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Hoosier values: Paying artists for their work

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It's the holiday season, a time when people come together around a variety of traditions.

I can think of one local tradition, though, that we can do without.

That's the Indianapolis custom of expecting the city's artists to work for free.

When it comes to the arts, this is a city that, in recent years, has learned to talk a good game. Everybody from the mayor on down can tell you – without having their arms twisted – about how the arts are good for downtown, contribute to the local economy and attract smart people to live and work here.

We've even had our first serious dust-up over a piece of public sculpture, Fred Wilson's "E Pluribus Unum," a statue of a freed slave proposed for the plaza outside the City-County Building. People arguing about art is better than ignoring it – which is the way things tended to be here for a very long time.

This is progress.

But Indianapolis continues to be a precarious place for artists to make a living. The most recent case-in-point concerns a Request for Proposals seeking works of art for the Indiana University School of Medicine's new Eugene and Marilyn Glick Eye Institute.

Funded in part through a gift of $30 million by the Glicks, this building will be home for the IU medical school's Department of Ophthamology. It is being touted as "a world class facility for patient care and research" that will "feature three floors of dedicated research space, giving IU clinical and basic science researchers the space needed to make discoveries that will help save sight and prevent blindness." The ground floor will house a clinic, where faculty members will see patients needing treatment for eye disorders like glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration.

This is going to be a fabulous addition to the city. Better still, Ratio Architects, the firm designing the facility, will seek to have the building LEED certified for its energy efficiency, water savings and use of sustainable materials.

The building should be completed halfway through 2011.

The Request for Proposals says that public art is being sought for the institute because, "It's important to have visual stimulation in a building dedicated to preserving eyesight and reducing vision impairments."

There's only one problem: "a budget is not available for purchased art at this time."

Even though the RFP goes on to assert that, "spaces in the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Eye Institute have been designed to showcase art," zero dollars have been allocated to actually purchase any of the stuff.

The writers of the RFP actually rub it in a little by stating that donated funds are being spent on, "design, construction, interior furnishings, and equipment for research labs, clinical spaces and office spaces."

Everything, in other words, except art.

This, however, has not kept Institute planners from asking Indiana artists (or artists with verifiable Indiana ties) to send them works of art at their own expense for possible display at the Eye Institute for a minimum period of six months. Artists whose work is selected for display must pay for shipping and provide proof that they are self-insured.

Wait, there's more. Some works may be considered for eventual purchase by the Institute's Selection Committee. But: "If purchased, the value will be the fair market value of the piece, with 40 percent of the purchase price to be donated to the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Eye Institute."

You have to wonder if the folks who dreamt up this program limited it to Indiana artists because they knew artists from other places – places, that is, where artists actually try to make a living through their art – would consider such a proposal insulting.

This is the way artists are all too frequently treated here. They are expected to work for free, or for the so-called "exposure" that being associated with a larger project supposedly provides. What most artists eventually discover is that exposure only makes you cold. It doesn't pay for heat or light or food on the table.

More important, exposure does nothing to create what the local cultural scene needs most, a genuine arts economy. For artists to reach their potential, their work – and it is work – must be practiced as a profession. This means not just acknowledging that the arts are important, but budgeting for them. For better or for worse, we live in a society that measures what's important in dollars and cents. Art that's not paid for is trivialized.

This is why building a percentage for art into construction budgets, as is done in an increasing number of big cities, is so important. It prevents art from being an afterthought, while creating an economic platform for a city's creative class that, ultimately, redounds to everyone's benefit in the form of more thoughtfully designed and embellished public spaces.

This, by the way, is not about supporting the arts. It's about putting artists to work. Where people truly understand the importance of art, they realize that artists are too valuable a resource to waste.

To learn more about this project, go to www.glickeyeinstituteart.org.

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