Loving a Neighborhood Through the Arts
Interview with Joanna Taft
Location: Indianapolis, Indiana
More info: www.harrisoncenter.org
What is your mission?
The Harrison Center seeks to be a catalyst for renewal in the City of Indianapolis by fostering awareness, appreciation and community for arts and culture. Our 65,000 square foot facility houses 36 studio artists, four galleries and several multi-use venues. HCA has become known as a “home for the arts” in downtown Indianapolis. 55,000 people enjoyed the Harrison Center in 2011.
What are your primary activities?
The Harrison Center serves emerging artists and emerging patrons. It serves emerging artists by providing below market rate studios in which to create work, exhibit venues to show work, a community of artists to learn from and share critiques, facilities for teaching private or group lessons, and assistance with sales and other income earning opportunities. HCA serves emerging patrons by providing accessible exhibits to those who might be new to attending gallery shows or intimidated by the art world. It is best known for its monthly First Friday gallery openings and open studio nights.
The Harrison Center also seeks to be a catalyst for renewal. It takes on what it calls “catalyst” projects to take the energy of the arts and apply it to neighborhood revitalization and economic development.
What is the history of the project?
The Harrison Center for the Arts is located in a historic church building, which was purchased by Redeemer Presbyterian (after renting it for a year and a half) in 2001. The building is 65,000 square feet and the church inherited several non-profit tenants and four artists who had studios there. I was hired to figure out what to do with the building. It could have become a social service or Christian ministry center, but my thought was that if a church can love its neighborhood through a thrift store or food pantry, why couldn’t it love its neighborhood through an art center?
Redeemer began doing business as the Harrison Center for the Arts. We opened up all the empty rooms, ranging from classrooms to the old pipe (organ) room to the old boiler room. We rented each space for $100 each—”regardless of size, shape, or smell”. Within two weeks, we had fifteen artists building an art center together.
In 2003, Redeemer recognized that the HCA was drawing crowds of up to a thousand to its gallery openings and the Center had become a regional draw. The Harrison Center became a separate non-religious, public benefit corporation and continued to have tremendous synergy with the Redeemer congregation in serving the community. HCA is governed by an independent board, many of whom live in the nearby neighborhoods.
In 2006, HCA created Herron High School to grow a new generation of art patrons. The school opened in the HCA basement with 99 students and now is 1 1/2 blocks away on its own campus, formerly the home of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. In 2010, the school was ranked as #27 in Newsweek magazine’s “America’s Best Schools” issue, due to academic rigor. The school now serves 452 students and will grow to 600 in the fall.
With a growing group of young minds across the street, the HCA added a program to teach high school and college students how to become Cultural Entrepreneurs. A cultural entrepreneur sees a need, takes a risk, leverages resources, invests energy and networks to build culture in Indianapolis. Projects have ranged from creating an unconventional food convention, FoodCon (run by a 19 year old and attracting 2500 its first year), to our Independent Music and Art Festival, now 10 years old, a full day of art and music which 7000 attended in 2011 (orchestrated by a 16 year old high school student).
In 2010, the Harrison Center began looking at new ways of using its formula of art, culture, and community-building to strengthen the neighborhood around the art center. We opened The City Gallery, a gallery that specializes in place-based work, which also serves as a resource cafe to connect people to culture, community and place to strengthen core neighborhoods. The City Gallery is in its pilot year and has demonstrated that it is a good connecting organization. Its bigger goal is to create an aesthetic movement in Indianapolis that celebrates place. New social media initiatives and programming will be unveiled in summer 2012 as we move into our implementation phase.
Where have you seen the project bear fruit?
There are many ways to measure success. Harrison Center studios are always full, have little turnover, and have a waiting list. Gallery shows are well attended and sales have increased every year. The community has been very supportive of our programs and has been generous in its giving, allowing us to improve the building and studios. Artists have received fellowships, commissions, and studio sponsorships. The First Friday events have grown in attendance, now averaging 1200 at each monthly artist reception. 55,000 people attended the HCA for art and community events in 2012.
Herron High School is growing a new generation of art patrons—well-rounded students who have learned how art and science developed in tandem and how cultural movements and political movements go hand in hand. We thought it would take students ten years after graduating to begin buying art, but they are starting in high school!
The Cultural Entrepreneur internship program is reaping results. Our interns have gone on to good colleges, and have secured positions with think tanks, the Mayor’s office, museums, and foundations. They buy art from our artists and have become donors to HCA.
The City Gallery is creating a movement of art and culture that is rooted in and celebrates place. Musicians are creating music inspired by their neighborhoods and community lives; artists are wrestling through their roles as community change makers as they consider their mediums and new work. Indianapolis is building pride of place and artists have been elevated to lead that conversation.
What have your leadership challenges been?
Fundraising for any non-profit is a challenge, especially in the arts during a downtown in the economy. However, people have responded to our work and to the passion our employees bring to the community, and have helped us build a sustainable organization.
Convincing my board and the community to follow the entrepreneurial instincts of HCA—starting a studio center, creating a high school, launching a cultural entrepreneur program, and creating the City Gallery in partnership with the community development sector—would normally be a challenge. However, the board has been very supportive of its entrepreneurial staff. We evaluate new initiatives in light of our mission to be a catalyst for renewal in the City of Indianapolis by fostering appreciation, awareness and community for art and culture.
With new ventures. we have to ask if we are furthering that mission. We also have to test the projects against three criteria: is the project fundable, is it sustainable, and is it something the community can get passionate about. These three tests have helped our projects develop a reputation of reliability and consistency, without losing creativity.
Where do you envision the project going in the coming years?
The Harrison Center will continue to cross-pollinate funding and partner with the community development sector to provide more opportunities for our artists and income diversity for our programs. We will continue to flesh out our City Gallery program and implement a variety of strategies (through success and failure) to elevate artists to lead the community conversation about place.
How can someone get involved?
Locally, people get involved by attending events, volunteering at events, loving artists, buying art, and helping in any way that they can.
Joanna Taft has used her entrepreneurial skills to build community in diverse settings—government, corporate, non-profit, and grassroots community-based organizations. When Joanna relocated to Indiana from Washington, D.C., she discovered cultural development and found that it was a good match for her interest in historic neighborhoods and urban areas, and for her entrepreneurial abilities. In 2001, she took the position of Executive Director of the Harrison Center for the Arts (HCA). She serves on several boards, including Herron High School (of which she is founder and Board Chair), the Indianapolis Downtown Artists and Dealers Association Advisory Board, and Indiana Association for Community and Economic Development. She is a 2011/2012 Cultural Renewal Fellow of the Arts Council of Indianapolis, received the Indianapolis Business Journal’s Women of Influence award, and is a recipient of two Cultural Vision Awards.