This year, on October 18th and 19th in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the Indiana Arts Commission Homecoming brought together a plethora of artists, art administrators, arts advocates, and students to participate in a statewide discussion about the vital role that the arts play in sparking and maintaining the “vibrancy” of towns, cities, and districts. As a current art administration graduate student interested in cultural planning and policy in underserved areas, this conference played a pivotal role in my education thus far, providing inspiring examples of localized arts initiatives and real-world applications of concepts that I had heard so much about in class.
One of the sessions in which I feel I learned the most was titled “In it for the Long Haul: A Tale from Indiana Cultural Districts,” was a panel that included Sean Starowitz, Assistant Director of Economic Development for the Arts for Bloomington, and Ailithir McGill, Executive Director of Nickel Plate Arts – a group which provides the basis for arts programming and policy in Noblesville, Indiana. Sean Starowitz, as a public servant working for the government, talked about creating a “culture of belonging” through the arts, working to shift the view of the arts in government as being as vital as any public service, and ensuring that every Bloomington neighborhood has access to a public park. Ailithir talked about how one goes about creating an arts district, the importance of collaboration among local organizations and partners when it comes to events and funding, and what the ultimate goals of the bureaucratic approach to arts planning are. For the latter, she outlined three goals that Noblesville currently has for its arts district – a desire to be “cool” and facilitate community competition, celebration of local talent and artistic belonging, and of course, driving overall economic development.
At one point during this discussion, there was a gentleman in the audience who, somewhat angrily, brought up gentrification, which seems to be an issue that inevitably accompanies cultural planning and development more often than not. This gentleman’s biggest concerns revolved around the word “authenticity” that was being used in abundance by Sean Starowitz as he discussed his future goals for Bloomington communities, specifically in reference to Bloomington’s up-and-coming Entertainment and Arts District (BEAD). What exactly does an increase in “authenticity” mean to people who have been living in Bloomington far beyond BEAD’s time? Perhaps it was naïve of me, but until I heard this discussion (and others) in the context of the town I currently call home, I really hadn’t considered the fact that the types of cultural planning and arts programming that I was so passionate about could cause more harm than good.
Both Sean and Ailithir had responses to this question that honestly seemed to come in the form of…more questions. Sean spoke of the importance of someone in his position thinking intentionally and pondered what exactly makes communities “great.” Ailithir talked about how rethinking power systems and changing the way decisions are made in cities could ultimately benefit all citizens. For both parties, it was clear that even though they were in positions in their communities that most likely came up against this issue regularly, they were still unsure about the most “right” answer themselves, and I think that is okay. I ultimately left the conference with a million and one new ideas flowing through my mind as well as a newfound desire to focus on arts equity and prevention of harmful gentrification in my future career in the field of cultural planning and arts policy.