Correction to This Article
A previous version of this article misspelled an Indianapolis street name. The street known for its African American heritage is Indiana Avenue, not Indian Avenue.

Artists of All Stripes Put The Indie in Indianapolis

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2008

In Indianapolis, a town full of athletic cheer, sports ranks somewhere between entertainment and breathing. Therefore, to fit in with the Hoosiers, I needed to pick a side.

I chose the underdogs: Team Culture.

The Indiana capital is trumpeted as the "Amateur Sports Capital of the World," due to a year-round calendar of college contests and Olympic trials. The town isn't hurting in the pro department, either. When I visited during football season, "Go Colts!" signs adorned shops and buildings like campaign posters; even the Japanese restaurant Mikado, which cowers in the shadow of the RCA Dome football stadium, claims to be the home of the Super Bowl XLI champs.

For the sophisticated sports fan, there are tuna rolls and Sapporo during "Monday Night Football." In addition, no race car devotee could come to Indy without a visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Kissing the fabled bricks is not allowed, but no one will stop you from genuflecting.

Yet Indy isn't all about flying pigskins and 200 mph whiplash. While the city lays claim to 10 world-class sports venues, that is just a fraction of its cultural institution tally: 14 museums (I included the National Art Museum of Sport but omitted the NCAA Hall of Champions -- my rules), 21 galleries and 25 performing arts centers and theaters. Perhaps the hot ticket isn't the 92nd Indy 500, held today, but the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Brahms and Beethoven concerts with Dutch conductor Lawrence Renes.

"There are more contemporary art venues operating in Indianapolis today than there are professional sports venues in the entire state," said Phil Barcio, who with other artists helps run the Big Car Gallery, a contemporary art collective that fosters citywide projects. "There are more than 30 working contemporary artists living in Fountain Square right now, not counting the musicians and the writers, and that's just one neighborhood."

With those kind of stats and that kind of deep bench, I wondered if Indy culture could stand up to a little competition. So, during a recent visit, I pitted Arts vs. Sports. May the best scene win.

* * *

I have to admit, I was a bit worried at first when I arrived in this flat, faintly country-flavored capital, population 876,804. As I aimlessly searched for Fountain Square, a budding arts district a mile and a half southeast of downtown, I could not imagine any creative juices burbling among the dilapidated buildings and seedy lots, unless it was a photo essay on urban dissolution.

But just as I was about to activate my backup plan -- the Indianapolis Museum of Art and its 50,000-plus works -- I noticed a lanky teenager sitting cross-legged on a street corner painting on a box of Fruity Pebbles. Idling my car through two light changes, I watched him splash bright pigments across the cardboard canvas, the drips adding a touch of Pollock to a familiar breakfast treat. As I continued to creep through the small wedge of a neighborhood, I suddenly noticed dozens of artists of varying ages and art/fashion/rock star influences creating pieces in impromptu studios -- against a dumpster, on a grassy median, beside a sweaty man grilling sausages. By chance, I had stumbled onto a festival where the process was as important as the final product.

"I finished my mural in about 20 hours. I painted a landscape. No naked ladies; it's a family place," explained Sarah Thomas, a 29-year-old bank employee who participated in a grass-roots mural project in Fountain Square and was selling her paintings in the Family Dollar store's parking lot. "I wanted the neighborhood to be nicer, prettier, cleaner than a dirty old alleyway."

Fountain Square is a visual lesson on one area's rise, fall and slow climb back. Such buildings as the Fountain Square Theatre (built in 1928), still graceful with columned arches and stained-glass windows, hint of a once-prominent past as a theater district. (Between 1910 and 1950, the quarter had the most stages in the city.) Eventually, though, the demise of the railroad yards plus other economic downturns led to an overall neglect, in the form of boarded-up houses and abandoned storefronts. Fertile ground for starving artists, who started moving in about six years ago.

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