Pass the Arts & Culture Please.

Have you attended an etiquette class? Do you remember that immutable lesson about Salt & Pepper — how the two are married and should travel together when being passed and should be called for by saying both in the same breath, “please pass the salt & pepper”? The terms Arts & Culture seem to bear the same strict rule in this contemporary world. When we think arts, we inevitably think culture. While this might appear to be a cohesive turn of phrase, I believe we should require justification and clarification about what is meant specifically by saying ‘culture’. Culture can mean a body of traditions from an ethnic group or it can mean what we now consider to be the activities of fine dining or traversing museums and galleries.

There aren’t many words more elusive than the two of “ arts” and “culture” yet they are spoken with an air of aptness; sprinkled like seasoning over economically tinged conversations. The effervescent bait to draw out the appeal, intended or lacking, of an area. This constant linkage creates a misnomer of sorts leaving some confusion in its wake. What do we really mean by arts? What do we really mean by culture? And to have a discussion of the two in relation to issues of diversity, inclusion and economy, what is the intention? Arts & Culture are not mutually exclusive and its important to understand that art can have cultural relevance and there can be cultures that have an artistic tone by way of texture, language, color, etc.

After attending a public panel discussion on “Arts & Culture, I left amazed and baffled at the sheer placation and pacification delivered by the “expert” panel which failed to uncover the value of such a conversation to a room full of intelligent people of varying ethnic backgrounds, creeds and class. Far to frequently we embark on these critical conversations like an old habit, without thought or intention. In a room full of young educated persons of colour the subject of Arts & Culture is broached lacking clarity or direction.

Thoughtful questions posed by the audience as they grasp for some context are met with gaucheness from the panel leaving one to beg the question of if the debate on the cultural or artistic value of a thing is ever to go beyond a barren rhetoric that encircles itself. Members of the audience inquired to the financial stimulus that arts bring to a neighborhood and others asked about how cultures are being uplifted or displaced from communities. The panelist commentary was equivocally void with remarks such as “Indianapolis doesn’t have the capacity for distinct ethnic districts”, and “there isn’t data to support the equitable assignment or lack there of of artists of color”.

For the sake of this read, lets define art as creative visual representations of one’s imagination and culture as human beliefs and practices. With that in mind this article will attempt to provide an entré about the force creative sectors pose on the larger societal landscape. To merely, brush over the value that the arts and culture have within a city beyond that of aesthetics is a terrible dismissive convention. Culturally rooted economies the likes of China Towns and Little Haiti are undeniable mores of rapid growth and retention behind many a metropolis. These discussions should showcase more than just artistic institutions who are “presenting arts groups”, like arts councils and museums which are seeking diversity for quotas sake but also aid groups whose sole mission is ethnic inclusion and equality. Missing voices at the table seem to be those who advocate for growing ethnic groups, be they international or refugee populations; economists, researchers, and anthropologists. They too have a stake in the game in shaping the presence of cultural display in a city's creative industry.

Indianapolis, IN for example, where I live, is host to 120 different nationalities all with beautifully divergent backdrops yet most are vastly underrepresented by way of public art or cultural vignettes. Often, Indianapolis is compared to other cities with completely different landscapes, demographics and economies. People wonder how Indianapolis fairs in relation to Chicago, Cincinnati, Nashville, and the like but Indianapolis is Indianapolis - a conservative landlocked Midwestern city overflowing with talent against fleeting will for change. At some point should begin to command a presence of its homegrown innovation and ingenuity. Indianapolis is vanilla but the awesome thing about vanilla is that you can add just about any flavor to it and it will be amazing.

Indianapolis may never have a ChinaTown, a Little Haiti, a Capetown USA or Little Italy but it most certainly could. Latinos, Burmese, Filipinos, Africans, Caribbean and South Asians are represented in there with immodest impetus. To simply infer that “distinct ethnic districts don’t exist in Indianapolis” is false and irresponsible. West Washington street, one of the cities busiest thoroughfares is a budding and booming Latino community. The South side, a neighborhood rarely tended to has seen an influx of Burmese residents and the Lafayette Square area on the cities West Side, is a buzzing bazaar; host to a large African and Caribbean community among others.

I’m left to question a few things. Are we talking art, public art, cultural art, culture or economy or all of the above? “Investments in public art are not just for cultural or aesthetic purposes; they also can have a positive bottom-line economic impact, with material financial benefits to their owners. Good art is good business.”, as stated by Dan Rosenfeld in a 2012 CityLab article. With regards to the arts in Indianapolis, IN, the state has a budget earmarked for $3.6 million. An amount reduced by approximately $90,ooo from the previous year but where do the funds go?

Who are the power players and the major funding streams to the arts in Indianapolis? For whom does the Arts & Culture sector generate value and utility? The sector in Indianapolis seems homogenized by a few groups — is there room for competition and growth? What are strategies to employ so that funding streams can be diversified?

With a myriad of questions in tow, if we really want our city to grow, be a competitive world locale, then maybe we should rethink the way we fund the arts and consider the negative impacts some of our infrastructure and interventions have towards dismantling cultures that could otherwise add tremendous tonality to our community structure, talent buy in and residential retention.

Indianapolis, IN is now a city/state that recently passed a ‘percentage for the arts’ program, which essentially states that any developer who accepts tax dollars from the city to complete the development must set aside a percentage of those accepted funds for public art. This program exists within a model supported by TIFs (Tax Increment Financing) that allows cities to use the property, sales, and other taxes collected from new developments — taxes that would otherwise go to schools, libraries, fire departments, and other urban services — to subsidize those same developments. Arts in leiu of schools and public services does not seem a proper trade off. and

Pass the Arts & Culture please.

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