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Hoppe on the Arts: Adios, Greg Charleston

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Greg Charleston is about to learn that arts administration pays a lot better than making art. Charleston announced yesterday that he is leaving his $150,000-plus post as CEO of the Arts Council of Indianapolis. A statement released by the ACI says that Charleston is moving to the Florida Keys, where he will be an adjunct faculty member at Florida Keys College and attempt to launch a new career for himself as a writer and playwright.

Just what the world needs: another ink-stained wretch.

One can only wish Charleston the best of luck with whatever he'll be attempting. The Arts Council he inherited from Ramona Baker in 2004 was a dysfunctional mess, lacking focus and more concerned with feathering its own nest than in nurturing the local arts scene. With Charleston in charge, the ACI, for the first time in its history, became a genuinely professional office that, on balance, has served the city well and, when times were good, functioned effectively as an advocate for the local arts community.

But times are tough now and, sadly, the strategies and tactics that the ACI used to advantage during the Peterson administration no longer apply. That Charleston has chosen this time to find a new life path away from Indianapolis speaks for itself. There is no longer so much as the pretense that the arts here are a growth industry. And the ride ahead promises to be bumpy for the foreseeable future.

A great deal now depends on the ACI's board of directors. They will conduct a search for Charleston's replacement. If they want to sentence their organization to institutional irrelevance, they can seek a candidate who will promise to continue the approach and mission that Charleston established.

But if the ACI is to make it through these times, the board should see Charleston's tenure here as a transitional period in its institutional history and use his leaving as an opportunity to reimagine their mission and operating procedures.

Public arts funding is in free fall, but isn't likely to be eliminated entirely. Meanwhile, the city's larger fiscal situation is dire and not likely to see great improvement for some time to come. At the moment, the ACI is conducting a holding action, not accepting grants from new applicants.

The ACI needs to assess what the purpose of public arts funding in pinched circumstances should be. I would submit that it should place its emphasis on providing what limited grants it has to new creative ventures and the next generation of local talent. In other words, it should seek to grow the local scene from the bottom up, rather than the other way around.

This would represent a radical shift in emphasis for the ACI, which was initially formed to help support the city's landmark arts institutions and that still grants around 50 percent of its dollars to the largest budgeted organizations in town.

It's time for the ACI board to declare victory and say that the city's largest institutions have outgrown the need for ACI's funding and that the focus for its limited funds now needs to be on attracting and retaining the next generation of the city's creative class. This will give the ACI a new reason for being -- and provide a new rationale for the use of public funds: venture capital for new ideas.

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