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.