It takes just a few minutes to travel from Monument Circle to the intersection 10th and Pennsylvania St., but for the Arts Council of Indianapolis, the journey holds the promise of being transformative. For the past several years, the ACI's offices have been in an expansive suite overlooking the Circle. The decidedly corporate feel of these digs was part and parcel of an era in which the arts – or arts administrators – did their level best to convince the city's business elite that they were all part of the same club.
The financial meltdown of 2008 forced a new perspective. In the wake of a series of budget cuts and layoffs, not to mention the departure of longtime president and CEO Greg Charleston in July of 2009, the ACI, under the leadership of Charleston's former righthand man, Dave Lawrence, has taken up residence in a former roller rink at 924 N. Pennsylvania.
The Metzger Building offers what Lawrence enthusiastically calls a "street level" view. ACI staff members were literally unloading boxes in their new space, which will combine Council offices with a bonafide gallery for visual artists, on the day Lawrence spoke to NUVO about what he thinks this change of venue means for the city's leading arts advocacy organization.
NUVO: Tell us about the process that went into making the decision to move from the Circle.
Lawrence: There were a number of factors that played into this. First and foremost, it was time for us to do something different. We have seen city funding decline over the years. Obviously, with the economy the way it is, arts organizations are struggling and the conversation about the arts has diminished. There's been such great progress over the past 10-15 years with all the great developments, expansions and new programs, like the Cultural Trail. I was afraid that we were getting to the point where the conversation about the arts was not as strong as it once was. So we began thinking that instead of being in a corporate office tower somewhere, we probably needed to find a way to get closer to where the action is.
There's also a real practical part of this. This new space will save us probably close to $100,000 a year in rent and in parking for staff.
Also, from all of our work in the community, we've seen that artists need to exhibit and sell their work. And so I started thinking this could provide us with an opportunity to up the ante as far as the conversation about the arts, to create a space that is more open and inviting to the public and could give us a real street level presence and engage with the community in a way we haven't before.
NUVO: How do you see being in this space energizing the work of the Arts Council?
Lawrence: We were standing outside yesterday as they were installing the mural on the office side and one guy who was at the Livingroom Lounge came outside and said, "What the hell are you starin' at?" And we explained it was art, and he said, "That's very pretty. I'll like to look at that when I go by." And the staff said, "This is exactly what we need to be doing." Creating arts experiences and arts happenings for people that have never had any interaction with us.
Through this financial crisis there needs to be a place where people who are having to make tough choices, like laying off staff, can go to find out how others have managed. A street level place where people can come in and think things through or talk about issues or find resources and help I think is really critical and something we might be able to provide.
Any space that can help an artist make a living I think is a good space. And while we're still working through the details of the gallery – what that might look like and the types of exhibitions we will do here – it will be a space where artists can sell their work. We support performing artists through the Arts Garden, so this is our way to balance that.
NUVO: Cuts to public funding for the arts over the past couple of years have taken a lot of focus with regard to how people think about the Arts Council. But there has been a range of other activities the ACI has been involved with. What continues?
Lawrence: The way that money is set up with the city, we can't award that to individual artists. So over the past 10 years we've been creative with how we can support individual artists. The Creative Renewal Arts Fellowship is now in its twelfth year and has supported 290 artists. These are mid-career artists finding ways to reinvigorate their creativity.
Money was also set aside from the Bob Beckman estate – he was a founding board member of the Arts Council and had a real desire to support emerging artists. We had a hole in terms of providing support to young artists just out of school who are trying to make a go of it here. With those funds we created the Robert D. Beckman Emerging Artists Fellowship Program. So we have artist fellowships that are completely outside whatever happens with city funding, and that will continue.
We have a summer professional development workshop series for artists that we do in conjunction with Primary Colours. That work continues.
We are also able to provide research studies for the entire arts community. The most recent is the four-year study looking at the next generation of arts audiences. It's been great to see groups take the research and apply it to their own organizations. The economic impact studies we do every two years are very helpful, and we're one of the 100 cities selected to participate in the local arts activity index that Americans For the Arts is doing that will look at arts service agencies in a new light and provide a lot of useful data that will be helpful in our advocacy work.
NUVO Where do you see the biggest challenges and opportunities?
Lawrence: The economy has presented both challenges and opportunities. I think the organizations that are seeing an opportunity and reinventing themselves and rethinking how they're reaching their audiences and the type of programming they're doing are those that are going to be most successful and will continue to weather the storm.
One of the biggest challenges is the development of the Performing Arts Center in Carmel. While it is a wonderful opportunity for regional arts activities, I do have some concern about weakening the Indianapolis arts community and taking the focus away from what is a world class city with some of the finest arts institutions in the country. I don't want that focus to go away. We've all worked too hard to build it to this point.
NUVO: How has the past year been for you?
Lawrence: It's probably been the most challenging year of my career. I really like to look at a problem, take it apart and rethink it in as many different ways as I can. I think that's what you're going to see in the work of the Arts Council the next few years. Not that where we were was bad. But I think it's an entirely new environment now. All the rules have changed. And if we're going to be a responsible body that is serving the people of Indianapolis and the arts and cultural organizations they deserve, we need to be an organization that is reactive, adaptive, creative and thinking in new ways. I hope that's what you're going to see from the Arts Council as we move forward.
The Arts Council of Indianapolis will hold a public open house to show off its new offices and gallery on Friday, June 18 from 4-7 p.m. The ACI is located at:
924 N. Pennsylvania St.
Indianapolis, IN 46204-1021