-out gaps.
Among other elements, the plan will take a detailed look at the challenges Indianapolis faces, drawing heavily on resident and other stakeholder engagement.
That’s a mixed bag in Indianapolis.
To draw a wider variety of voices to the planning process—particularly those that are harder to reach—cultural planning experts suggest compensating residents in some way for their time, such as through a stipend, gift card, transit voucher or other benefit.
“A lot of times, the communities that you’re trying to engage and work with are the folks who are hit the hardest by everything,” Ochilo said. “They’re working multiple jobs and raising families, and then they’re being asked to participate in the process. That takes a lot of time.”
Indianapolis could also consider providing child care and other family-friendly amenities when parents need them so they can participate in the planning, said Marlena E. McKnight, the Cultural Planning Group’s equity consultant.
Those kinds of decisions and accommodations could be made once the city settles on an organization to lead the planning process, which is set to take roughly 18 months.
“It’s place-keeping, place-owning” over place-making, Giple said. “We know that Indianapolis is wonderful. … But it’s not a marketing ploy to be all of these other things. It is truly to understand who we are.”•