Indiana Citizen: Joanna Taft

Brie Stoltzfus

For Joanna Taft, citizenship is a mandate. When I asked her what good citizenship means to her, she responded with a clarity and passion of someone who thinks about this kind of question often: “I have a responsibility to contribute as a community member to grow another generation of leadership in my community.” In other words, a citizen works towards cultivating localized resources for developing well-rounded and world-class people. Her community leadership, most notably as a founding board member of Herron High School and the Founding Executive Director of the Harrison Center, reveals a desire for a healthy community that fosters healthy citizens.

Joanna’s account of her childhood sounds a lot like the experience of visiting the Taft household on New Jersey Street today. Her childhood house, filled with art collected over the years by family, was a popular place for hosting neighbors and newcomers alike. Though she grew up visiting museums, she never stepped foot in a gallery or rubbed shoulders with an art community until her time in Indianapolis. In 1991, Joanna, her husband Bill and then-newborn daughter Rebekah moved into a 19th-century home in Herron-Morton Place, a neighborhood in which only a third of its homes were actually occupied.

Bringing beauty to blighted places is a passion for both Bill and Joanna. She attributes the reason for her strong sense of purpose to both her family history of hospitality and her Presbyterian theology’s emphasis on a “cultural mandate.” This mandate is a call to “continue the work of creation.” Humans, she believes, are intrinsically interested in and renewed by the world around them, through pursuits like gardening, having families, physical and psychological healing, creating art and beauty, as well as neighborhood revitalization.

One way Joanna’s efforts have helped to revitalize her neighborhood is the creation of the Harrison Center, and its City Gallery. Providing a space for artists to create and sell their work, the Harrison Center brought people from all over Indianapolis to the near-north community that had been long considered uninhabitable. At First-Friday events, Joanna recalls visitors to the center asking her questions like “What is this area like? Is it scary?” At the time, Herron-Morton and Fall Creek Place were slowly regaining a sense of community, and the Harrison Center generated interest and traffic in a neglected area.

The Harrison Center approaches community development in a number of ways; one major way it does so is by celebrating its city. The City Gallery is a gallery at the Harrison Center set apart for art about all things Indiana. At the City Gallery, a “community concierge” is employed to help people connect to services, sites, and housing options that celebrate urban Indianapolis. The walls of the gallery are covered in scenes of downtown Indianapolis and the quiet corners of its surrounding neighborhoods. Artists at the Harrison Center like Jed Dorsey, Kristin Divers, Justin Vining, Carolyn Springer, and Kyle Ragsdale have created works featuring Indiana. Not only is it a space for place-based art and for neighbors to interact, but it’s also an incubator for ideas about how artists can contribute to local economic growth and to beautifying the streets in Herron-Morton and Fall Creek Place.

The rest of the Harrison Center facility provides studio space for artists from Indiana and around the world to create and display their work. The studios are open every First Friday, providing a community-oriented and arts-oriented option for kicking off the weekend. At these events, the Harrison Center is where friends, acquaintances or strangers meet and run into each other. The Harrison Center has also popularized “porching,” the verb referring to the act of intentionally sitting on one’s front porch with good food and friends. Not only does meeting together routinely contribute to relationship growth, but it also creates a friendly neighborhood feel in which neighbors wave to passers-by and invite others onto the porch. These are seemingly simple solutions to big problems, but Joanna Taft and Harrison Center are confident that creativity is the key to a flourishing city full of healthy neighborhoods.