November 7, 2016
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Artists in Indianapolis are taking over abandoned homes

The House Life Project transforms long-vacant properties into community art hubs

The House Life Project engages Indianapolis neighborhoods with arts programming in abandoned homes. Photo by Jessica Kartawich/The House Life Project

Known for its thriving economy and Hoosier hospitality, Indianapolis boasts an attractive and growing downtown. Neighborhoods just outside of downtown’s The Mile Square tell a different story, with long-abandoned properties and aging infrastructure. City leaders, including Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, say the future of the city depends on reinvestment in its urban neighborhoods, celebrating the culture and unique history of each, and improving quality of life for residents. The House Life Project (HLP) is taking a creative approach to investing in one neighborhood, bringing the strength of residents and the value of vacant homes to the forefront.

The HLP launched in 2015 as a community of artists and residents who use abandoned houses to create art in the St. Clair Place neighborhood. The initiative is led by DePauw University professor and Indianapolis-based artist Meredith Brickell and it partners with the nonprofit land bank Renew Indianapolis to transform long-abandoned properties into art hubs in the interim before the homes are sold to new homeowners or developers. The project draws creative and development support from a partnership with the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art.

Artists are tasked with much more than installing an exhibit; they host weekly porch parties with neighborhood residents and lead arts-based programming at the House Life Project site.

Each year, the HLP hosts several resident artists from spring to fall at one abandoned home. Artists are tasked with much more than installing an exhibit; they host weekly porch parties with neighborhood residents and lead arts-based programming at the HLP site. Combining experience in a variety of artistic fields, including theater, ceramics, installation, and performance art, artists’ collaboration with each other and with neighborhood residents makes the House Life Project a multi-faceted creative endeavor.

This year, resident artist Brent Aldrich installed a table that bisects the first floor of the house, beginning on the front porch, traveling through interior rooms, and continuing outside through the back wall. The table links private activity inside the home with public space of the outdoors and serves as a site for interactive arts projects, such as zine-making and drawing, and community conversations about housing and social justice topics. The table is a new fixture at the house, but its origin story has roots in the neighborhood. “It’s a [replica of a] table my great-grandfather built; the construction is simple and the materials are humble. My grandma passed it along to me. This is the same grandma who moved with my grandpa to Indianapolis, and settled on the Near Eastside in the 40s,” Aldrich said.

For one year, a resident artist works with the community to create art and learn about the neighborhood. Photo by Jessica Kartawich/The House Life Project

Another project led by NoExit Performance works with children in the neighborhood, conducting theater and puppet- and mask-making workshops at weekly porch parties. Through these workshops, the performance company hopes to engage with residents to tell the neighborhood’s story and potentially collaborate in the development of performance and visual art.

The HLP is small in scale, working out of just one home at a time. In two years, the project has inhabited two homes within a few blocks of each other, and artists only take up residence in a new home when the land bank finds a buyer for the property. Project Leader Meredith Brickell says the small scale of the project and long-term engagement at one location is key to building relationships and serving as a creative hub for the community.

Serving as a bridge between vacancy and ownership, the HLP could be viewed as a model for interim or transitional use of land bank properties in Indianapolis and beyond. In fact, interim use is currently a gap in many cities that have a large stock of vacant and abandoned properties, public safety concerns, and the burden of maintenance.

The artists involved aren’t in the home renovation or real estate business; instead, the project aims to invest in neighbors, actively initiating and engaging in conversations about housing and social equity. The homes that the HLP inhabits are often those that have been vacant and abandoned for many years, but they do not warrant demolition. The HLP approaches these forgotten homes as sites of value, where art and community can flourish until the next owner comes along.

The HLP is supported by the Efroymson Family Fund, DePauw University, the Nina Mason Pulliam Trust, the Buckingham Foundation, Eskenazi Health and the Penrod Society. For more information, visit houselifeproject.org.

Scarlett A. Martin

House Life Project