Meet The Entrepreneurs Working To Diversify Indy’s Arts Scene – Indianapolis Month-to-month

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Meet The Entrepreneurs Working To Diversify Indy's Arts Scene – Indianapolis Monthly

Last summer, 18 Black artists gathered to create a large-scale Black Lives Matter mural on the surface of Indiana Avenue, an area of Indianapolis born from segregation. The stretch and surrounding community was once home to a third of the city’s Black population and a thriving cultural scene highlighted by a vibrant hub for jazz, particularly Black jazz. At its height, from the 1930s to the 1940s, “Funky Broadway” was comparable to districts in New Orleans and Kansas City. More than 30 jazz clubs featured national acts and nurtured local talent like Wes Montgomery, who went on to become one of the most influential guitarists of his time. Burlesque, cabaret, and drag shows also drew crowds, which spilled onto a street lined with Black-owned restaurants, shops, and professional offices. Despite the city eventually designating Indiana Avenue one of its seven Cultural Districts, the enclave remains a shell of its former self, owing its demise to urban renewal projects, redlining, the construction of I-65, and the expansion of nearby IUPUI.

Planning for the mural began in June as a political statement in response to the police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man in Minneapolis. As similar projects sprung up around the country, here in Indy the racial justice group Indy10 Black Lives Matter and others worked with Vop Osili, president of the City-County Council, to sponsor a request to close Indiana Avenue so it could be painted. Organizers put out a call for artists, and within two days every spot was filled. Then, in August, the artists went to work individually designing characters and letters from paint, chalk, and tape that collectively spelled #BlackLivesMatter.

By mid-October, participating artists were fielding private commissions and Newfields and the Indianapolis Art Center had featured their work in exhibitions. The mural itself had earned 93 million media impressions. But advocates more broadly hope that buzz over the mural represents a fraction of untapped creative potential within the city. More specifically, this is the power, pride, and, yes, politics that two of the mural’s organizers want to cultivate and amplify with a new art-forward incubator they’ve founded: GANGGANG.

Veterans of the city’s social capital scene, partners Malina “Mali” Jeffers and Alan Bacon alternately describe the agency, which officially launched in November and keeps office in a new coworking space on 22nd Street, as “a cultural startup that invests in creativity” and “an investment firm for people of culture.” Simply put, Jeffers and Bacon want to patronize emerging artists and creators of color who the couple believe are often overlooked and without access to resources and opportunities. That was enough to sell Brian Payne, president and CEO of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, which is GANGGANG’s primary benefactor.

“These two people are proven leaders and have the vision and the skill set to make things happen,” says Payne, who was the mind behind one of Indy’s most transformative projects, the Cultural Trail. “In the next five years, we’re going to see that there are important new events and companies that GANGGANG has had a hand in playing. In five years, we’ll look back and say, this Black-owned company adds to the economy and wouldn’t have happened without GANGGANG.”

While those are some of the desired outcomes, GANGGANG’s larger mission is to become a critical part of an anti-racism regime in a city where it will need to overcome both the past and present.

Of course, that’s a tall order—and hardly theoretical. Back in August, just a week after the mural’s completion, vandals defaced it.

The idea for GANGGANG came on a Thursday night in June at a point when both Jeffers and Bacon were feeling restless.

Jeffers had just left Ambrose Property Group, where she had been the vice president of marketing. For two-and-a-half years, she had worked on the branding and promotion of Waterside, a massive development project that was going to transform the former GM Stamping Plant and the surrounding area. Anticipated to cost about $1.4 billion and stretch almost 100 acres, the mixed-use development would have included corporate offices, multi-family housing, parks, and public art. Despite the interest, excitement, and publicity that came with the project, Jeffers didn’t feel in control of her career. She didn’t get the sense that anything was truly secure, so she decided to leave Ambrose in August 2020. The demise of Waterside came one month later, when Ambrose announced they were pivoting to industrial and e-commerce real estate. They abandoned their plans to develop the GM Stamping Plant.

Meanwhile, Bacon was working at United Way of Central Indiana, where he was the senior director of the Social Innovation Fund, helping donors and innovators explore new solutions that could improve Hoosiers’ quality of life and combat poverty. But, in his spare time, Bacon was writing op-eds for the Indianapolis Recorder that made the case Black Indianapolis was “tired, hurt, and frustrated.”

The couple worried that when the racial justice movement faded from the headlines, Indianapolis would return to business as usual. Concurrently, they were concerned the city wasn’t properly leveraging its cultural assets, putting Indianapolis behind cities like Nashville, Austin, and New Orleans—places known for music, art, food, a lifestyle. They wondered what could meet the moment of these problems.

Jeffers and Bacon were no strangers to bold ideas and grassroots efforts, though. They met in 2014, when Indy Chamber asked them to create Advance 317, a networking group focused on how music, art, food, and fashion affected economic development. After several successful years, the couple passed the torch to new co-chairs. Today, Advance 317 focuses on ways the business community can improve transit, equity, and the viability of downtown.

Now in need of a fresh challenge, Bacon and Jeffers turned the dining table in their Herron-Morton home into a desk, where a tornado of crumpled paper, scribbles, and pens flew as fast as the ideas. Maybe a new venture could create an outdoor music festival or organize an exhibition highlighting Black artists. Maybe it could partner with Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, where Jeffers is on the board of governors. Or what about working with Force Indy, an African-American racing team mentored by Team Penske? Bacon and Jeffers started to think of ways they could help Force Indy gain traction, get attention. A car show seemed possible. Cool cars, hydraulics, low riders, rims. If they could connect the Black community to an event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the couple mused, a new fan base might emerge.

After five hours of brainstorming, Jeffers paused, put down her pen, and stepped back. “We need to talk to Brian Payne,” she said. Bacon pointed out it was midnight and advised her to sleep on it. “If this is still dope in the morning, tell him then,” he said. Jeffers went to bed, woke up early, forced herself to wait an hour, then emailed Payne. “Morning, Brian. We have the best idea ever. Can we talk soon?”

Five minutes later, the phone rang. “Mali, I love a good idea on a Friday morning. What is it?”

GANGGANG is a hybrid model, both for-profit and not-for-profit—kind of like a venture capital firm for the arts. The not-for-profit side develops programming related to arts and culture, while the for-profit side acts as an investment arm and gives financial support to cultural entrepreneurs.

For a practical understanding, consider The Kickback. It was a six-week outdoor music show that GANGGANG produced in partnership with 10 East Arts, an organization that celebrates and elevates the arts on Indy’s near east side. The not-for-profit side of GANGGANG coordinated the shows and contacted all of the artists, musicians, and DJs. The for-profit side of GANGGANG ensured that each one of those artists, musicians, and DJs received payment for their performance or appearance. “We are wanting to support those who, by tradition, aren’t recognized by arts organizations,” says Jeffers. “It’s not easy to find support, especially if you are a cultural entrepreneur. You can’t find funding if you are a for-profit entity, and we shouldn’t have to force artists to become a not-for-profit to receive funding.”

Support leads to production, which boosts the creative economy. And that drives the city’s vitality, which encourages people to stay. When people settle down and start a community, culture typically comes with it.

This is what Big Car Collaborative is attempting to do in the Garfield Park neighborhood. There, the arts and community development organization is trying to turn Cruft Street into a regional, even national, destination for artists and art. They’re doing this by purchasing and renovating homes along the strip, then selling a portion of a home to creators. This allows the artist to move in at a cost far lower than the traditional way. By making it easier to purchase a home, Big Car is giving artists and their families an equitable opportunity to succeed.

“GANGGANG’s launch fits very well with our approach of supporting other artists and organizations,” says Shauta Marsh, cofounder of Big Car. Marsh, who is also a GANGGANG board member, says the two organizations are different in that Big Car is creating an artist community and GANGGANG wants to create a community filled with artists. “I don’t think there is a lot of overlap, but our perspective is, even if there were, it’s in the best interests of our city to have Alan and Mali’s cultural perspective.”

Payne agrees, and believes Bacon and Jeffers’s ability to make connections can help elevate Indy’s Black cultural scene. A more successful and more powerful Black community can lead to a more successful Indianapolis. And a strong sense of community doesn’t drive down others; it lifts them up. It’s a “rising tide lifts all boats” mentality.

Payne admits that the generous grants CICF has given to Black and Latinx organizations have always been done from a white person’s perspective. But after 103 years of being a white privileged, white-centered organization, CICF announced a new mission in 2019: “to mobilize people, ideas, and investments to make this a community where all individuals have equitable opportunity to reach their full potential—no matter place, race, or identity.” Their plan to build an inclusive city includes back-office support and an initial $50,000 commitment for GANGGANG, with whom they share core values: end racism and support people of culture.

That said, there are other local organizations that play in the same general racial space. For instance, the nonprofit Kheprw Institute, has an artist-support program called Cafe Creative. Like GANGGANG, Cafe Creative believes communities of color, especially Black communities, will thrive if they have access to and control of creative spaces. Maurice Broaddus, Kheprw’s Afrofuturist in Residence, doesn’t view this as competition, though; he’d rather have as many organizations as possible try to elevate artists. “We’re not working against each other,” he says. “We’re not working perpendicular to each other. We’re working alongside them.”

Before Nathaniel Rhodes met Bacon and Jeffers, he was on his way out of Indy. Rhodes had shelved his creative talent for something more vanilla—a career in graphic design. Instead of drawing whatever, whenever, Rhodes was shoehorned into designing to order, a common frustration for creatives who generally want their art to reflect their worldview. He felt as if his clients were in the office with him, leaning over his shoulder and moving the mouse for him. Telling him to use a particular font, a different color, do something else. Sometimes, Rhodes would be so exhausted from trying to please clients he’d collapse on the couch when he got home, too tired to pick up a paintbrush. The energy he spent on others’ projects instead of his own was so much that Rhodes considered packing his bags.

“I was ready to go to a bigger city with an art scene,” Rhodes says. “I needed the right people to see my art, since Indy doesn’t have that scene.” He planned to go to Nashville or San Antonio to gain a following. But, by chance, someone in Indianapolis who could connect him to the right people did see his art—Jeffers.

In late May, Jeffers, Bacon, and their five children went to one of the first Black Lives Matter protests. George Floyd had died a few days before, and people were angry. Many were dressed head-to-toe in black, chanting the names of those who had died too soon. People held signs that said “I can’t breathe,” “Racism is the pandemic,” and “If you are not angry, you are not paying attention.” There, against the backdrop of the racial justice movement, Jeffers saw Rhodes holding a vibrant painting of a Black fist on real canvas.

“Is this your artwork?” she asked. “I love it. Are you selling it? Are you willing to sell it? Are you a local artist?”

Yes. Thank you. No. Not right now. Yes.

Simon and Rhodes exchanged contact information, kept in touch. When Jeffers and Bacon started to draft artists to work on the Black Lives Matter mural, they reached out to Rhodes first.

“Doing the mural sparked and reignited my fire for actual visual art,” says Rhodes, who painted the letter B. “[Bacon and Jeffers] gave me the confidence to become a full-time artist. I’m in control of my art now and the message my paintings are bringing.”

Knowing Rhodes stayed in Indianapolis because of her and Bacon’s efforts—connecting him to the community, providing the resources he needed to be successful —gives Jeffers chills. One of GANGGANG’s goals is to retain creative talent, and here was the perfect example. After the Black Lives Matter mural, Bacon and Jeffers were able to connect Rhodes to other people in need of a muralist. At time of print, Rhodes had left his traditional 9-to-5 job, established an LLC for his art, and worked on several different commissions. “Being a full-time artist has given me a voice in this pandemic and helps me fight for social reform and equal rights,” he says. “I am a voice for the voiceless. I’m a part of the moment.”

Could GANGGANG multiply this story and encourage other creatives—who may not be cut out for 9-to-5s—that they can sustain themselves by singing, performing, dancing, being? “It gave me a reason to stay,” says Rhodes.

Payne, the CICF president, believes retaining such talent helps build and define communities, but allows that “we have not done as good a job as we need to, to give Black and brown and Latinx stories their due, to give artists their due. What GANGGANG is trying to do seems hugely ambitious—but I love hugely ambitious ideas.”

Bacon says he and Jeffers are aware of the expectations and embrace them. “We understand that Brian Payne and all these individuals are expecting us to do big things. What we’re doing is audacious and bold, and we’ll need both the outcome and the income to match the level of the actual idea. We’re aware of it, but we’re more excited to deliver than fearful.”

Brad Beaubien believes that if you change a person’s daily experience, you expand their worldview. Beaubien, director of destination development at Visit Indy and a GANGGANG board member, says if the newly minted organization can do that and break down walls in the process, then it’s a win-win for the community.

“We talk about echo chambers and look at one another and say, ‘How can you think that way?’” he says. “We do that in social media and in communities because we haven’t had the chance to experience one another. We look at each other and only see differences.” But the easiest way to combat stereotypes and discrimination is to experience culture. It could be going to a soul food restaurant or listening to a jazz band ensemble. His point is that food, fashion, art, music, design, and storytelling are the easiest ways to access culture. “We believe that, through culture, we can bring humanity closer,” says Bacon. “Five, 10 years from now, we envision Indy as a cultural destination, a more vibrant city with a food scene and a music scene and fashion and art. If we can grow and multiply those assets, we’ll start to see a more inclusive and welcoming Indianapolis.”

Payne thinks GANGGANG will be here long term, but will only thrive as long as Bacon and Jeffers continuously think of new collaborations and new ways to engage the community and the city. It’s a lot of pressure, sure, but the stakeholders are more excited about the work ahead of them than they are nervous about its success. “Ultimately, they will thrive and survive because of their ideas and ability to execute really good ideas,” says Payne. “They’re going to make it because they’re really good. Not just because they’re Black.”

Similarly, Bacon and Jeffers don’t expect overnight success or anticipate that everyone will understand GANGGANG right away. And that’s OK. They’re figuring out things, too. After all, it’s not every day that you quit your full-time job to start a cultural development firm. One potential hang-up, the couple admits, is the name GANGGANG, which they believe some might see as provocative.

“Gang” might be a loaded word today with an extra-legal connotation, but it used to have an entirely different meaning. It’s from an Old English expression that means “going” or “journey.” By the early 1600s, the word had evolved to mean “a set of things or a group of people that go together” (e.g., “The whole gang’s here!”). When Bacon and Jeffers combined the word’s early meanings, they knew they’d found their name: GANGGANG, as in a group of people going on a journey together.

But along the way, the ride could get rocky, like it did last summer.

In August, the Black Lives Matter mural was completed—and shortly thereafter—defaced. In the interim between those two events, Jeffers wrote a somewhat prophetic Instagram post: “How will [the mural] end racism? It won’t. It will amplify the message of the movement and police brutality and keep the conversation at the forefront. It’s art.”

After the damage was discovered, the artists who created the installation released a joint statement: “The vandalism that occurred is a visual depiction of what hate looks like. The message of our art provokes the evils and cowardice that some still refuse to acknowledge, and the vandalism is but one small confirmation that the fight toward justice and equity is far from over.”

While the story predictably made national news and sparked further outrage, the culprits, who remain at large, failed to tarnish the bigger picture: On a Saturday in August, artists, families, food, and DJs turned Indiana Avenue, the former center of Black culture in Indianapolis, into a block party–like celebration. The symbolism is not lost on Bacon and Jeffers, who know the mural could be the return of the creative spark that once felt lost to the same crude cultural forces that took the life of an unarmed Black man.