Music for World-Class Cities

When I was in City Hall back in the late 1970s, the goal was to make Indianapolis a “world class” city. That wasn’t just the rhetoric used by the Mayor and his administration–it was echoed by the City Committee (now long defunct) and by the Lilly Endowment, which facilitated the goal with generous grants.

The decision to make Indianapolis into an amateur sports capital wasn’t made because city leaders loved sports, although many surely did. It was based on a hard-headed analysis of where we might have a comparative advantage. The goal was city-building, and sports were a means to that end.

That was then, and now is now. There is no longer a City Committee, and the Endowment–while still generous and immensely important to Indianapolis– no longer partners with elected officials to improve Indianapolis as it did then. Our current Mayor is not a visionary (to put it kindly). Making matters worse, Indianapolis has lost many of the corporate headquarters and locally-owned banks from which we used to draw private-sector civic leadership.

Now, we are in danger of seeing the Indianapolis Symphony–a symphony befitting a world-class city, a symphony of which we have been justifiably proud–become a part-time (read “second-class”) enterprise.

The Symphony is facing significant financial problems. ┬áIt will obviously be important to determine the cause of those problems–poor portfolio management? Unfavorable labor contract? Other? I certainly haven’t a clue, and few outside the Board and musicians themselves are likely to have even a reasonable hypothesis.

But I do know one thing: in addition to being a beloved part of our city’s cultural scene and a point of pride, the symphony is important to our local economy.

Nationally, nonprofit arts organizations generate $135 billion in economic activity annually, supporting 4.1 million jobs and generating $22.3 billion in government revenue. Investment in the arts supports jobs, generates tax revenues, promotes tourism, and advances our increasingly creativity-based economy. The typical arts attendee spends $24.60 per person, per event, not including the cost of admission, on items such as meals, parking, and babysitters. Attendees who live outside the county in which the arts event takes place spend twice as much as their local counterparts.

A symphony season has far more impact on the local economy than football. Early in my academic career, I worked on a paper with an expert in the economic impact of sports. Such impact as exists is by virtue of intangibles–the value of raising the profile of the city with the team, that sort of thing. There was no direct dollar benefit. Despite that lack of immediate economic impact, we pump large amounts of public money into privately-owned sports teams and venues.

To the best of my knowledge, no public money flows to the symphony and a mere pittance is distributed among other arts organizations in the city. The arts have clearly not been a priority.

I am not suggesting that long-term public funding is the answer to the symphony’s current problems. Obviously, figuring out what happened, correcting missteps as possible, and developing a plan for future sustainability is critical, but that process takes time. If Indianapolis weren’t so starved for revenue, some sort of “bridge” loan or grant to keep the symphony going during that time would make a lot of sense, because keeping something important is easier and less costly than trying to rebuild it once it is gone.

Indianapolis used to understand that world-class cities require constant attention and inspired leadership. These days we don’t seem to have either.


  1. Thank you do much for these words and for your work in making Indy a truly world class city! I am a singer that often sings with the symphony- and I know what a privilege it is to have such a fine orchestra. I am proud to live in this city because if all the footwork that you and others did for us.

  2. Indianapolis, Memphis, Nashville, Atlanta, and many more, deserve world-class symphonies. These should be well-funded for what they do for communities. Stay with it, Sheila! The squeaky wheel gets the grease! You are good for the entire state of Indiana!

  3. Thank you for your excellent words on the subject of music for world class cities. You have expertly explained the value of the ISO to a fully realized Indianapolis. “Keeping something important is easier and less costly than trying to replace it once it is gone.”

  4. ISO Symphony musicians are proud citizens of Indianapolis. They love what they do, and they are valuable, contributing members of the community. The city should take pride in them, and in being home to one of the very few full-time orchestras in the nation.

  5. Before becoming deaf – and while still working for rather low wages – my splurge was the purchase of short-season tickets to ISO. Friday nights were looked forward to; a wonderful way to end the week. I also followed Indy’s many super-talented jazz musicians; many of whom are gone now. We seem to be losing our appreciation of the finer things in life in this city and have traded them in for balls of all shapes, sizes and colors. This is becoming a beer drinking, flannel shirt wearing, tailgate partying city; losing all vestiges of anything resembling class. Indianapolis has never been and will never be a world class city; it is a city with a large population of small-minded individuals who do not appreciate the highly talented ISO that has been here for years.

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