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Column: Arts district vital part of Columbus


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Downtown Columbus has had its arts district designation for a while, and it’s led to some interesting development. Branding activity such as an official logo is underway. The district has its own Facebook page.

The citywide conversation about what an arts district is, or can be, goes on. It’s quite lively. The upcoming Rand Workshop promises to deepen it.

One fact needs to be included in the conversational premise: The particular addresses along the education, commerce and entertainment corridors are individual plots of private property, and their owners will put what they will on them.

Because Columbus is the kind of community that it is, the owners will no doubt generally be pleased and even excited to be part of the way the district shapes up. Still, unless they are residences or government property, they will need to make money with said property.

Therein lies an immediate bit of tension between the overarching goal of arts district proponents and proprietors of commercial establishments. I see this as a musician who primarily concentrates on jazz. Venue owners have to fill their establishments, and that means providing music that fits the most quantifiable definition of “popular.”

Residencies by performers of specialized musical forms run their course, while acts that treat crowds to old favorites perennially fill rooms. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it leads to a question: Is there a chance that the arts district could bifurcate into a collection of ale houses offering cover band entertainment, and shops, galleries and academic spaces immersed in explorations of design theory?

There isn’t an effective top-down solution to this. For one thing, human artistic activity is organic. Even in church-dominated medieval Europe, it boiled down to one composer sitting down at a piano and creating something the world didn’t previously have.

That fact can be overemphasized, however. The artist-as-scroungy-bohemian notion is a terribly circumscribed view of what a creative person is.

Still, it seems apparent that an arts district is most alive and vital when its streets and sidewalk cafes are filled with people creating and consuming art, debating questions of aesthetic merit, engaging in professional networking and inspiring one another, not in a formal environment, but rather over glasses of wine and plates of food.

This is certainly the case in our city. The people who meander through the farmers market, Neighborfest, the various art fairs and the Block Party have the sense that these events are what any kind of thinking and planning related to the arts district identity should culminate in.

The real artistic ferment happens on the ground, in the experiencing of one another’s creations, in the exchanges of ideas about what it means, in the seeds of collaboration that are planted in chance encounters.

Indiana now has six of these arts districts, and it’s important to keep the concept from becoming a commodity. Should that happen, each district would be placed in the position of competing with the others, and market-share considerations would override the natural development of each one’s identity.

Allowing an arts district to develop an identity organically also frees those operating within it from the kinds of faddish preoccupations, such as “sustainability” and “diversity,” that can pressure artists to create under the assumption that their works must pass the muster of some imposed-from-above notion of what is socially elevating. Such notions forgo the full breadth of the human experience that art by definition deals with.

So our district is off to an exciting start. Let us remember, though, that the conversation continues.

Barney Quick is one of The Republic’s community columnists. All opinions expressed are those of the writer. He may be reached at editorial@therepublic.com.

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