Arts & culture thrive under Carmel Mayor’s watch

October 2, 2018

Mayor Jim Brainard. Courtesy of City of Carmel. Used with permission.

It was early in 2010 when I first stepped foot in the Palladium for a hard-hat tour. For a while, it was still under construction and a mere shell. That’s when I wrote my first story on the 1600-seat, 151,000-square-foot concert hall in Carmel. The following year, I attended the glittering grand opening on January 21, 2011. From that time to the present, I have had the pleasure of regularly reviewing music concerts and other performances there, featuring some of the world’s most renowned artists and entertainers. I have also covered numerous music, theatre and dance performances at the Tarkington Theatre and Studio One Theatre, which are also located on The Center for the Performing Arts campus.

Prior to the Palladium’s construction, I paid close attention to news reports about the venue and the controversy surrounding it, mostly having to do with criticism about taxpayer funding for a project that, at the time, some people thought would become a money-draining, white elephant. Receiving the brunt of the criticism was Jim Brainard, Carmel’s mayor, from whose forward-thinking vision the Center for the Performing Arts sprang. I recall reflecting on, how much political courage it took for Brainard to pursue what some thought was a misguided folly. At the same time, I was impressed with Brainard’s strong advocacy of the arts and how he linked them to Carmel’s economic development and quality of life.

For purposes of transparency, I wish to point out that because of the culturally-rich environment Brainard and his team created, my business partner and I decided to locate our production company Magic Thread Cabaret at The Cat Theatre near the Carmel Arts & Design District. In November, we will complete our inaugural season. Responsible, in part, for our decision to become a resident company at The Cat were arts patron and philanthropist Frank Basile and Brian Kelly, publisher of the Current in Carmel, both of whom recommended Carmel as an ideal location for our operation. Though we are still building our audience, we are confident that someday our success will run parallel with that of Carmel, which is constantly acknowledged as one of the country’s most livable cities.

As far as Brainard’s leadership, Basile said, “While serving as interim president and CEO of the Center for the Performing Arts in 2011 and 2012, I found Mayor Brainard to be very knowledgeable and supportive in our meetings and decision-making at that time. And, of course, it was his vision and drive that built the Palladium in the first place.” Kelly, whose publication is distributed in much of Hamilton County and beyond, said, “The mayor has a tremendous vision for the city of Carmel, and I’ve long admired his focus and energy in executing that vision. The results speak for themselves. I especially appreciate his support of the arts, which has clearly differentiated Carmel from other communities. It was a risky bet back in the day and it has paid off in spades.”

Over the years, I have had numerous encounters with Brainard while attending Center events, but until recently, we did not have a substantive conversation, until we finally sat down for a one-on-one interview in a conference room in the mayor’s office at city hall. Herein is my conversation with the six-term mayor, who is running for his seventh next year.

From where did your interest in the arts derive?

My parents were musicians. Mother was a piano teacher. My father was a school band director. My parents exposed me to music, theatre and dance. I really didn’t have a choice. I also played in the orchestra and band in college.

Give me a snapshot of your background.

I grew up in Bristol, Indiana, which is ten miles north of Goshen, near the St. Joe River, the part that flows into Indiana. South Bend was named because it is the south bend of the St. Joe River, where it turns back into Michigan. I graduated from Elkhart High School in 1972. Then, I matriculated from Butler in 1976. I enrolled in law school at Ohio Northern University and earned a Doctor of Jurisprudence in 1982.

How is it that the arts became a “hook” for Carmel?

We realized that if were going to compete with the great cities around the world, we were going to have to focus on more than just sports. There is nothing wrong with sports, but we couldn’t be one-dimensional either. As a city in as a greater metropolitan area, we needed to focus on the arts and places to see some of the world’s best artists as well as places for local people to create art.

We don’t have mountains or oceans and often have bad weather in this part of the Midwest. It’s a lot like Paris. They have lousy weather and don’t have mountains or oceans either, but what they did was make it possible for the best and brightest of all walks of life and human endeavors to want to live there. It was all about the building. When we build, it is not just about the buildings, parks and greenspaces, plazas and piazzas, and so forth. We are also building a culture. Through the leadership of many in Carmel, we’re showing we can be a leader in the arts in this community and in the Greater Indianapolis area. As a result, we are making a more attractive place for the best and brightest employees to want to live here. If we make it a place that attracts them, that means the employers are willing to come here and it is going to be good for everyone.

There is also a study from of a national lobby group, Americans for the Arts, which is headquartered in Washington D.C. They convinced American Express to fund a study about the economic development impact of the arts. It is available on their website. It points out the indirect economic development in a city’s investment in the arts. They won’t say this, but if you read similar studies for sports teams, it looks like we are getting seven to eight times the amount of economic development.

It must feel good to get good press these days? Early on, when you were building the Palladium there was lots of criticism.

It does. The press is important. Sometimes, the criticism is justified and sometimes it’s not, but that is our system.

Have you proved your critics wrong?

I don’t know if they were wrong. They were skeptical. The Center for the Performing Arts was a big project for a city our size to take on. I was fond of reminding people that when the Medicis were running Florence, there were only about 35,000 people there. Florence became the leader in sculpture and painting in all of human history. Surprisingly enough, they still get about eight or nine billion dollars a year in tourist money as a result of what they did three or four hundred years ago. Not that we are like that now, but maybe someday. Not only are there the direct benefits of a higher quality of life for the people who live here, there are a lot of indirect benefits too.

When did the idea for building the Palladium come to you?

From the minute I was elected mayor, I knew the arts would be a good thing. We knew there was a missing niche and we looked at how we could best fill that niche. What was the Indianapolis area lacking? And what we realized is that though we had several good theaters, there was not a concert hall, so I spent the next ten years trying to explain the differences between concert halls and theaters. Having that fly house where the scenery goes up and down and the sound goes up and down is a different experience from the one-room construction of a concert hall that doesn’t have a fly house and wings. So now, we have joined the ranks of the 20 or so cities in the U.S. that have a dedicated, purpose-built concert hall.

Did you know that you would face a lot of push-back when you built the Palladium?

Well, I think so. Doing anything big with lots of change involves push-back. What surprised me was this though, how do we not compete with the theaters in Indianapolis? Let’s build a concert hall. Indianapolis had proposals, the old Blocks building, the Market Square site, they never got the money together to do it, so this was something where Carmel can really help make the metro area better. There are maybe 50 large cities the size of Indianapolis metro or larger, but only about 20 concert halls. This will help distinguish us. We still got a tremendous amount of push-back from people in Indianapolis, who thought it would be better not to have one in the metro area altogether than to have it in Carmel.

Do you still receive feedback regarding how the Palladium negatively affects Indianapolis in terms of draining donors and support from its cultural organizations and institutions?

There is still some of that. It is such a parochial outlook because we are all located within a few hundred square miles. Our competition is San Diego and San Francisco, Boston and New York. We should all be working together here in Central Indiana.

Have indirect benefits, related to the building of the Center, also materialized, as you envisioned?

They have, much faster than I thought they would. At this point, it’s only been seven years. In terms of history, that is not a very long period of time at all. We have quite a few arts organizations located in this area and some of the best performers and artists in the world come here. We are doing a lot of other things in the arts too. We spend one percent of the city’s budget toward the arts. Most people don’t mind our spending one penny out of a dollar. Additionally, we are promoting festivals. In two weeks, it is going to be our International Arts Festival (which took place September 22 & 23) which we started almost twenty years ago. It’s a juried artists’ show like Penrod. We’ll have several plein air painting competitions this year. Artists come from a multi-state area. They are required to paint in a certain area. They will have a show on the weekend and have the option to see some of the art they painted. It is fun to see 30 or 40 artists on the street, within a four-or-five-block area, painting different scenes. We have Porch Fest, which is just a nice afternoon of enjoying different garage bands performing on various porches at homes in the design district. It has become a very popular day in Carmel.

Have CEOs of corporations looking to relocate actually asked you “What are your cultural amenities?”

Every time. Those are always part of the discussion. That is one part of the puzzle, but it is still a puzzle. It’s like a shotgun. There is not one silver bullet that makes a city successful. There are a lot of things coming together and working well and I think the magic combination is good public schools, a good library system, good greenspace, a trail system and safety is certainly up there at the top. Personal safety, people have to feel comfortable, is right up there with cultural amenities: theatre, concerts, festivals, accessibility to those things. A lot of great cities, you can go and buy very expensive tickets to hear this or that. We have also focused on, during the summer months in particular, a free concert almost every night of the week somewhere in Carmel.

Is Carmel diverse?

I am stymied by people who view diversity as just black and white. There are a lot of different types of diversity. There is religious diversity. Carmel’s diverse population comes from India, China to a large extent; a lot of Europeans as well. Some African Americans, but it is not one group that makes a city diverse. It is people coming from all over that make it diverse. It is the interaction of cultures that creates great ideas. It’s about people from different cultures spending time together.

Besides the arts, what else makes Carmel attractive?

A lot of it has to do with our good public school system, which has a wonderful arts program as part of the curriculum. Certainly, the arts are very helpful. Money Magazine named us in 2012 the “Best Place to Live under 300,000” in the entire United States. We were also named “Best Place for Veterans” and “Best Place to Raise Children.” We got a lot of these awards and, of course, there are different websites looking to drive business, but they use objective criteria. These aren’t things we apply to. People have found us by looking at the data. One website in California,, looked at safety last year and based on FBI statistics and certain types of crime, it named us the safest place with a population over 50,000 in the U.S. That is the type of thing I can take into a meeting with a site-selection committee in New York or Atlanta or LA. I can sit down and show them these statistics and awards. It gets their attention and helps us with economic development. The arts are a big part of that. If you recall, we were on the front page of USA Today, below the fold, but it was still the front page that reaches the entire world. It showed a picture of me standing in front of the roundabout on West Main Street, talking about our arts and design district and how we are trying to turn our suburban city into an urban core where you can walk and focus on the arts, where everyone is welcome, and how that was planned in our economic development. New York Times did a similar story on the front page of their business section a few years ago.

Is there any city that you have actually modeled Carmel after?

We owe a lot to the European cities because they have a lot more experience than we did. They have had cities for thousands of years.

This has nothing to do with the arts, but where did you get the idea for roundabouts?

In grad school, I studied in England. I didn’t know anything about engineering or civil engineering.

I drove on my first roundabout on Cape Cod.

That is not a roundabout. That’s a rotary. And there is a difference. They are different animals. Rotaries have high injury rates. Roundabouts do not. Rotaries are larger. People go faster in them and you often are not angled when you enter or exit, which creates the {safer} side-swipe as opposed to the T-bone. So, we had to fight that in the early years. A lot of civil engineers didn’t want to put their professional stamp on those because they were aware of the rotary statistics in the Mid-Atlantic Region. I had to go to the Purdue Library and work my way around as a history major and lawyer to be able to figure it out and find some articles that defined the difference between roundabouts and rotaries and asked our consulting engineers to read those and they did and that is how we got our first roundabouts. We have built more than any other city in the United States. There were 120 last week. We have three more under construction right now.

Do you also hear complaints about Carmel being too far from Indy?

I was in Toronto on a development trip and I couldn’t get anywhere in under an hour. One meeting after another, with an hour in between.

Is there such as thing at the “96th Street Plexiglass,” the so-called divide between those living in both cities who refuse to drive to either Indy or Carmel?

In a few people’s mind, there certainly is. We are all swinging together, hopefully, to make this area thrive. This is where we have all chosen to spend our lives.

I have heard comments from Carmel citizens who say they don’t go into Indy because now they have everything they need right here. Is that a popular notion?

Well, that is probably good for the environment. If we can make every neighborhood thrive, we won’t have to travel. People not having to travel as much in their daily lives is a good thing. We should do the same thing on the east side, south side, west side and various pockets of Indianapolis. Great cities are always a collection of neighborhoods and there are a lot of neighborhoods in Indy. I remember once when I was in NYC for about a week and I ended up going to the same diner on the Upper East Side every day for breakfast and I realized everybody knew each other, except me. And I watched everybody come in and greet each other by name. This is nothing but a series of neighborhoods in this big city, where people do know and look out for each other. Indianapolis is no different. We have many neighborhoods. Carmel has neighborhoods, but it is all one big urban area, which is a collection of neighborhoods, whether it is Broad Ripple, Rocky Ripple or Butler Tarkington, Irvington, or Herron-Morton. Remember, 25% of families didn’t have a car until after World War II. There was rationing during the war and an inability to afford cars during the Great Depression. Neighborhoods had to be sustainable. They had to be able to walk to stores. There was some public transit. We had neighborhoods. We didn’t have a system where people had to drive two hours or even an hour to everything they needed to do. The average American is driving two hours a day and that is not sustainable; that is not good.

How does it make you feel when you attend performances at the Center and other venues in Carmel?

It’s very gratifying. We have been able to attract some very talented people to work in our administration and to see the results of their ideas and to see people enjoying it.

Especially the Palladium, right?

That’s probably the favorite, but the Arts & Design District is nice too. There are very few suburban cities that have managed to build a downtown in suburban sprawl and we are probably the leader in the country right now.

I recently enjoyed dinner at a restaurant near Main Street. The Arts & Design District has a nice flavor.

It does. I am also excited about Midtown, which will connect our two redevelopment areas, the Palladium, which we call the City Center and the Arts & Design District, which is the old-town area of Carmel. Midtown is replacing a lot of older factory buildings. It follows the Monon Trail. We are putting brick streets on either side of the Monon. We are separating pedestrians from bicyclists. We have several pieces of public art.

Tell me how it is that you got Michael Feinstein involved as the Center’s artistic director and how he came to select Carmel as the headquarters for the American Songbook Foundation?

Michael’s spouse, Terrence Flannery, and I had mutual friends, Doris Anne and Tim Sadler. Doris learned that Terrence and Michael were envisioning a museum for the Great American Songbook in cities such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York or Miami. I thought it ought to be in Carmel. We were building the Palladium at the time and it was barely out of the ground, so Doris Anne, Michael, Terrence, myself and others met in a colleague’s office on 55th Street in New York City. It was about noon because Michael performed the night before and likes to get eight hours of sleep because he often does not get to bed until two or three in the morning after a performance. It was Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7. I made the presentation. I had a PowerPoint presentation on my computer screen. We talked about everything Carmel was doing. Michael didn’t say much. He just sat there very quietly as did Terrence, so I kept going. It was the salesman in me. I thought, “I am not going to stop until there is a question.” I continued talking about Carmel and why they should locate here. I pointed out, “You would be one of countless arts organizations in New York City, but in the Midwest you would be very special because there are not as many.” That seemed to resonate with him and finally after a couple of hours Michael said, “That’s enough. We’ll come to Carmel.” Then it was almost a year later that we signed the deal for him to become our artistic director at the Palladium, but first we had a contract to put the museum here. I am sure you have seen the small museum in the Palladium, but we have so many things that can’t be displayed and we want to make it a very interactive museum.

It seems likes Michael’s cachet and fame also helped to fast track the Center’s success.

Exactly. His cachet and reputation have gone a long way to help us succeed. We still have to pay the artists. Rarely do we get someone to donate. Michael’s renown allows us to secure artists that might not otherwise come to Indiana. Then, when they see the hall, they want to come back.

What else would you like to see happen in Carmel?

I would like to see a Broadway theatre. Initially, I thought, we’ll just leave those in Indianapolis but I think it makes sense to build a place that could accommodate traveling Broadway shows. I would like to see a film festival in Carmel, maybe an arts festival that brought the best and brightest of all the various genres here for a week or two in the summer. We have the Songbook Academy summer intensive  here. I would like to see it on some nationally-televised program. I think we’ll see something on TV in the next year or two.

What is it going to take for people to overcome the “Carmel versus Indy” mentality?

I think discussing and talking about it. The real competition is on the coast, in Europe and Asia. Someone from Shanghai is not going to distinguish between Indianapolis and Carmel. They are going to look at Central Indiana or Indianapolis Metro. Everything that Indy, Greenwood and Carmel do to advance our civilization here in Central Indiana is going to make us more competitive with cities elsewhere.

photo: Josh Humble

About Tom

Journalist, producer, director, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, arts administrator, TV contributor, actor, model, writer and lyricist, Tom Alvarez has had an extensive career in media and the fine arts and continues to be an enthusiastic and devoted fan of both. His passion and unique background grant him insight, access and perspective to cover, promote and review the arts in Indianapolis, Central Indiana and beyond. Follow him on social media @tomalvarezartswriter and @tomalvarez1.

Alvarez has been writing about theatre, dance, music, cinema and visual arts for 40 years. His work has appeared in the Indianapolis Star, NUVO, Indianapolis Monthly, Arts Indiana, Unite Magazine, Dance Magazine, NOTE Magazine, and, among many other print and online platforms. A former contributor to Across Indiana on WFYI-TV, he currently has a regular performing arts segment on WISH-TV’s Life. Style. Live!

A principal of Klein & Alvarez Productions, LLC, Alvarez co-created “Calder, The Musical” and is the managing director of Magic Thread Cabaret. As an actor-model, he has appeared in numerous TV and print ads and is represented by the Helen Wells Agency and Heyman Talent Artists Agency.

On the Aisle Team

  • Creation, content, and publishing: Tom Alvarez
  • Copy editing: Marcia Eppich-Harris
  • Graphic design:- Casey Ross
  • Web development: Clay Mabbitt

One Comment

  1. Frank Basile said...

    The interview with Mayor Brainard is very interesting, informative and insightful. As much contact as I have had with him since 2011, I still learned things I did not know as well as plans he has that I was not aware of. As I have often said, you ask questions designed to bring out the most interesting and relevant information about your interviewee. Your preface to the actual interview is always interesting and helps add context, as it did in this case with information about the Magic Threat Cabaret and your initial contact with Carmel arts. This was wonderful reading.

    October 6, 2018 at 1:51 pm | link to this reply to this

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