Sunday, June 8th, 2008

The One That Got Away

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.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Arts and Culture
Cities: Indianapolis

6 Responses to “The One That Got Away”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Don’t be too harsh on IMA. The recent new addition may not have a the pedigre of a signature starchitect, but the galleries really do showcase their collections beautifully. And, the landscape concept and execution are first rate. I’ve been to some other recently new/expanded museums (Davenport, Cincinnati, Savannah) designed by internationally aclaimed talent and have been decidedly unimpressed. All building and no art, and this is especially true of Savannah. Even with Calatrava’s spectacular building in Milwaukee, one has to wonder “where’s the beef?”. Indianapolis, by contrast, got it right. They missed the national attention that a starchitect brings to a project, but the city got a first rate place to view an art collection that has probably not gotten the credit it deserves up to this point (and, I understand that’s because they never had the space to showcase the breadth of the collection).

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    Anon, I’d put a different spin on your comments. “It could be worse: they could have messed up the galleries too.”

    I agree not all of these starchitect buildings are good. I think the new MoMA is a $650 million stink bomb, for example. (The restaurant is pretty good though – I’ll give them that). And even the best executed of these are too often contextless, monuments to the ego of the architects more than an expression of the city in which they are built.

    But that just means the opportunity was there for the IMA to one up the competition. Instead, they went the opposite direction, electing not even to compete.

  3. TomofIndy says:

    I read that one of the reasons they decided to drop the plans for the bridge to the art and nature park was because of environmental concerns. I can understand that. The area with the lake behind the art museum is beatiful, peaceful and full of trees and nature. To build a 600 foot long steel bridge through the woods would likely have messed up some of the natural feel of the area. I can live without the bridge. I’m sure they’ll have a nice walkway to get back to the park. They also are changing the visitors center from two buildings to one – because of water table issues being so near to the White River. I think these changes are just being done because of a desire not to mess with nature too much. I still think the park will offer a great addition to the IMA.

  4. The Urbanophile says:

    Tom, that has all the hallmarks of an excuse, a post-hoc justification for cost cutting. It simply isn’t credible that the museum wouldn’t understand how the bridge would affect the natural environment before they commissioned it in the first place.

    It seems more likely that the IMA just had fundraising problems, and it didn’t look like they’d easily be able to raise the full $50 million.

  5. John Clark says:

    If you are in Indy on June 19, at 7:30 come to IMA to talk to Max Anderson, Mark Zelonis (who’s in charge of everything at IMA outside of the main building) and Lisa Freiman (director of the Art & Nature Park). This is such a major part of their plans for the future … I know the decision to scale back wasn’t made lightly, and I am eager to hear what Max et al have to say about it.

  6. thundermutt says:

    to anon & tom:

    Natural? It’s a former gravel pit. Most of the vegetation is non-native and invasive. It’s next to a canal dug by hand almost 200 years ago. There is very little “natural” about the site; it has been extensively messed with by human hands for two centuries.

    The parking lot/parking garage and walk-up entrance to the museum are horrid impositions on the Lilly “country” estate. (For a good example of integrated landscape and parking, go to Longwood Gardens in Brandywine, PA.)

    I’m with The Urbanophile on this one: the museum addition is not as bad as it could have been. I hope we don’t have to say that about the art & nature park, too.

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