Campaign promotes arts in Indiana

Sunday, May 5, 2002

INDIANAPOLIS -- The burlesque bars and bistros where musicians once stopped to jam on their way to St. Louis or Chicago are all gone. The jazz and soul played in the smoky theaters of this crossroads city have grown quiet.

Even memories are hard to come by on what people called The Avenue, a street where cabarets and juke joints once thrived. Decades of development drove up real estate prices and left little to celebrate of the area's rich cultural heritage.

Jazz organist Mel Rhyne saw art on The Avenue reach its crest. He remembers music sounding through the night from the instruments of Indianapolis jazz greats Wes Montgomery and Freddie Hubbard.

Now, memories of the commotion on the sidewalks outside the Sunset and the Cotton Club in the 1940s and '50s are fading fast.

Indianapolis "should be a shining example of the arts," Rhyne said.

But it isn't -- not like it once was on The Avenue.

Drawing more visitors

An ambitious $10 million plan announced last year by Mayor Bart Peterson's office hopes to change that over the next five years by drawing tourists to Indianapolis to see the Circle City's "cultural treasures."

The Indianapolis Capital Improvement Board and the Lilly Endowment for the Arts will each contribute $5 million to bankroll an extensive publicity campaign of the city's institutions and to reach out to residents, encouraging them to talk about the city's arts and culture.

The city is home to two art museums, a handful of theaters and galleries, and a symphony and ballet. And Indianapolis recently was cited for the opportunities it provides independent filmmakers.

A first draft of a budget released by the Indianapolis Cultural Tourism Initiative includes $900,000 for marketing of existing institutions, and lesser amounts, ranging from $40,000 to research a way to award grants to artists, to $200,000 for a public art project.

Better than basketball

The planners envision a city of "cultural ambassadors" and an infectious word-of-mouth sweeping the nation, creating a buzz about something other than the sprawl of the speedway or the thump of a basketball on the hardwoods.

"If we can get everyone here as conversant as they are about the Final Four about the arts, then I think we're really going to set the tone to make Indianapolis a known cultural destination," said deputy Mayor Kiera Amstutz.

Pastel Howard, a 19-year-old graphic artist and student at Herron Art School, is not surprised by the dominant hold that sports has over the city. The Indianapolis Colts or Indiana Pacers, even off-season updates on auto racing, can be seen several times a day on local television stations, Howard said.

"If you had art all over the TV as much as sports, it would make people culturally aware of their situation," Howard said. "There's gobs of culture and gobs of art to be exposed in the city."

Other artists say the city may be pegging its hopes on something lost long ago.

"It's better than it used to be, but it is in no way what it needs to be to call itself a mecca," said sculptor Monica Doyle, who has fond childhood memories of street corner saxophonists playing for change on The Avenue.

But getting people outside the art community to talk about Midwestern beaux-arts has always been difficult, Doyle said.

No connection with citizens

"Your average citizen, I think, still feels that art is kind of hoity-toity. They're not familiar with art and I think they see it as something that doesn't apply to them," she said.

Marty Peters, the city's newly appointed cultural tourism director, is charged with bringing attention to the arts. Peters said the city will find every opportunity to enhance its existing institutions.

But without immediate plans to build a new museum, fund a new theater or write grants for dance troupes, it is hard for some to have confidence in the city's initiative.

The hopeful in the art community point to signs such as the success of a recent exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art of gifts given to Russia during the reign of the czars. The exhibit broke attendance records and drew visitors from 13 countries.

"It's like saying, 'If you build it, they will come.' If you promote and market, they will definitely come," said Christina Scholl, a 14-year resident of the city who made her first visit to the art museum last fall.

But the difference between art in the museum and art on the streets has fueled some doubts.

In the past, artists unable to get funding or support from the city eventually left in search of better opportunities elsewhere. Doyle stayed, and she respects what the mayor is doing, but worries it will do little to help.

"It's better than nothing at all. But I just don't think it's enough," Doyle said. "If the local artists don't have the energy, then you can't dump enough money into it to make it happen."

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