Mayor Jim Brainard on Carmel, Indiana's Arts and Culture District
As American suburbs developed in the years after World War II, people tended to think of them as little more than places to sleep after a long day working in the big city nearby. They made their homes, educated their kids and went to church in the suburbs. But when it came to experiencing the arts, they were forced to get in their cars and drive into the core of the big city.
In Carmel, Indiana – a suburb north of Indianapolis that has grown to more than 85,000 residents – we chose to do things differently. We thought it was important that our “bedroom suburb” have easy access to the arts. As busy families began to seek other forms of entertainment closer to home, we recognized that they stood the risk of missing out on experiencing the arts telling the story of our country through dance, music, and sculpture.
While students in our local schools were introduced to the arts in the classroom, we felt as a city that we needed to come up with a creative way to further instill an appreciation for the arts in our community. And we found that our residents wanted to be able to enjoy good music, the theater, visual arts and festivals – right here in their own city.
Working collaboratively with city leaders and private investors, Carmel embarked on a long-term plan to place the arts at the center of two major redevelopment projects in our central core. The result was a new “Arts & Design District” in the oldest part of our downtown area, while at the same time the creation of a new downtown “City Center,” that would include a new concert hall, theater building, and beautiful gathering spaces for the public.
Over the past two decades, hundreds of millions of dollars in private sector investment have been poured into these areas, which now flourish with activity, boost the quality of life, and helped Carmel achieve the status as one of the Best Cities in America.
On warm summer evenings, the sound of light jazz fills the air as residents, friends and many visitors casually stroll along Main Street to see the art galleries, shop, sip wine, or dine in one of several restaurants that have been drawn to the Arts & Design District. In addition to the galleries (we now have 10); we also purchased and installed several pieces of public art, including a number of lifelike sculptures from the J. Seward Johnson collection. I really enjoy watching tourists, especially those with children, stopping and posing for pictures with the sculptures.
I am often reminded of a quote from John F. Kennedy, who once said: “…the life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction in the life of the nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose — and it is the test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.”
The Arts & Design District spans several blocks in four directions – each marked at the border with archways that span our streets and let visitors know they have entered into a special area. In addition to the galleries, the District is also home nice mix of small businesses, coffee and tea shops and the Indiana Design Center, where the public can meet professional designers and shop at fine stores for the latest trends in home design. We actively recruit and encourage design firms, high-end antique dealers, unique furniture shops and boutiques to locate their business here in Carmel.
A short walk south along the Monon Greenway – a popular, multi-use trail that runs through the heart of our city – you will find City Center, which is home to The Palladium, our spectacular 1,600-seat concert hall. This beautiful hall, with a domed European style design, is stunning landmark on the city’s landscape. The four-fronted, symmetrical design with its limestone facades and columns offer are not only elegant, but also provide the framework for an acoustic experience that ranks among the best in the Midwest.
In addition to our concrete cultural activities, we have also used our many open gathering places and green spaces to host unique festivals such as the International Arts Festival, a Carmel Artomobilia Show, monthly “gallery walks,” weekly farmer’s markets and outdoor concerts and a Porch Fest that featured small bands and performers playing from the front porches of our growing “old town” neighborhood in the Arts & Design District.
There is no doubt that these events and the cultural facilities are sparking economic development and revitalization. They help us recruit new corporate headquarters and job providers. By embracing the arts in this way, our residents can gather with friends and neighbors or host visitors close to home without having to drive to a large big-box shopping mall or to downtown Indianapolis. At the same time, we have found creative new uses for the oldest buildings in the city, while continuing to build new buildings on land that had long been ripe for something new.
We feel strongly that centering our redevelopment efforts on the arts and culture has been very successful and helped us to sustain the initiatives we set out to accomplish 20 years ago. These efforts are drawing cultural organizations, activities, and tens of thousands of tourists to our city. With our Arts & Design District, City Center, and our consistent support for local arts organizations with city grants, we feel we are not only building a successful city, but also playing a vital role in the much larger picture of encouraging America to embrace the arts.