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TURF's up: Saving a downtown treasure

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If you have yet to visit TURF, the art pavilion created by IDADA (the Indianapolis Downtown Artists and Dealers Association) at

If you have yet to visit TURF, the art pavilion created by the Indianapolis Downtown Artists and Dealers Association at the old city hall building on Alabama Street, stop procrastinating. Go!

There are plenty of things to love about TURF. But, first of all, credit is due Mark Ruschman and the IDADA team responsible for coming up with the TURF concept and then realizing it so fully. If, in some cockamamie way, we have the Super Bowl to thank for this energizing bit of civic inspiration, so be it. Rarely has the pursuit of pigskin been put to better use.

Depending on your vintage, you may know the old city hall building as the former Indiana State Museum. I remember going there on Saturdays with my son. We were hypnotized by the graceful to-and-fro of the Foucault Pendulum, awed by the size of Pacer Rik Smits' feet imprinted on the museum floor and thrilled (in a campy way) by the life-size diorama of prehistoric hunters closing in on a wooly mammoth, haplessly wallowing in a frigid swamp.

But the State Museum decamped for new, swankier quarters in White River State Park. The old city hall was abandoned. Then, when the Central Library underwent its expansion, library services found a temporary home there.

Completed in 1910, the old city hall has the feel of a four-story mausoleum. It's built of limestone and fitted with Roman Doric columns. Step into the building's great rotunda and you're almost guaranteed to say, "They don't make 'em like this anymore!"

Since 2008, when the library left for its new and improved digs, old city hall has stood empty, a great, gray pile in need of a little love. In a city that has thoughtlessly demolished a large portion of its historic architecture over the years, this has been a cause for concern. Surely some use could be found for this stately antique.

This is where IDADA comes in. As reported by Scott Shoger in NUVO's Jan. 11 issue, it was Jason Zickler who had the idea of using the old city hall for a large-scale exhibition of installation art to coincide with the Super Bowl. When the IDADA team actually toured the building, they knew they'd found the perfect site.

I'm not exactly sure why, but I know that nothing serves contemporary art so well as an historic setting. Put contemporary work in a bright, white modern box and it hums. But when you find it in a place that was built long ago, by people whose only link to present tastes and concerns was their sense of ambition, new art is so vivid it practically snaps when you look at it.

That's the way the TURF show feels. This is due, of course, to the fact that the works on view are almost always interesting and, in many cases, downright extraordinary. Every one of the 23 participating artists/groups has a room of their own, and the batting average of mind-blowing works by such practitioners as Greg Hull, Artur Silva, Jeff Martin, Casey Roberts, AnilaAgha, and Lobyn Hamilton is all-star caliber.

On the afternoon we visited, there was a steady stream of visitors, including many families. As we explored the galleries on the first and second floors and checked out the Skyline Club cafŽ, it was hard not to be overcome by how pleasurable it was to finally have an authoritative art center downtown. Downtown already has a number of galleries and the Artsgarden. But none of these have the heft and scope, the sense of destination that TURF brings.

TURF is the most palpable reminder yet that our downtown has many things, but one asset it sorely lacks is a truly public cultural center, a place where citizens of all ages and backgrounds can go for arts and cultural experiences. While TURF is all about the experiential qualities of the visual arts, it's not hard to imagine the old city hall being able to accommodate a range of activities that might include small ensemble chamber music performances, film screenings, and live black box-style theater, not to mention rehearsal and public meeting spaces.

And while we're at it, why not commission Kipp Normand, whose "Fanfare for Mayor Charles Bookwalter" installation, recalling the politician whose vision led to creation of the city hall building is a TURF highlight, to create a permanent exhibit for visitors on the history and folklore of Indianapolis?

A center like this would provide the burgeoning numbers of downtown residents and other citizens with a variety of free cultural opportunities that would, in turn, spark greater synergies with such existing arts resources as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Indianapolis Repertory Theatre and Cabaret at the Columbia Club. It would also create a dynamic focus of activity linking downtown with the Mass Ave district.

Finally, using the old city hall for creation of a downtown cultural center would revitalize an important part of the city's architectural and civic history. I can't think of a more solid cornerstone upon which to imagine what comes next for Indianapolis.

TURF runs through Feb. 5 and is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Admission is free.

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