Art Works Blog

Postcard from Indiana and Illinois, Part One

Here I am during our hard hat tour of the Notre Dame Center for Arts and Culture with (l-r) renowned master printer Joe Segura, Gil Cardenas, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. (And that's Angela Butiste from the Community Foundation of St. Joseph County and my wife Debby just behind us.) Photo by NEA Staff

Last week I spent some time visiting with the arts community in Indiana and Illinois. My trip started out in South Bend, Indiana. (My wife Debby came with me on this trip because she’s a Notre Dame alum, and she wouldn’t have missed this.) The next morning we began with a group discussion with people from several local arts organizations---many of them NEA grantees---at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, which is on campus at Notre Dame. It’s a very impressive building, and they do great work there. This is where I first met Lewis Ricci, who is the executive director of the Indiana Arts Commission (IAC). He’s one of the top arts commission directors in the country. I was told that by everybody before I met him, and everything I learned about him during the whole day that we spent together confirmed that. We had a whole group---Michelle Anderson, IAC’s Deputy Director who spent the day with us; Emily Hellmuth also from the arts commission; Anna Thompson who runs the DeBartolo Center and was our host there; Jane Hunter, executive director of the South Bend Symphony Orchestra; and Ann Divine, who is the executive director of the Fischoff National Chamber Music Association.

Rose Meissner was also part of our conversation. She runs the Community Foundation of St. Joseph County, which is where Notre Dame is located, and she took care to talk about all the work that the foundation is doing with the arts. They seem to be very aware of the role of the arts in communities and very committed to supporting that, which was reassuring. When you see a community foundation person who gets it, it’s always reassuring.  Dr. Marvin Curtis, the dean of the Indiana University South Bend Ernestine M. Raclin School of the Arts was also there. IU has a branch in South Bend, and is obviously very engaged with the arts scene in that community. Marvin’s an impressive guy.

This meeting was very casual; basically we sat around and talked, and I asked a lot of questions. This was my first trip to Indiana, so I wanted to get a good sense of what’s happening with the arts in Indiana. There are political issues; there are budget issues. Everybody talked about the role of arts funding in the state. They seem to be holding their own and surviving better than a lot of states. I was interested in the political and the aesthetic there. The great part about these trips is that I can learn something. I can listen---not just give speeches. People in Indiana are passionate about the arts. We were in the northern part of the state, but I got the sense that that’s true all over the state. We had a good group there, and a lot of those people were there with us for all of the day.

I then went on with the folks from IAC to a stop at the Notre Dame Center for Arts and Culture, which is under construction. The leader of the arts center effort is Gilberto C├írdenas, who is a commissioner at the Indiana Arts Commission, and also an assistant provost at Notre Dame. We all donned hard hats and went in and climbed up the stairs and took a tour with Shawn Stroman, the construction manager. During the tour Gil talked to us about his vision, about what the center’s going to be, and how it’s going to be an integral part of the revitalization of the city. It’s going to be very important to the arts in South Bend---no question.

This stop is is where I also had a chance to visit with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg who was on the tour with us. The new center is a partnership among the private sector, the university, and the city. This arts center is really a perfect example of creative placemaking. It’s on a block that had previously been very challenged. The mayor said it used to be called “The Block.” Now there’s a civil rights museum across the street that is made out of an old natatorium where there was blatant discrimination against blacks. That’s just one example of how the whole block is coming back, and the arts have been a huge part of that. Of course, Mayor Pete has been a big factor in the revitalization as well. He’s been very supportive of the process, and that’s continuing.

Gil and his wife Doris hosted us for a wonderful lunch at their home. Their home is right on the river---you go out the back of the home and you’re perched right over the riverfront, the St. Joseph River. Incidentally, Gil has one of the greatest---if not the greatest---collections of Latino art in the country. Most of it is at home, but hundreds of pieces are scattered in museums and other places throughout the state and the country. It’s really an incredible collection. They have a beautiful house and it’s filled---literally filled to the brim---with their art collection. At lunch I sat next to Dick Stifel, who served for nine years on the Indiana Arts Commission---two of them as its chairman. We talked a lot about the arts in Indiana. He’s a very committed guy and a fun guy to know and to be with. We talked about the arts not only in South Bend, but all across Indiana. Mayor Pete was at our table, and I also met June Edwards, a local arts patron who is very passionate about and committed to the arts. Just last year June received a Governor’s Arts Award for her philanthropic work with the South Bend Symphony and IU South Bend. It was just a great lunch and I got a really good sense of the community’s residents, their art, the people who were there. It’s one of those things where you sit down and eat with people and really get to know them a lot better.

After lunch we were on our way to Gary. Gary is a great example of creative placemaking, as well. It’s an old, tough, industrial town where a lot of the manufacturing jobs have left. Now the arts are providing an important part of the economic activity. We were hosted for this part of our visit by Eric Reaves, president of the board of the Miller Beach Arts and Creative District. The district is in a formerly challenged and problematic neighborhood that the arts are bringing back to life. We got a great sense of what they’re trying to do in the district, using the arts to revitalize that neighborhood and that community. I also met the Mayor of Gary, Karen Freeman-Wilson, who welcomed us. She’s one of these mayors, like Mayor Pete, who gets it, who understands about the arts. As I always say---the local political structure is one of the key components in having a successful creative placemaking effort. And certainly in South Bend, certainly in Gary, you have mayors who are attuned to that.

Our first visit was to the South Shore Dance Alliance (SSDA), which is run by a very committed artist named Larry Brewer. Larry and his group staged a dance for us with the young kids in training there. We also were treated to a performance by a former SSDA student who's now in her fourth year at Juilliard. It was glorious to see---they all really were committed and passionate. From the SSDA facility, which is right in the middle of the creative district in Gary, we went down the street and toured the Marshall J. Gardner Center for the Arts.

We were only in one section of Gary, but we got a real taste for what was happening all over the community. We met an artist, Kay Rosen, who knows my brother Knight very well. She spoke about her work, and why she loves living in Gary. She could easily live in New York or Los Angeles, and she lives and works in Gary. To hear that kind of commitment is great. I also met a handful of local young artists who echoed the mayor’s comments about the importance of the arts to Gary.

We then drove on to Munster, Indiana, which is almost a suburb of Chicago as it’s not that far outside the city. We met at South Shore Arts, where we were hosted by John Cain, the executive director. (John had also been with us earlier in Gary.) We had a wonderful panel discussion there; it was a highlight of my trip. I love panels with interesting people and an engaged audience. You can talk with the panelists, learn from them, and then have a give and take with the audience, which I find most stimulating. The panel was moderated by IAC’s Lewis Ricci. With me on the panel were Brenda Myers, director of the Hamilton County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau; Joanna Taft, founder of the Harrison Center for the Arts in Indianapolis; and Eric Koch, the state representative from Bedford. One thing that everyone told me about Eric is that they shudder to think of where the arts would be in Indiana without him. He has been a tremendous arts advocate within the state’s legislature; he’s been very committed to the arts for a long time, and has made a big difference. He spoke very eloquently on the panel about the importance of arts in the community and neighborhoods. Brenda spoke about the role of arts in tourism, and in attracting people into the state, while Joanna talked about programs that they were sponsoring in schools to train arts patrons, which I thought was a very interesting angle because you can’t just have poets, you need to have readers. You can’t just have painters; you have to have collectors and patrons. She spoke about using programs in schools to train patrons, and I just thought it was an angle that I had not heard before. It was a very good discussion back and forth. The organizers chose just the right mix of panelists, and it was a very engaged audience. Overall I felt as though I gained a good sense of the art scene in northern Indiana, and I’m looking forward to going back so I can take in more of the cultural offerings that they have. After that, it was just a short drive to Chicago….but more on that in part two of my Art Works postcard!

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