Jerry Davich: Culture one area NWI is improving in
Jerry Davich email@example.com March 24, 2013 12:45AM
Associate curator Gloria Ruff arranges a piece while setting up an upcoming show at the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University Thursday March 21, 2013. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media
Questions to ask ourselves from the report:
Are the arts gaining or losing ground?
What types of arts-related programs and activities are needed?
If funding is a major barrier to growing the arts, what alternative mechanism should be considered?
Updated: April 25, 2013 6:21AM
When you think of the word “culture” in Northwest Indiana, what first comes to mind?
Is it museums, galleries, the symphony, and the performing arts? Is it the Indiana Dunes, Lake Michigan, and handful of casino boats? Is it shopping malls, sports events, and movie theaters? Or possibly popular destination sites such as Star Plaza Theater, Deep River Water Park and Washington Park Zoo?
All of the above are noted in the 2012 Quality of Life Indicators Report, which is chock full of telling figures, rising trends, and key findings regarding this region. The report, the fourth in a series, offers us a baseline view and statistical snapshot of who we are, where we’re headed, and how we’ve changed in the past dozen years or so.
Key “leading indicators” have been identified, qualified, and quantified: Health, economy, environment, transportation, public safety, education, housing, government, and culture — the focus of today’s column.
Interestingly, culture is the only category that received the relatively glowing review of “improvement” through the years, compared to the others, which garnered either “steady” or “in decline.”
“The arts in this region have always received a high ranking. It’s really nice to be able to tout this fact,” said John Cain, executive director of the South Shore Arts and Northwest Indiana Symphony. “Our programs have expanded, our public funding has increased and our audiences have grown.”
Surprisingly, funding to this region from the Indiana Arts Commission grew 12 percent from 2001 to 2010, according to the report.
“Plus, the border between Chicago and Northwest Indiana has lessened in its importance over the past 10 or 15 years,” Cain noted. “We have young artists from this region who get educated in Chicago and then return here to work, live and create their artwork.”
I wondered if a common obstacle to “culture” in this region is the misperception that “the arts” is strictly for the high-brow, hoity-toity arts crowd. Not the rest of Northwest Indiana residents, many who equate art with pedestrian paintings of dogs playing poker. Cain acknowledged this cultural challenge by recalling a recent survey involving the Northwest Indiana Symphony.
“One local bank employee replied that he thought he had to wear a tuxedo to these events,” said Cain, laughing at the common stereotype of such artsy affairs. “But it’s simply not true. Many audience members at the symphony could easily go to the Pierogi Festival afterward without changing their attire.”
The Indicators report, now facilitated by the One Region group, compiles a wide range of “cultural” amenities, including philanthropy, leisure activities, and tourism. But such categories may not remain under the culture indicator, according to Dennis Rittenmeyer, One Region’s executive director,
“While no formal decision has been made, tourism will likely be moved out of the Culture chapter next time and included in the Economy section,” he said. “It appears to many of us that it is a better fit for the future, particularly since gaming is such a large part of tourism.”
He prefers the term “hospitality industry” considering the statistical problem of separating tourists from locals.
“When my wife and I go out to dinner locally, we are supporting hospitality, not tourism,” he explained.
On the tourism front
By far, the “greatest cultural asset” for Indiana Dunes Tourism is its location to Lake Michigan, the Indiana dunes and other natural resources.
“The dunes are a huge economic engine for us,” said Lorelei Weimer, the Porter County agency’s executive director. “They attract 3 million visitors annually, with 80 percent of the visitors from outside our region and 60 percent from outside the state.” (To view a related video, visit www.indianadunes.com/explore-the-area/indiana-dunes/.)
Valparaiso University is another strong cultural attraction, she noted, including theatrical performances, musical events and the Chapel of the Resurrection,
“Regionally, we really excel in cultural attractions,” she said.
Yet, there are things lacking, such as nature-based assets that are more engaging and experiential for visitors. Also, our steel industry is a huge part of our culture but tours of those fascinating factories-in-action are no more.
“If the steel mills opened today for tours they would be our second largest attraction,” predicted Weimer, noting a group is currently working on such a program. “How exciting it would be for visitors to enter into a real steel mill and see how we produce steel.”
She also believes a stronger agricultural tourism market would be a natural complement to our existing offerings.
“We appeal to the Chicagoland market and they don’t have the opportunity to experience farm life. We need the product, which is developing farm tours and selling more locally grown food.”
The South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority partners routinely with several cultural entities, including the South Shore Civil War Memorial Trail, the Crown Point Courthouse and various historical societies and genealogy groups.
“This ties the history of Northwest Indiana’s participation in the Civil War to current attractions,” said Nicki Mackowski, director of community relations.
The Lake County-based agency also supports the region’s arts scene, such as “Explore the Shore,” which returns May 11. Yet a more uniform approach to promoting cultural events and attractions is needed.
“Aside from the Regional Arts Council and South Shore Arts, there is no regional promotion of arts and culture. It is individual groups working to promote themselves.”
Arts scene popping up
The surging Miller Beach Arts & Creative District is one of these groups that has established an environment for local, regional, and national artists to show or perform their work. This, in turn, has created a place to enjoy a variety of cultural events without having to leave our region, or Gary for that matter.
Last year there were five “Pop Up Art” events on Lake Street in Miller with a combined audience of 3,000 visitors. This year, the Marshall J. Gardner Center for the Arts, at 540 S. Lake St. will host a monthly art exhibit. And the group partnered with Mas Media VII to bring actor Ed Asner here for his one-man “FDR” show.
“We have created a buzz that has artists contacting us to participate,” spokeswoman Karren Lee said.
Gregg Hertzlieb, director of the Brauer Museum of Art in Valparaiso, said Northwest Indiana is rich with cultural opportunities but entertainment options abound in our own homes. Not to mention the Internet.
“No substitute exists, however, for an actual arts experience — a live stage show, a live musical performance, an art exhibition, even a fair that brings all of those things together,” he said.
This region has always been about hard work, family, community and ethnicity, and maybe the arts experiences here speak to those core values, Hertzlieb said.
“I grew up in this area and think about my family, friends, neighbors and acquaintances all the time at my job. I realize that those folks will never even remotely approach the enthusiasm and commitment that I bring to visual art. But I want them to be aware that the shows we put on at the Brauer have their good times and enrichment at heart.
Another hidden gem in this region is the Indiana Youth Ballet, which has performed two child ballets each year since 1996.
“I am so proud of what we accomplish with these dancers,” gushed director Elizabeth Bathurst whose group’s next show is “Peter Pan” in early May. “This year’s performance has a slew of incredible kids.”
Aspiring artist, region
Nathan Cloud could be an ideal illustration of what aspiring artists in this region are up against.
The 23-year-old digital artist from Valparaiso recently graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, but he’s struggling to display and sell his art.
“I also struggle to find a close-knit group of artists in this area, something I had in college,” he said. “But it could be that I haven’t plugged in to the right groups yet.”
“I think it is difficult to become an established artist in the Midwest because more rural areas seem to not value art as much as a big city would,” said Cloud, whose work currently serves as a backdrop to music and events at The Branch in downtown Valparaiso. “Being in Northwest Indiana does help a little because it is so close to Chicago. Some of that city-mindset bleeds over to this region.”
His ultimate goal is to be a full-time artist, developing his digital-art medium, meaning he draws and paints via a computer.
“This can be hard for people to understand without seeing the process, but it allows the art to be created in a digital form which then in turn can be reproduced on different surfaces,” he said. (To view his portfolio, visit www.projeqt.com/cloudy/portfolio or his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/NathanCloudIllustration.
On a broader canvas, it’s obvious that anti-intellectualism has become a powerful force in America and many politicians have convinced people that austerity is the answer regarding the cultural arts.
In fact, though, the opposite is true, especially in this region, which is in need of a collective focal point on our portrait. Hertzlieb sums it up best.
“The juxtaposition of heavy industry and the nature of the Indiana Dunes is incredibly powerful. It can define us,” he said. “Because we exist in someplace special that’s both hard-won and almost divine as a gift, we can give a face to culture here.”
To view the 2012 Quality of Life Indicators Report, visit www.oneregionnwi.org.