Sunday, June 8th, 2008
Every city can tell its tale of woe about great project proposals that never came to fruition. The latest example of this in Indianapolis is the IMA’s “Art and Nature Park”. This was originally a home run proposal to take a wooded area across the canal from the museum’s main campus and seed it with contemporary sculpture from some of the best artists out there practicing today. The centerpiece was a long steel bridge through the park that itself was a piece of wonderful sculpture in its own right.
In a further confirmation of earlier reports, it now appears that the IMA has watered down their plans to the point of unrecognizability. The bridge is gone. Any permanent exhibits are gone. The project still has a $25 million price tag, however, which is puzzling. What could they possibly be spending that money on if not permanent art? Assuming they are actually buying the works and selling them later, this must assume some type of very low aftermarket price. If the art is actually depreciating in value, questions of quality definitely arise.
The museum’s staff describe this change as motivated primarily by a desire to do something no one had ever done before. They thought this option was “liberating”. The actual motivation appears to be cutting their expenditures in half. Now I don’t mind spending a lot of money on a first class design. I don’t mind spending a small amount of money on short term fixes or band-aid type projects that deliver a lot of bang for the buck. But what I can never fathom is spending a lot of money on a half-hearted solution. The IMA’s plans appear to fall into this worst of both world’s camp. The Star had headline that sums it up well: “IMA scales down plans for park” [dead link].
Of course it goes without saying that the IMA is yet to articulate a new vision for their new park concept. It is a radical rethink, but they are acting as if this is some minor tweak. Nor I have I seen any accounting of what they are actually spending the money on.
The real alarming thing about this is that it is demonstrates a dangerous reversion to old modes of thinking at the IMA. This is a museum that traditionally displayed an astonishing lack of “getitude”. Nothing demonstrated this more clearly than the recent major expansion project. The IMA is the only major museum I am aware of in the last 15 years that hasn’t hired one of the world’s top architects to design a signature structure during a major expansion. Milwaukee hired Santiago Calatrava. Cincinnati hired Zaha Hadid. Chicago hired Renzo Piano. Indianapolis? It hired a local firm to create a piece of “corporatecture”.
I had thought this type of thing had been put behind when the museum hired Maxwell Anderson, formerly executive director of the Whitney Museum in New York, to be its new chief. This guy definitely gets it and the changes that have occurred in the museum since his arrival have been almost uniformly positive. That’s what makes it all the more disappointing to see this. I’m not sure the dynamic that brought it about, but it is certainly very concerning.
Unfortunately, it appears that The Art and Nature Park is going to go down in history as one of the “ones that got away”. I sure hope this is not a harbinger of more bad news out of the IMA, which can’t afford anymore backsliding.
In a bit of good news, yesterday was the official grand opening of the first leg of the Cultural Trail. Talk about a guy who gets it. Brian Payne gets it. According to trail spokesman Gail Swanstrom, “I can’t say this loud enough: This is unlike anything in any other city.” I’ve got a few minor design quibbles with the Cultural Trail, as anyone would with anything. But this is a truly world class project. It’s also totally unique. The IMA should take lessons from these guys. Interestingly, the Cultural Trail budget is about what the original Art and Nature Park budget was. Perhaps the best thing the IMA could do for their future is to get Brian Payne on their Board of Directors.