Columbus, Indiana, Has a New Angle

The town expands its lofty artistic ambitions, starting with sculpture.

Architecture. When you think of Columbus, Indiana, that’s likely what comes to mind. And rightfully so. Structures by I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen, and other starchitects made the small city famous—the result of ambitious public-private partnerships and, in particular, the vision of longtime Cummins chairman J. Irwin Miller.

Today, leaders of the “Athens of the prairie” hope to build on that vision—not with structures, but with sculpture. Eight large public works constitute the first wave of the Columbus Indiana Sculpture Biennial, an ongoing outdoor exhibit that begins this month. Developed by the Columbus Area Arts Council, the biennial will rotate new works in every two years. The inaugural lineup of artists features two Hoosiers (Matthew Davey of Indy and Dale Enochs of Bloomington), celebrated sculptor Albert Paley, and others from Chicago and New York. One of the new pieces resembles a stainless-steel–and–mosaic worm. Another is a locally sourced dead tree that the artist will take apart and reassemble.

Not that Columbus lacks public art—the entire 44,000-person city is a museum.
Preexisting works include a priceless Henry Moore arch, a three-story-high glass chandelier by Dale Chihuly, and Jean Tinguely’s mechanized hunk of steel in the Commons. The place never really developed a reputation for sculpture, though. Organizers hope the biennial will help change that, as well as stoke tourism—expected goals, considering that the bulk of the funding comes from a $25,000 Efroymson Award for Excellence in Cultural Tourism Development. But the exhibit is also part of a larger, more ambitious plan. First-term mayor Kristen Brown wants the city to eventually become “the cultural and creative capital of the Midwest.”

“We have assets that no one else has,” says G. Karen Shrode, the arts council’s executive director. “We’re unique. What can we do to build on that? We’re open to just about anything.”

Work has already begun. By the end of the month, cranes will have placed the new sculptures in the Columbus Arts District, a downtown area that the Indiana Arts Commission designated as the fifth Indiana Cultural District in 2012. Local leaders developed a number of recommendations for the district, from renovating the historic Crump Theatre to creating live/work spaces for artists. A public-arts master plan is under way.

The city has a long way to go to meet its goal. After all, one could argue that Columbus isn’t even the cultural capital of Highway 46, which runs through Brown County and Bloomington. But whatever the mission might lack in attainability, it makes up for in admirability. The people of Columbus want to keep building. In the words of J. Irwin Miller, “Never play it safe. Take the big risk.”

This article appeared in the June 2014 issue.