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. It 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.