In the heart of Indianapolis, a quiet revolution is underway. The Indianapolis Center for Arts Education and Innovation (ICAEI) is a visionary project led by Lisa Brooks, Dean of Butler’s Jordan College of the Arts, and Lauren Shelton, Director of the Butler Community Arts School. Together, they are working to bridge the gap between art and access, break down socioeconomic barriers, and create a thriving hub for equitable arts education and innovation in Indianapolis by providing a centralized organization that supports arts education for the entire community.

ICAEI aims to be a clearinghouse for inquiries about advancing access to arts education and innovation. Perhaps a school like Ben Davis High School or Pike High School contacts the ICAEI because they need musical instruments. The Center would act as a central coordinator, issuing a collective call to other schools facing a similar challenge. Similarly, if a school needs additional supplies, information on arts programs, or has the desire to introduce arts programs in a place that is an art desert, they have a go-to place for information. And when Dance Kaleidoscope, a professional company in Indianapolis, had a question about cultural representation in dance, the organization was able to turn to the ICAEI.

“It’s like Ghostbusters: ‘Who you gonna call?’” Brooks says. “You call the Indianapolis Center for Arts Education and Innovation.”

The idea began in 2018 when Brooks, a seasoned violinist with over 25 years at Butler, asked, “Why aren’t we more of a leader in our center for the arts?”

“As a professional violin player, I didn’t know where to begin to start this program. How do you take an idea and make it a reality?”

Brooks and Shelton—who wasn’t working at Butler yet—were at a fundraiser for an orchestra when they started to talk about the idea. They scribbled their thoughts on a napkin. “We were mapping out our vision, trying to figure out how to make it a reality,” Brooks says. “I still have that napkin.” Their partnership was cemented. “When I met Lauren, I knew she was the one who could help me get this idea off the ground and make it a reality.”

To achieve the goal, in 2021, Brooks appointed Shelton as Director of the Butler Community Arts School, an organization through which community members can enroll in various arts programs at Butler and learn from Butler students who serve as paid instructors. Over 1,800 students are already impacted annually, with numbers on the rise.

“My entire background has been building and looking at community needs and developing socially relevant programs that serve the community,” Shelton says.

The ICAEI began operating in 2021, with collaboration at the core of its mission. They work with established arts programs in Indianapolis, helping them extend their offerings to underserved communities. By identifying areas in need and strategizing to bridge the gap, they amplify their impact through resource pooling and effective organization.

But what do the terms “arts education” and “innovation” really mean? Arts education encompasses a wide range of learning experiences, from private and group lessons to field trips and arts integration, where subjects like math or physics are taught through dance or the vibration of a violin string.

“Arts innovation refers to any instance where the arts figure into a larger idea,” Brooks says. “This can be arts and wellness, arts and social justice, or arts and technology. Essentially, anytime the arts play a role in a broader concept, we want to provide a space for it.”

Despite challenges, Shelton describes their journey as building with an “I think I can” attitude, a few rubber bands, and a roll of duct tape. She and Brooks say their initiative is crucial because it helps ensure that the community thrives. Research indicates that students involved in the arts tend to excel academically, opening up more opportunities.

Currently, they are working diligently to raise awareness about their mission, ensuring that the Indianapolis Center for Arts Education and Innovation becomes a bridge between thriving arts companies in the city and areas that lack access to the arts.

“Our mission is to ensure that everyone, regardless of socioeconomic factors, has access to arts education and innovation,” Brooks says. “When students engage with the arts, they perform better in life.”