Bloomington city council candidates asked: What are you going to do to combat white supremacy in your support of the arts?

widview group xy try IMG_3410Tuesday night at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center, across from the derelict 4th Street parking garage, the audience filled a bit less than half the 132-seat auditorium. The performance was a political one, a two-act play of sorts, directed by Danielle McClelland, on behalf of a new arts group in town, called Arts Forward Bloomington.

Of the seven actors in Tuesday’s 90-minute drama, four are candidates in the two contested races for city council. The other three have their city council races already won, by default, with no opposition. District 2 and District 3 are the only areas of the city where elections will be held on Nov. 5.

Appearing on Tuesday for District 2 were Republican Andrew Guenther and Democrat Sue Sgambelluri. For the District 3 race, Democrat Ron Smith and independent Nick Kappas appeared; independent Marty Spechler did not attend.

McClelland said all candidates, including incumbents for clerk and mayor, were invited.

As executive director of the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, McClelland is well-practiced in the duty of introducing a show. She told the audience that candidates would get five minutes each to respond to some questions, which they’d been given ahead of time. That was to be followed by questions from audience members, written on notecards.

Tuesday’s forum did not draw out much in the way of fundamental differences in candidates’ policies on public support of the arts. They all acknowledged the important threads that the arts weave into Bloomington’s social and civic fabric.

Their remarks featured a few mentions of the plan to expand the convention center. An expanded center could be a potential location for public art installations and a performance venue, they said. The night before, elected officials had gathered to meet about the planned convention center expansion—the existing one is a couple of blocks to the west of the Waldron Center.

The only overt politicking from a candidate came in response to the final question of the night on Tuesday, from the audience: What are Arts Forward Bloomington and the city council going to do to specifically to combat white supremacy in their support of the arts?

McClelland gave forum participants some time to collect their thoughts by answering first, on behalf of Arts Forward Bloomington. She said the topic would an ideal question for one of the group’s large quarterly meetings that it plans to hold for Bloomington’s community of artists. Tuesday’s event was the premiere of those quarterly meetings.

Steve Volan and Isabel Piedmont-Smith, who are unopposed on Nov. 5, were first to have a try at the question. Volan said that public commentary time at the start of the city council’s meetings is underused—it’s important that every possible venue is used to express ourselves in a way that is not hateful.

Piedmont-Smith said multicultural arts education starting with preschool age children could help to further the mission of making sure that children interact with people who are not just like them. She suggested that the city should do more outreach to children for the Black y Brown Festival or Black History Month events.

Guenther picked up on Piedmont-Smith’s mention of the Black y Brown Festival and the fact that none of the three who’d responded up to that point had mentioned the farmers market.

“Very clearly the question stems from what has happened over this spring and
summer at the farmers market,” Guenther said, adding “I am very proud to have been, I believe, the only candidate up here who has called for the privatization of the farmers market so that the white supremacy can be stamped out of our public farmers market.”

Guenther said Piedmont-Smith was right about the need to start young with arts education. “I live in a very low-income area of Bloomington. I live right next to Arlington Trailer Park. There’s almost no public art by me … I can think of one sculpture at Miller-Showers Park, or two—that’s not acceptable.”

About the children who live in the trailer park, Guenther said, “I guarantee you [they] are not going to go to the Black y Brown Festival, they’re not going to go to the Lotus Festival, they’re not going to have those opportunities.” He suggested subsidized tickets or targeting specific schools and specific classes. “I believe that the only way to prevent the spread of white supremacy in our community moving forward is to start by targeting the generations now that are the most flexible, the most moldable, most able to learn what is and is not proper conduct and proper thought in our society.”

To answer the question, Sgambelluri drew on her experience as director of development for Indiana University’s College of Arts and Science. Improving diversity in the arts comes down to resources, she said. “Do we have resources available to spotlight artists from traditionally underrepresented groups? Do we have an opportunity to create special settings in which we can highlight those artists and commission their work?”

As a fundraiser, she gets out and uncovers new resources from people who are philanthropically minded, Sgambelluri said. She called for creating an arts foundation, like the parks foundation. Any discussion of how the arts supports greater diversity has to touch on the idea of generating resources, she said. Sgambelluri talked about a scholarship gift she’s working on for the theater and drama department, as they try to respond to an industry that is casting with increasing diversity.

Kappas echoed the sentiments of Piedmont-Smith and Guenther that the key is the next generation. “I have a six-month-old daughter and I want to teach her and expose her to all the different cultures that Bloomington brings in,” he said. He said that public art can promoting more cultural diversity. Kappas did not express a position on the privatization of the farmers market. He suggested installing public artwork there “that shows diversity, that shows inclusion, that shows that we are a community together … stomping out hatred and and white supremacy by combating it with love and support through our art.”

Smith said the question, to him, is: Why are people joining hate groups at this point in our cultural history? He suggested that question could be tackled by the arts community in a way that’s similar to Indiana University’s “themesters.”

Smith said the themes of plays that are written or performed, or of exhibitions that are installed, could address the question of why people join hate groups. He was not sure if the city council could help sponsor something like that, but he thinks it’s an idea for the arts community to think about.

Flaherty echoed the sentiment that a focus should be on youth. He also said that art could help highlight what it feels like at the market to be someone from a marginalized group. The rift in the community, he said, seemed to be centered on a sort of misapprehension of how the farmers market makes a large portion of the community feel. “I think that to me is there is a really great opportunity for the arts to help bridge that understanding gap.”

The event was filmed by CATS and is available for viewing anytime online.