I Think I See a Theme Emerging…

The Indianapolis Business Journal sends out a chatty, daily “Eight at 8” for subscribers. A couple of days ago, the transmittal included the following “Soapbox Moment.”

Our city and state leaders knock themselves out offering financial incentives to support local business expansions and to attract firms to central Indiana (see No. 1). As well they should. Excellent work. However, Eight@8 wishes they would throw more weight behind arts organizations and find more ways to bring more artists here. As in business, the benefit could be modest. Or the benefit could be incalculable. One or two artists can change the way the entire country thinks of Indy. I give you two examples. First, author John Green. He came to Indy because his wife found a job here in the arts. So this is where he based his juggernaut novel “The Fault in Our Stars,” filled with specific references to local places. This is why the tens of millions of people who have read the book and/or seen the movie know that Indianapolis 1) exists; and 2) could be an awesome place to live. He continues to happily associate himself with Indy, occasionally in his ambitious multimedia projects (200 million video views and counting). You can’t CONCEIVE of the value of that kind of warm-puppy publicity…Second example: Asthmatic Kitty. It’s not an artist, per se, but a record label which came to be based in Indy because its manager happened to move here in 2005. It has since become one of the most influential small labels in the country and a national calling card for our music community. And its leaders have turned their energies to the city’s urban fabric. We’ve run out of room, so check out The Atlantic’s CityLab feature on Asthmatic Kitty’s influence on our city.

Good try, Eight @ 8, but–agree or not about the merits of those “financial incentives” generally– official Indianapolis has never given much indication that we appreciate or value the contributions made by the arts to the culture and economic health of central Indiana.

Eight referenced a recent, lengthy post from Aaron Renn at the Urbanophile, in which Renn discussed the roots of–and differences between–the cultures of Indianapolis and Louisville. Louisville remains largely a product of southern tradition, a tradition that valued aristocracy and respected “the finer things.” (Although that culture has a considerable downside–which Renn acknowledges–it also tends to produce better restaurants, among other things.) 

Indiana, he notes, grows out of a very different tradition. After pointing to Columbus as a deviation from the Hoosier norm, he writes

But in a state replete with struggling communities, has anyplace ever looked to imitate Columbus? Has it been held up as a model? No. Why not? It’s because Indiana as a whole rejects the values that made Columbus successful. J. Irwin Miller famously said that “a mediocrity is expensive.” True, but that misses the point re: Indiana. Mediocrity isn’t an economic value in the state. It’s a moral value. People aren’t choosing mediocrity in the mistaken belief that it’s cheap. They think aspiring to better is a character defect. That sacralization of average is why many of its communities are willing to martyr themselves in its honor. And if a place tries to aspire to better, don’t worry. The General Assembly will soon be introducing legislation to make sure that doesn’t spread.

Ouch. That hurts because it rings so true–especially the line about our benighted General Assembly. And it reminded me of a recent conversation with Drew Klacik, researcher extraordinaire at IUPUI’s Public Policy Institute. Commenting on the persistent disdain of so many of Indiana’s legislators for Indianapolis, and their disinclination to consider measures that would benefit or strengthen the core of Indiana’s largest city, he offered an analogy:

Why do Marion county and downtown matter? Well, think about a solar system; why does the sun matter? It matters because it provides the energy that drives us forward and provides the gravity that holds us together. That is exactly what downtown Indianapolis does for the region and the state.

The problem, as Renn aptly notes, is that our General Assembly is broadly representative of Indiana’s culture, where excellence is “uppity,” the arts are “elitist” and education (as opposed to good old job training) is suspect. No wonder there is so little legislative regard for Indianapolis’ aspirations to “world class” status.

Honest to goodness, Indiana.


  1. Want to see what a little support for the arts can do for a community? Look at Paducah, Ky!

  2. Mr. Klacik is certainly a genius. I’ve had the pleasure of watching and listening to him on several occasions for the local Board of REALTORS®. His words are prophetic—if not chilling—regarding the long-term impact of capping property taxes, altering the school funding formula, and lowering income taxes in Indiana.

    Right-wingers shout from the rooftops about not “burdening our grandchildren with unsustainable debt,” but our tax policy has created exactly that scenario. Local municipalities have fewer ways to build and maintain infrastructure thanks to property tax caps (taxes which are directly connected to our homes, the places where we live and shop and send kids to school and should be left up to local officials to alter as communities change). Schools fund are now diverted from dense, urban settings and channeled to suburban and rural (read: more Republican) areas. And as the population ages, their income taxes will be reduced.

    That only leaves a few options to build a better state:
    1. Increased SALES tax. Regressive and more impactful on middle- and lower-class citizens.
    2. Increased local income taxes. Impacts urban centers (read: more Democratic) most.
    3. Borrowing—from those grandchildren they swore to protect—to fix the crumbling streets, bridges, and water/sewer systems.

    Self-centered, short-term-oriented tax policy disguised as “fiscal responsibility.”

  3. ***clarification***

    *Revenue* from income taxes on an aging population will decline on an individual and collective basis as older folks move into retirement and their incomes therefore go down. This is NOT to say that income tax *rates* will go down. They will inevitably have to rise in order to fund the maintenance and upkeep of our crumbling infrastructure, and to provide adequate end-of-life care for that same aging population.

  4. After becoming disabled in 1994, I moved to Florida to be near my father to help him. We lived in Pasco County, a retirement based county with lower cost of living, lower prices in general, utilities and tax rates than the tourist counties surrounding us. A beautiful area on the Gulf Coast, fantastic weather and hurricanes and tropical storms seemed to hop over the location. Neighbors were actualy neighbors and knew one another and shared time with morning coffee and/or cookouts; always beaches and parks to visit safely, nearby restaurants of all levels and movie theaters showing first-run movies. Tampa/St. Pete about 40 minutes away if we wanted more cultural entertainment. Doctors, dentists and all levels of health care facilities conveniently located and medical care was on a personal level and reasonable waiting period. Artists lived in my neighborhood, musical presentations, a number of annual art shows and competitions available, mostly free or on a donation basis. Virtually idential politics and judicial system as Indiana so nothing new there. I lived very well there on my low income till after my father died and my health worsened, I was forced to move back here to be near famiy assistance.

    Immediately the cost of living and cost of everything else needed to survive, rose drastically; no need to mention the weather. Neighbors; one or two in the two neighboroods I have lived in since returning even knew one another’s name. Anything in the entertainment world, especially cultural level and sports, are all unreasonably priced. Reaching these locations is a time consuming matter through heavy traffic. I asked which park would be the best to take my iced tea and a book to; was told none of them are safe for a woman alone and not to go to any of them. Doctors and medical facilities are widely scattered; many in outlying areas near all four county lines in huge confusing medical complexes and again, reaching them is time-consuming and through heavy traffic. Medical treatment is on an assembly-line basis, usually after a lengthy wait. Do I need to mention crime here in Indianapolis when it is well known that our murder rate this year is higher than Chicago. I was mugged on my own driveway at 11:00 in the morning after being followed from my local Kroger by the mugger and his driver who incidently, according to court documents, had been followed by IMPD under cover officers since four days earlier. One of the officers first on the scene, as I lay in my yard injured, bleeding and waiting for the ambulance, told me that they had followed me. I didn’t learn till reading court documents how he immediately knew this important fact. They were called to the scene by a neighbor who called 911 to report the assault. The under cover officers were also following them to the MCL parking lot to track them but didn’t see the man get out of the car – evidently all they were watching was the car – and rob victim number four within two weeks.

    This is my view of Indianapolis; where I was born and raised and I will die here because I cannot afford to leave. I have left my mortal remains to the Indiana University Medical Research Center due to outrageous funeral and bural costs. Living here is unsafe and dying in this city is expensive. No matter how many artistic (and sports) advantages there may be, they are NOT our day-to-day existence. The political administration here may convice a few businesses to relocate here but if residents were consulted, how many would heartily recommend anyone move to this city?

  5. Good luck with the Arts money. If ONLY you could incorporate BALLS into the art…….

  6. Awe! If you run into Drew again tell him Melissa from Eagledale says “Hello!”
    I could listen to him discuss urban structure and history all day if I had that kind of time! Such an intelligent guy with so many great insights.

  7. I find this statement you reference totally disturbing from IBJ: “Our city and state leaders knock themselves out offering financial incentives to support local business expansions and to attract firms to central Indiana (see No. 1). As well they should. Excellent work.”
    I guess I come from an old school, I thought Capitalism would be the guiding light of a Business Newspaper. Instead the IBJ has fully embraced Crony-Capitalism, i.e., politicians pick the winners and losers of who receives direct and indirect subsidies. The solution the IBJ advocates – throw some Crony-Capitalism on the Arts.

    I do patronize locally owned Restaurants, but I am sure they never receive “financial incentive’s” like downtown receives and some other politically selected areas.

    I simply do not believe our political leadership at the State or Local Level places a high value on knowledge. Knowledge and an open mind could breed dangerous thoughts. We have no Museum in Indianapolis that comes remotely close to the Museum of Science and Industry or the Field Museum in Chicago. Our emphasis has been on building four Sports Stadiums, counting the two torn down and their replacements.

  8. A couple of points from a NY/FL perspective.

    Business, in their never ending quest for privatized profits and socialized risk, has spread the culture that communities must attract them, instead of vice versa. Good for them, bad for the consumer/taxpayer.

    Business, in their never ending quest for wealth inequity, has spread the culture that excellence is measured monitarily only. Without limit.

    The means that have allowed them to so enculturate America is mass media brand marketing, or Newspeak as portrayed in Orwellian terms. They have succeeded in branding us in the image most useful to them.

    It is our country, not theirs. It’s up to us to use our powers, consuming, voting and investing to bring back America for we, the people. We have continuously struggled throughout our history for the American Dream, the difference now is that the issues and enemies are much more nuanced and don’t wear identifying uniforms, but still have the same goals as those that we’ve defeated before. To make us more useful to them.

    Just say no. Don’t elect them, don’t buy from them, don’t invest in them.

    The good news is that the Internet and social media , through efforts like Sheila’s blog, can facilitate our organization. Social media vs mass media. Our power is in our numbers and our unity. That’s why disunifying us is their preeminent tactic.

  9. State Legislators dislike Indianapolis but, abulutely loathe Bloomington. Besides the Business school and basketball team they would level the place and start all over.

  10. @Mary Little would be the key word.

    How timely that I just read these articles this morning about how some communities use artists in a way to step up an area, only to abandon artists along the way. I do happened to be involved with a couple of local communities that I feel genuinely appreciate and support artists as part of community growth and recognition, but I do worry when I see some more general politicians using artists as a way to help a community. I want true support for artists.

    Here are the links to the articles:



    A quote from the Artwashing article:
    “…When a commercial project is subjected to artwashing, the work and presence of artists and creative workers is used to add a cursory sheen to a place’s transformation. Just as greenwashing tries to humanize new buildings with superficial nods to green concerns (such as wind turbines that never turn), artwashing provides similar distraction. By highlighting the new creative uses for inner-city areas, it presents regeneration not through its long-term effects—the transfer of residency from poor to rich—but as a much shorter journey from neglect to creativity…”

  11. Sheila’s ear is always perfectly tuned to this stuff and I can listen to her all day.

    But a cautionary tale about aspiring to ‘world class’: I grew up in a city (a rather large one of about 2 million) which was once famously described by the late actor Peter Ustinov as “New York, Run by the Swiss”. (If you haven’t figured out the city yet, keep reading). Ustinov was both poking fun at this city’s ‘conservatism including its penchant for rolling up its sidewalks at about 10pm (despite a lot of cool things happening, excellent restaurants and an awesome public transit system); and it’s virtual obsession with cleanliness. Streets cleaned immaculately, trash picked up regularly, rain water drained delightfully through a well-maintained sewer system. The city was clean in other ways too — 2-3 murders per year was seen as 2-3 too many, a terrible mark on the place. It welcomed many countries and peoples and was almost embarrassingly multicultural: Following Italy’s World Cup victory in 1982 the street signs in ‘Little Italy’ were officially changed to Italian spellings and everyone was Italian for weeks. The world’s 2nd largest Chinatown was located here, as were huge expat communities from Greece, Pakistan, and the West Indies. (Figured out the city yet?). Stores were closed on Sunday of course. The subway (Metro) ran regularly, and was so safe that even as a youngster I would have no hesitation taking it from the suburbs where I lived into the downtown core to watch my favorite professional sports team (and my parents weren’t worried either). Housing prices were good, there was a recognized Symphony, a thriving Arts scene, phenomenal universities where major scientific discoveries were made. To be honest, the citizens and leaders of this city were pretty ‘modest’ about all of this. We probably didn’t realize how good we had it, but also saw no particular reason to crow about it.

    And then it happened…a mayor wanted to turn it into a ‘world class city’ (that was his specific goal, except there were no specifics) which led to…a huge population spurt, unplanned growth, increased crime, horrible traffic, a crumbling infrastructure, and the largest condominium market in the whole freakin’ world. I’m a little sad about what my former hometown [Toronto] has become, and could end my tour down memory lane here, but that would leave the wrong impression. Aspiring to be world class was not what led to Toronto’s current problems, but rather how it went about it. It chose to try and build its world class reputation by aspiring to be New York (without the Swiss part), rather than being world class ‘Toronto-style’, and by the acquisition of “things” that other cities and specifically other American cities have. All is not lost for Toronto still happily claims the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Ontario Museum, a huge Theatre district, the University of Toronto (currently ranked #10 of the world’s best universities with its many Nobel prize winners, Banting and Best discovered insulin there), its diverse economy, massive city parklands, a reclaimed warehouse district for trendy and affordable housing, the largest collection of Victorian-era townhouses (Cabbagetown) in North America, and the list goes on. But Toronto also suffers through the problem of being more famous for its incompetent, racist, crack-smokin’ mayor Rob Ford. A mayor without vision, who wouldn’t know a world class idea if it hit him in the head. I thought about all of this as I was driving to work today in Indianapolis, in a torrential rainstorm on streets filled with potholes, splashing through 4-inch deep “rivers” because the sewer system cannot handle the load, in a city whose gun violence is truly making it ‘world class’ in a category it doesn’t want to be.

    The consequence of Indiana’s social and political conservatism is not limited to its inability to escape the ‘virtuous cycle of mediocrity’. Rather, the consequences run much deeper. It renders the city and its inhabitants blind to the potential for renewal, revitalization, the opportunity to build new traditions. Let’s not confuse mediocrity with modesty. It’s one thing to discourage OPEs (outward pronouncements of excellence) — it is quite another to intentionally reach for the lowest rung on the ladder because its safer or ‘we’ve always reached for that rung, why reach higher?’ . One can be modest (some call this an entrenched midwest value; but I’m Canadian, I get it) without aspiring to mediocrity.

    One can aspire to greater human flourishing, greater civic opportunities and a better life for everyone, and still not have to splash the success all over the billboards. Many places in the world discourage OPEs (thus encouraging modesty) and yet are regularly regarded as world class. Copenhagen (located in a country regularly rated as the ‘happiest’ in the world) comes to mind. Toronto used to be like that too.

  12. Thank you, Sheila, for your continued insights. I’m a member of the Indiana Artisan program. Membership is juried for the top artists, artisans and foodists in the state. A number of states have similar programs, and it’s my understanding that the very successful one in Kentucky continues to receive state support. The state of Indiana helped IA get started for a short time, then cut the cord. It’s only thanks to some very dedicated, hard-working dreamers that the program is still a go. Indiana Artisans sell their good nationally and internationally. I think the state would be better off investing in IA than trying to get some big-name author to move here.

  13. As young parents we used to escape to Toronto regularly to experience what we considered urban or even European culture. Eric is not exaggerating about its past. The fact of Rob Ford is enough said about its present.

    Both of our countries were steeped in a culture of growth and “better”. We didn’t even flinch at JFK’s moon dreams, we just did it. Now we’ve been led to believe that cheaper is good enough for the country, even as our economic royalty parades aristocracy as their personal goal.

    Thomas Wolfe told us that we can’t go home again. I’m saying let’s try.

  14. Eric; I visited Toronto three times for vacations in the mid-late 1970’s, cannot tell you how sad it is to learn it has changed from the beautiful, clean, cosmopolitan, warm and friendly city I so enjoyed. I couldn’t say enough about the clean streets everywhere, The Mall on Yong street with so many people and never saw a problem. A mix of ethnicity, acceptance and enjoyment I had and have never seen in Indianapolis. Locals and tourists always seemed to be smiling and polite. The outdoor cafes where, if there were empty chairs at a table, the waiters asked if you minded sharing; no one ever minded so we met interesting people then went our own way or walked together for a way. Costs of everything were reasonable, the variety of sights to see meant a new adventure every day. I truly loved that city. My husband and I toured Casa Loma shortly after it opened; the tour guide explained the lack of furnishings was due to lack of funds and the early opening was to garner needed money to complete the restoration and furnish it completely. To me, that openness and honesty seemed to be the natural state of affairs in Toronto. In a strange and pleasing circumstance, about 8-9 years ago I found a Casa Loma tee shirt in the DAV Thrift Store in Irvington. I wear it often and always tell people I have been there. Indianapolis could be what Toronto was if only politicians could get their priorities straight.

  15. Jo Ann and Pete – friends after my own heart. Here’s an update. Toronto is going through a mayoral election (this Fall) and campaigning is hot and heavy. Would you believe that Rob Ford is in a statistical dead heat with two other (preferred) candidates. *sigh*

  16. Where we live in FL there are many Canadians, quite a few from Toronto. They tell me that Ford’s attraction is the promise of cheap taxes. Toronto’s population seems to be falling for the same B.S. as ours. Settle for Kmart blue light special government. Made in China?

  17. It has apparently never occurred to our state and local officials (judging from past results) that along with tax abatement, training funds, etc. there should be some accountability for the recipient to meet the goal of creating the jobs they promised. It only seems fair that if a company receives gifts from the taxpayers in the name of job creation, they should have to pay it back (with interest) if they fail to meet their goal.

  18. I was in Toronto in 2010 and even though it was only for a couple of days, one very rainy one at that, loved it. We’ve considered moving there but I wanted to get out of the snow belt of North America. Hope to visit again soon.

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