The arts include performing and visual arts organizations, historic preservation, libraries, museums, and public broadcasting. The national advocacy organization, Americans for the Arts, reports that the arts are a small but essential element of the economy. Giving to arts, however, represents only 5 percent of total philanthropic giving, with donations averaging around 43 percent of revenue for all arts nonprofits nationally.

Four young women stand on a balcony.
Members of The Children’s Museum’s Guild on the veranda of Parry House, 1947 Credit: Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library View Source

Philanthropy has played a major role in supporting the arts and cultural life in Indianapolis. Individuals, corporations, and foundations and trusts have sustained artists and arts organizations since before the turn of the twentieth century. Several vital and enduring arts and culture organizations began with the vision of individuals: May Wright Sewall helped found the Arts Association in 1883, NEWFIELDS; John Herron left a bequest for an art gallery and art school (1895); Mary Stewart Carey founded The Children’s Museum in 1925; William Kaeser founded the Art League, 2020’s Indianapolis Arts Center (1934); and Lowell Nussbaum proposed the zoo, today’s Indianapolis Zoological Society (1946). A group of 7,000 volunteers known as “Ardath’s Army” rallied to the call of Ardath Y. Burkhart, put Wfyi, Indianapolis’ public television station, on the air.

These organizations also have companion guilds to stage special events and raise funds, including the Children’s Museum Guild (1933), the Symphony Women’s Committee (1937), the Alliance of the IMA (1958), and the Indianapolis Zoological Guild (1964). The Penrod Society founded in 1966, supports the arts through its annual festival.

A view looking out from an orchestra towards the conductor. Behind the conductor is a pool of water, a large lawn, and a house.
The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performed at the first Penrod Arts Fair in 1967. Credit: Charles A. Berry, IndyStar View Source

Individuals have donated their art collections to form the core of Newfields and the Eijeljorg museums. Local families include Clowes, Eiteljorg, Elder, Fairbanks, Fesler, Glick, Pantzer, Holliday, Lilly, and Herzman. Dr. George and Edith Clowes and their son Allen Whitehill Clowes created foundations that continue to fund the arts in the city. Christel Dehaan endowed the Christel Dehaan Fine Arts Center at the UNIVERSITY OF INDIANAPOLIS and established the Christel Dehaan Family Foundation, which supported arts and culture organizations. It ceased operations at the end of 2023. Frank and Katrina Basile have made numerous gifts for theaters and public spaces throughout the city. Since its founding, lilly endowment, inc. has consistently supported the arts, including its 2018 “Strengthening Indianapolis Through Arts and Cultural Innovation” initiative to encourage community building and celebrate creativity.

The Krannert Charitable Trust (1960-1987) contributed to the arts in several ways, including the performing arts. The Trust advocated developing “Centers of Excellence” and funded renovations of the Indiana Repertory Theatre (1980) and the Circle Theatre (1982) for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Volunteers founded Cathedral Arts in 1968, which raised funds to support the careers of young artists and arts programming and then established the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis (IVCI) in 1982. Held every four years, IVCI has become one of the most prestigious violin competitions in the world. The organization also sponsors an annual concert series featuring past winners and works with youth through educational activities. Cathedral Arts has done business officially as the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis since the mid-2010s.

A woman sits holding a violin and bow.
Kyoko Takezawa performed in the 1986 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, established by Cathedral Arts in 1982. Credit: Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library View Source

Federal support of the arts began with the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities during the 1960s. Over the last 35 years, funding of individual artists and arts organizations has shifted largely from federal support to state and local support. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, direct federal spending on arts has declined by almost one-third and federal support to non-profit arts organizations has declined by almost half.

Established in 1987, the Arts Council of Indianapolis is the city’s arts advocacy and infrastructure organization, functioning as a chamber of commerce for arts and culture. The Arts Council supports individual artists, operates the Artsgarden, curates public arts, maintains a centralized arts calendar, and juries block grants from the City of Indianapolis parks department, the Capital Improvement Board (CIB).

A sculpture with a brick base and panels with a line figure of a woman dancing.
Ann Dancing on Massachusetts Avenue, 2020 Credit: Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar via Imagn Content Services, LLC View Source

One of the most conspicuous Arts Council initiatives is public art, an omnibus term covering a variety of forms and artistic activities. Art that is publicly accessible dates back to the City Beautiful movement in the form of architecture, sculpture, landscape design, monuments, fountains, and plazas. Since the phrase was coined in the 1960s, “public art” connotes works commissioned specifically for accessible public sites. In some cities, public art is funded by percent-for-art programs, in which a small percentage of construction budgets must be applied to the purchase of artwork. In Indianapolis, a different pattern emerged as philanthropy supports public art through donations to the Arts Council.

The city’s public art received national attention during the Super Bowl XLVI, and the notable “Ann Dancing” remains on Massachusetts Avenue. The Arts Council in 2019 curated and installed 35 new public artworks by 28 artists. Through the Cultural Corridor Consortium Indianapolis program (3CIndy), the Arts Council partnered with Transit Drives Indy to infuse art into Indygo’s new Red Line Rapid Transit. The Indianapolis Cultural Trail: A Legacy of Gene & Marilyn Glick is an 8-mile world-class urban bike and pedestrian path in downtown Indianapolis. Indianapolis Cultural Trail Inc. manages the public spaces to promote the city’s cultural assets. and as of 2004 the State of Indiana Arts Commission. The Arts Council today supports 65 Marion County arts organizations and over 2,000 individual artists.

A group of five dancers perform on a stage.
Dancers with the Kenyetta Dance Company at the 2019 Art and Soul kickoff celebration at the Indianapolis Arts Garden, 2019 Art And Soul Kicks Off February Credit: Robert Scheer/IndyStar View Source

By the 21st century, another shift was underway, this time toward arts as an economic development strategy. Mayor Bart Peterson championed an initiative to increase “cultural tourism” to attract and extend the stay of visitors through the marketing and development of arts and culture. Residents became the lynchpin to the strategy, as the more residents are engaged in the city’s cultural offerings, the more they will be ambassadors for increased cultural tourism, which remains part of the city’s economic development efforts.

Revised March 2021

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