The annual multi-day and multi-cultural Spirit & Place emerged as a festival in 1996 from the Project on Religion and Urban Culture, an initiative of The Polis Center at IUPUI . The first Festival examined the ways in which religion and community shaped each other in Greater Indianapolis. 

Three people sit in chairs facing each other and talk.
Powerful Conversations on Race, a year-round Spirit & Place offering, 2018 Credit: Spirit & Place Festival View Source

With support from Butler University and community partners, it featured a public conversation at a packed Clowes Hall among Kurt Vonnegut, Dan Wakefield, and John Updike. Both Vonnegut and Wakefield were Indianapolis natives, which reinforced the idea of a locally oriented festival, as did 18 other public discussions and cultural events produced by partners that were spread over the three-day November weekend. 

The Spirit & Place Festival remains a community-created and curated offering where cultural, congregational, and other civic organizations, as well as local artists and creatives, join forces around a central theme to create approximately 30 events using the arts, humanities, and/or religion as their tools of exploration.

Formats have traditionally ranged from exhibits, performances, family activities, panel discussions, and workshops, to site-specific tours. Events have been held in libraries and breweries, forests and theaters, museums and cemeteries, seminaries and universities, and more.

Initially dedicated to its annual November festival of events, Spirit & Place evolved into a more complex year-round organization with major shifts occurring in the 2010s.

Two people stand on a stage.
COVID-19 forced the Spirit & Place Festival to alter its opening night event by hosting a virtual ‘sneak peak’ of festival offerings, 2020 Credit: Spirit & Place Festival View Source

In 2013, Spirit & Place conducted an analysis of its role in the community and how it should position itself as a community change agent. In that same year, Spirit & Place embarked on one of its earliest initiatives at tackling racism. With funding from The Scott Jones Foundation, Spirit & Place launched a “pitch fest,” in which various organizations and individuals submitted ideas on how to improve race relations for a $20,000 prize.

Lessons learned from initiatives such as these resulted in a restructuring of Spirit & Place in 2015 with the hiring of additional staff. As staff capacity grew, so did Spirit & Place’s year-round presence in the community with event series such as Gentrify: The Good, Bad, and Ugly with the Kheprw Institute (2016), Powerful Conversations on Race (2017), Civic Saturday (2018) and The Corona Dialogues which were created in response to the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.

Art-centric community-building initiatives also took root in the late 2010s with Spirit & Place’s partnership with the Kheprw Institute, Groundwork Indy, and EMC Arts on a project aimed at tackling the needs of those leaving incarceration.

In 2019 Spirit & Place moved from The Polis Center to the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI where it continues to combat civic disengagement and build stronger, more connected communities. By providing skill-building opportunities ranging from panel moderation to dialogue facilitation to building reciprocal relationships and weaving new networks, Spirit & Place catalyzes civic engagement.

A woman stands behind a podium and speaks to a crowd of people.
Civic Saturdays, part of the year-round activities, aim to foster open dialogue about civic values in a safe space, July 2019 Credit: Spirit & Place Festival View Source

Throughout its existence, Spirit & Place has used the arts, humanities, and religion as civic tools and has championed collaboration amongst community partners to experiment, facilitate difficult dialogues, and host thought-provoking events aimed at wrestling with complex challenges. Its demonstrated effectiveness has been recognized with a Nuvo Cultural Vision Award and an Indiana Achievement Award.

Revised July 2021

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