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Spark boosts Circle businesses

Spark boosts Circle businesses

By Chris Schumerth, Spark writer in residence 

Ever since seeing Spark “on the news,” Shawn Jones, a 19-year-old freshman at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, walks to Monument Circle almost every day to play ping-pong and meet new people.

“I love my city,” Jones said, enthusiastically, as he sat with four others he’d just met — one celebrating her 30th birthday. Part of Jones’ routine, he said, is to stop in at Rocket Fizz to choose from the stores array of eclectic sodas.

Jones isn’t the only Spark participant who is frequenting Monument Circle eateries.

The owner of Potbelly Sandwich Shop, Chuck Brewer, said that while there’s no way to for him to be completely certain of which traffic comes from Spark, his store’s sales have increased up to 20 percent per week since the program began August 1. The consistent boost in sales has allowed him to hire two new workers to cover shifts.

Brewer pointed in particular to the green outdoor seating that Spark has placed around the Circle. He said the new outdoor seating has provided more seating inside his restaurant because a lot of customers have chosen to sit outside. “It’s a simple math equation,” Brewer said.

Soupremacy is right around the corner from Potbelly. Store Manager Danielle Shipley, who has worked at the restauarant since it opened, confirmed that while sometimes her restaurant’s location on one of Monument Circle’s “spokes” leads to less food traffic, Supremacy has also have seen increased sales of up to 10 percent per week since Spark began. The weekends, she said, have been especially busy, and she has noticed Spark workers frequenting her shop for meals.

Shipley also noted that Spark has brought positive publicity to a place that too often only gets negative media attention. And that spreads the perceptions outward to the city as a whole.

Both Shipley and Ernesto Small, an associate at The South Bend Chocolate Company – located just a few feet from Spark’s welcome trailer – mentioned that they’ve noticed a difference in the kind of traffic at Monument Circle. The Circle, they said, tends to get a lot of business and motorcyclist traffic. But they have recently noticed more families, young people, and tourists spending time there. The credit for bringing that crowd in, Shipley and Small said, goes to Spark.

Small has worked at The South Bend Chocolate Company for more than a year. He he has played chess outside on one of the Spark tables and has learned the names of Spark staffers. He doesn’t have access to the exact numbers, but he knows The South Bend Chocolate Company has seen increases in sales as well.

According to Small, several tourists recently visited The South Bend Chocolate Company en route to Minneapolis from Cincinnati. They had never been to Indianapolis before, but they were impressed by how inviting the Spark program made the Circle as a whole. Small said the guests told him it made them want to come back to Indianapolis.

Along the way, Spark has been surveying hundreds of visitors — both tourists and locals — and gathering data about how people are using the Circle. Spark will also work with nearby businesses to gather numbers to support the positive stories.

With Spark programming nearing its end this week, this leads to the question: what can or should be next for Monument Circle, particularly as Indianapolis makes decisions about how to program and design the Monument Circle area?

Jones, Brewer, Shipley, and Small all seemed to agree: they want more of what Spark has started.

“Spark is such a new and innovative idea,” said Brewer, who noted he’d be glad to see Spark return next year. “This has caused people to think differently about how to use public spaces.”





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Preview: Monument Circle Art Fair

Preview: Monument Circle Art Fair

Fall has proven a season of firsts on Monument Circle this year. The tally of premieres sparked by Big Car over the last couple of months proves too innumerable to count. That’s what happens when you experiment. New territory gets explored.

Yet, Big Car is not alone in its inaugural efforts in the heart of Indy. Local ceramic artist Ruth Stoner will bring nearly 70 artists and six musical acts to Fountain Square for the free, family friendly Monument Circle Art Fair.

“I used to have a job on the Southside, and I used to stop on the monument at the end of the day because it was right on the way,” Stoner says. “I would hang out for 10 or 15 minutes. I just loved the space.”

After a bit of investigating just 15 odd months ago, Stoner discovered the Monument was available for at a relatively inexpensive price. That’s when the gears began to turn. “As somebody that’s done art shows,” Stoner says, “I was thinking gosh, you know, it seems like a logical place to have an art fair. It’s such a great space.”

As a new event, Stoner decided to limit applications to Indiana artists and kept booth prices low relative to more established art fairs around Indy. Despite the local focus, the applicant pool swiftly surpassed Stoner’s expectations – a fact she says is a testament to the Central Indiana arts community. “I figured we’re in the heart of Indianapolis and Indiana,” she says. “Let’s have some Hoosier pride for our Indiana artists.”

A registered pediatric nurse by trade, Stoner never shook the love for ceramics she found while still in high school in South Bend. After nursing school, she continued to take art classes at everywhere from IUPUI and Herron to Indianapolis Art Center. Stoner continues to work as a nurse around 25 hours per week, while operating a studio out of Broad Ripple called Artistry In Clay. It wasn’t until her kids reached adulthood that she began to consider ways she might give back to a community that has fed her creativity over the years.

Music Schedule:

  • 10 am – Elizabeth Efroymson Brooks with the Suzuki academy (weather dependent)
  • 11 am – Nick Zyromski
  • 12:30 pm – The Yellow Kites
  • 1:30 pm – Luke Austin Daugherty
  • 3 pm – Cathy Morris
  • 4 pm – Blue Moon Revue

When Stoner initially decided to pursue the idea of hosting an art fair on the monument, she didn’t realize that Spark would be overlapping. The circle is an interesting space, in that the Monument itself belongs to the state while the surrounding streets and sidewalks belong to the city. This has led to some interesting complementary programming throughout Spark. For part, Stoner is thrilled with the timing.

“I just think Spark has brought such an awareness to the circle,” she says, “and they have been so supportive in getting the word out. It’s just such a nice setting for us, because of all the seating. It’s great.”

If the event is successful, Stoner hopes to make Monument Circle Art Fair an annual event. With food trucks, live music, a glass blowing truck and Spark as a backdrop, she hopes the event will offer something for everyone. At the end of the day, the artists who participated will measure the success.

“It’s all about the artists for me, and how they feel,” Stoner says. “If it’s successful and the artists feel like it’s worth it, then I would love for this to be an annual event. We’ll just have to see how it goes, and go from there.”


What: The inaugural Monument Circle Art Fair brings nearly 70 artists and 6 musical acts to Monument Circle for a single day festival in celebration of Hoosier art.

Where: Monument Circle

When: Saturday, October 10, 2015

10am – 5 pm


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Indianapolis workshops combine placemaking, social practice

Indianapolis workshops combine placemaking, social practice

By Chris Schumerth, Spark writer in residence 

A series of free workshops, Rethink Reconnect Reclaim, has begun exploring creative approaches for improving Indianapolis. The workshops run Sept. 15 through Oct. 21.

Big Car Collaborative — the nonprofit organization currently teaming up with The City of Indianapolis on the Spark Monument Circle project — is organizing the series in partnership with Reconnecting to Our Waterways, Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and others.

Placemaking is a buzzword that could be used to describe initiatives such as Spark and Rethink Reconnect Reclaim, but what in the world is placemaking? And why should we care about it?

A Project for Public Space article offered this helpful explanation: “A bike lane is not Placemaking; neither is a market, a hand-painted crosswalk, public art, a parklet, or a new development. Placemaking is not the end product, but a means to an end. It is the process by which a community defines its own priorities.”

The assumption is that urban designers and politicians aren’t the only ones who have opinions and ideas about the places in which they live. Because Indianapolis residents all have an interest in it being a good place to live and work, placemaking projects like Rethink Reconnect Reclaim offer opportunities to participate in a process of imagining about place and experimenting in it.

Cara Courage, a United Kingdom-based academic, artist, and placemaker, recently told me that cities need to work with residents “beyond the consultation level loved by planners and developers.” Residents should be respected and listened to, Courage said, as equal co-producers” with “a deep knowledge of place.”

Artists who are already in the habit of imagining and creating may be uniquely positioned to participate in this process. That’s where social practice art comes in.

Courage explained that “Artists who work in this way have been doing it for years as socially-engaged practice that is engaged by an arts heritage that comes out of the gallery into site-specific art, land art, and a new genre of public art. Artists have been working with people for years on reflecting about the forces that are enacted on place. What is new is calling this a form of placemaking. What’s new is that those outside of the arts sector are paying attention to the practice now. Those that come into placemaking from the planning or built environment sectors won’t necessarily be aware of this heritage and rigorous practice. Some still see art as an add-on, for limited social engagement or beautification gains. Others though are beginning to see it for the embedded and vital practice that it is, which has processes and outcomes that are greater than the sum of their parts.”

For Indianapolis’s purposes in the near future, the idea is to bring people together to reimagine public spaces and to better utilize and take care of the city’s waterways. These events were designed to attract a combination of designers, planners, developers, artists, and other Indianapolis community leaders.

For example, on Oct. 9, at noon, residents of Indianapolis are welcome to join Ash Robinson and Stuart Hyatt, an artist and musician who will be at the Spark welcome trailer at Monument Circle leading a brown bag lunch and discussion about placemaking projects that successfully engage people. The event will conclude with an intentional walk around the Circle, led by Big Car executive director Jim Walker.

Another lunch will take place on Oct. 15, this time with David Engwicht – all the way from Australia – leading the conversation. Engwicht will also be discussing some of his own placemaking experiments on Oct. 21, 6:30 p.m., at The Platform.

For those looking for a little more action, Engwicht and Miami civic advocate Anthony Garcia will facilitate an Oct. 21 workshop from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The Hall. Attendees at this particular event will brainstorm and create their own interventions for space next to waterways in Indianapolis. Teams will even be commissioned to put their plans into action.

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This week at Spark: Oct. 5 – 11

This week at Spark: Oct. 5 – 11

Here’s your Spark cheat sheet for the week:

Monday, October 5:

Join Mayor Ballard and learn about his efforts to reduce Indy’s carbon footprint in conjunction with Blue Indy and Freedom Fleet programs on Monday.

Tuesday, October 6:

Wednesday, October 7:

Work with us this Wednesday! We’ll provide the free wi-fi. Tell your boss you want to enjoy the last few days of beautiful, Indiana fall weather while working from the Circle. Get outside the cubicle and knock out your to do list with a view of the Monument.

Thursday, October 8:

After collaborating with musical heavyweights like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Indy guitarist Derek Johnson undoubtedly maintains one of the most accomplished musical resumes to hail from the Hoosier state in recent years. Learn more about Johnson in this Sky Blue Window profile from last year, and join him and a dozen musicians for a collaborative, circular performance of celebrated composer Terry Riley’s In C.

Friday, October 9:

Artist Stuart Hyatt is more than just the goofy cassette guy. He’s an accomplished artist with a focus on placemaking, and engaging people in new and creative ways. To learn more about Hyatt’s work, check out NUVO‘s coverage of his Indy Sound Map project. On Wednesday, join Hyatt and fellow artist Ash Robinson for a discussion on placemaking in relation to Reconnecting Our Waterways prior to a brief walk around the Circle led by Big Car’s Jim Walker.

Saturday, October 10:

Sunday, October 11:

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This week at Spark: Sept. 28 – Oct. 4

This week at Spark: Sept. 28 – Oct. 4

Here’s your Spark cheat sheet this week:

Monday, September 28:

Back-to-back ambient, experimental sets curated by Big Car’s sound art project Listen Hear will close out this week’s edition of Mellow Monday. Ready your ears with a pair of tracks from Sommer and Drekka. For a bit of background on the series, check out an interview with Listen Hear curator John Flannelly.

Tuesday, September 29:

Wednesday, September 30:

Thursday, October 1:

Friday, October 2:

Saturday, October 3:

Spark parade artist/choreographer Rebecca Pappas is collaborating with Veterans for Peace for an unusual procession this weekend. Check out an interview with Pappas for some background on her contribution to Spark, and join us this Saturday  to take a walk alongside a contemporary veteran around the epic Monument.

Sunday, October 4:

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Great big hearts: Surveying the Circle and sketching new friends

Great big hearts: Surveying the Circle and sketching new friends

By Karla D. Romero, Spark writer in residence 

At around 5:20 p.m., a couple of Wednesdays ago, Melissa Heldenbrand walked around Monument Circle with a stack of surveys clipped onto a clipboard in her hand, and a constant, shy smile across her face. “I’m what you call an operative and what we do is setup and teardown. We take surveys and we interact with the people around here,” she said.

Melissa is one of the many faces of Spark. She has dark hair, big light eyes and she is usually wearing her strawberry blond hair up in a ponytail. As she mentioned, her role is essentially to make sure everything on the Circle is flowing smoothly, but more importantly, she is the first point of contact between the people walking by and Spark. “It’s different and I like it,” she said. “It makes you feel like you’re part of something that is hopefully going to do some good.”

People walked by Melissa and stared as she continued to make her way around the Circle. Her bright green vest made her a familiar sight for regulars of Monument Circle, especially because she worked five days a week. On this particular Wednesday, Melissa worked an entire day, setup to teardown.

But the hours don’t faze her. “I do a lot of walking and on my walks, I talk to people,” she said, “I draw on my spare time. Some of my pictures aren’t so good, some of them are decent, but even so, it makes them feel kind of honored that somebody took the time to pick them out and draw them,” said Melissa. Without having planned it, she created a new addition to Spark culture by drawing random people at the Circle. “I was kind of worried, especially since I wasn’t telling these people I was drawing them, that they would think it would be kind of creepy, but so far, everybody’s been pretty cool and they get excited. They just think it’s special.”

Melissa paused, as if she had realized that she hadn’t done any surveys yet, so with a timid and earnest tone, she approached several people about doing them, but they all politely declined. Melissa continued to walk, her smile still intact, as she approached the Welcome trailer. She said that she hoped that Spark would result in the spread of kindness and generosity. “And not judging who you’re generous to,” said Melissa. “And that’s the idea that I get out of it, and I’m hoping that that’s what other people will get from it.” Melissa reached the Welcome trailer; her walk had come to an end, for now.

“We’ve gotten mostly positive feedback from everybody and I mean, it’s kind of weird because you wouldn’t think Monument Circle has its own little community,” said Melissa. “But once you’re here everyday, you see that it does. And then, you become part of it as well.”

As a part of Spark, she works closely with the Big Car team, which includes her daughter, Aryn Schounce, as well. “In all the jobs I’ve had, and I’m pretty old now, I’m almost 50, and I’ve worked in a lot of places, but the people that are involved in Big Car and the people that not all work there… there’s you, me… I’ve never met a nicer group of people. Genuinely nice,” said Melissa about her work with the Big Car/Spark team, as her eyes widened with sincerity. “These people are actually all, just…” She paused. “You know, got great big hearts.”

Her sincerity and overall graciousness about Spark brought a new perspective to the project, which reflects a timeless quote attributed to Lebanese-American writer and artist Khalil Gibran that states, “Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.” Melissa’s effort and hopes for Spark have turned kindness and generosity at Monument Circle into empowerment and unity. Her effortless understanding of what Spark is and attempts to be makes the entirety of this project justified and necessary.

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Sparking (living) history with the ghosts of Monument Circle’s past

Sparking (living) history with the ghosts of Monument Circle’s past

By Rob Peoni, Spark writer in residence

If you lunch on Monument Circle on Thursdays or linger for a bit after the day’s final whistle blows, you may notice a couple of people who appear out of place. It’s not the people in green construction vests employing arts activities rather than repairing stoplights. It’s not even the Sasquatch circling a Wagon of Wonders. Well, they may be out of place too, but I’m talking about the woman and man perspiring in the early fall sun, outfitted in conservative, 19th century formal attire.

On the afternoon of my visit, the two sore thumbs were former Indiana First Lady Esther Ray Brown and former governor Oliver P. Morton (above). Or, rather, the ghosts of Eshther Ray Brown and former governor Oliver P. Morton. “They call us ghosts,” Brown says of the organizers behind the Spark Monument Circle programming. “Yes, we’re aware of our time, but we’re also aware of the time that you’re in. So, we don’t have to be so strictly in 1827 or so strictly in the 1860s. We can sort of go back and forth. We’re sort of omniscient in that way.”

Morton and Brown are two historical interpreters on loan from Indiana Historical Society. When he’s not wearing Morton’s signature three-piece suit, the man with the lush, white facial hair is Dan Shockley, I.H.S.’s director of museum theater. His partner-in-crime is Erin Cohenour, an interpreter at I.H.S. and local actress. “At the Historical Society, the actors you meet are in character the entire time that you’re with them,” Shockley says. “Here, we’re really ambassadors for Monument Circle and we’re in and out of character the whole time.”

This flexibility allows Governor Morton to employ his iPhone when the occasional out-of-towner stops to ask for directions. In fact, it’s more often non-natives who take the time to stop and interact with the historical figures. “If you’re from here, you’re probably not going to have a lot of time to stop and talk to us,” Cohenour says of the bustling lunch crowd. “But if you’re traveling and this is leisure for you, you’re going to have all the time in the world to talk with us.”

Even ghosts are susceptible to the temptation of Rocket 88 Doughnuts.

Even ghosts are susceptible to the temptation of Rocket 88 Doughnuts.

In addition to Brown and Morton, visitors to Monument Circle may also encounter the ghosts architect Alexander Ralston – responsible for the design of downtown Indy, or John Freeman – an African-American business man who owned a successful restaurant near Monument Circle in the mid-19th century. “We were passing by the Columbia Club and a woman stopped us to ask what we were doing and she was so impressed that we had a John Freeman character,” Cohenour says. “She did a lot of history with Underground Railroad and Indiana Landmarks, and she was so impressed that they had chosen that character. She just felt that he had a really great story to tell.”

Overall the reactions to the ghosts have proved more positive than petrified. While we conducted our interview beneath the shade of one of Big Car’s parklets, a random passer-by called out enthusiastically, “Hello, governor!” Shockley returned the acknowledgment with a wave and a smile.

“Certainly, Governor Morton would’ve been pleased with the monument,” Shockley says. “He is known as the soldier’s friend. Other than Deleware, Indiana sent the most number of soldiers to fight in the civil war. He was known for that, but also known for taking care of them once they came home. So, the fact that there are two statues dedicated to him within a two-block radius of the circle really speaks to the reverence people felt for him while he lived and very much after he passed away.”

For their part, Cohenour and Shockley have embraced the opportunity to get outside the confines of Indiana History Center to interject some history into the community at large.

“People may think this is a permanent fixture,” Shockley says of the Spark programming. “In six more weeks or so, this will be gone. I think once all of this is gone, people are going to realize what the Circle can be. It can be so much more than it is (without Spark). It’s beautiful as it is, but this helps bring people down to the Circle to see the monument, to stop, to read, and to learn something or just marvel at the beauty.”


This week at Spark: Sept. 21-27

Here’s your spark cheat sheet this week:

Monday, September 21:

Big Car’s experimental sound-art project, Listen Hear has been bringing ambient noise sets to Monument Circle on Monday evenings. Dive into an interview with Listen Hear’s John Flannelly, and a recap of Rob Funkhouser’s performance for some background on the concert series. Most of the sets have leaned toward the mellower side of the sonic spectrum. This week, Bloomington’s Drekka may push listeners into more challenging territory. Listen to a recent live set from The Artifex Guild as a primer.

Tuesday, September 22:

Wednesday, September 23:

The theme walks during Walking Wednesdays have proven to be some of Spark’s most popular programming. Thus far, we toured Indy oddities with artist Kipp Normand, scoured Mass Ave. with Eric Strickland & David Andrichik, and explored Indy’s German history with Bill Selm. This week, interested participants can meet at the Spark welcome trailer at 6:30 pm for a detailed tour of Indy’s public artwork with Arts Council of Indianapolis‘ Julia Moore.

Thursday, September 24:

Have you ever dreamed of holding a world record? This is your chance! Help get Monument Circle in the Guinness Book of World Records as the site of the biggest collage party in history. Paper, magazines and glue provided — bring your own scissors!

Friday, September 25:

Saturday, September 26:

Sunday, September 27:

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This week at Spark: Sept. 15-20

This week at Spark: Sept. 15-20

Here’s your Spark cheat sheet this week:

Tuesday, September 15:

Have you spotted a strange person on a motorbike, repeatedly circling the monument during your lunch break? …

Wednesday, September 16:

Pogue’s Run has been in the headlines a lot lately, mostly due to Streamlines Project…

Thursday, September 17:

Friday, September 18:

Saturday, September 19:

Sunday, September 20:

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Ask an Expert sparks Monument Circle with new thought

Ask an Expert sparks Monument Circle with new thought

By Chris Schumerth, Spark writer in residence

During the next several weeks, if you walk or drive by the sidewalk space in front of Emmis Communications on Monument Circle at about noon on Tuesday, you are likely to see a green “Ask an Expert” booth. If you stop, you will enjoy a lunch hour of lively conversation, probably learn a few things about an interesting topic, and maybe even find that you have your own expertise to offer the city of Indianapolis.

That’s what the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute hopes for, anyway. Led by IUPUI history professor Jason Kelly, the Institute is currently collaborating with Big Car’s Spark Monument Circle art and placemaking project. “Ask an Expert” both brings experts of various topics and fields to Monument Circle, while also inviting submissions of expertise (or “trade secrets”) from Indianapolis residents, the results of which will be published collectively online.

For example, Kelly is working on his own project called “Rivers of the Anthropocene.” He said the question most people ask him is: what does Anthropocene even mean?

Sounds like a fair question. The term was coined by Russian scientists in the 1960s, and, as Kelly explained, refers to a measurable geological layer of the earth that was significantly influenced by human behavior. Kelly’s project proposes an exploration of international rivers as systems and calls specifically for collaboration between scientists and the humanities.

“It’s going to cost a lot of money to create some of the changes we need to make,” Kelly said. “But Indianapolis can do better.”

But all “Ask an Expert” conversations are not about the Anthropocene. Upcoming topics include “Art Therapy” with Juliet King (September 15), “Christianity and Globalization” with Joseph Tucker Edmonds (September 22), “Art and Anthropology” with Fiona McDonald (September 29), “Women in Politics with Kristy Sheeler” (October 6), and “Science Fiction and Philosophy” with Jason Eberl (October 13).

I sat down this past Tuesday with Dr. Ray Haberski, another IUPUI professor. Like Kelly, Haberski is an intellectual historian, which means he is interested in the history of ideas. The author of a number of books – including Evangelization to the Heart: A Brief History of American Franciscans and MediaGod, and War: American Civil Religion since 1945 – Haberski was at the booth to talk about “God and Country.”

As an example of the kind of issues he’s interested in, he brought up Kim Davis, the Kentucky Clerk who was recently jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Or on the opposite end of the spectrum, he also mentioned the 1954 decision to insert “under God” into the pledge of allegiance.

What is one to do when he or she finds that his or her religious conviction lands opposite a law? Haberski drew a distinction between religious groups and individuals who happen to be religious. “We can’t outlaw ideas,” he said.

Pete Weldy, the Director of Policy and Research at the Department of Education, and Carla Delagarza, a Legislative Assistant, were on their way to lunch at Chipotle from the Statehouse when they stopped in and brought their own expertise to the discussion.

Haberski quickly turned the conversation to the visitors’ interests, one of which was legislative strategy for Indiana’s minority party, the Democrats.

“We try to win by losing correctly,” Delagarza explained. She also said her party works hard at adding amendments to pieces of legislation that they’re opposed to but which are going to pass.

It was Delagarza’s first time stopping in for a Spark program, but she said she had noticed the programming previously, particularly the As You Wish project that invites people to make a wish that artists make true out of materials they have on hand at Spark.

“Ask an Expert” is one of several programs that make up a creative experiment that aims to treat Indianapolis’s Monument Circle as a park. Spark is funded by a $200,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in addition to support from CICF and The City of Indianapolis. The programming started at the beginning of August and continues through Oct. 16. During that time, you will find activities bustling from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.