Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

Strategies Done Right – Indianapolis Museum of Art

This is one of my periodic postings on governments and civic organizations that have adopted the strategic principles I advocate, and the good results they’ve had with them. Today’s example is the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

The IMA is a regional art museum. While it has many very good collections and a number of very unique features – including ownership of two National Historic Landmark homes – it’s not the first museum that comes to mind when you think of major world art museums. It doesn’t have a Mona Lisa or uber-famous paints like that. Nor is it located in a city that receives huge hordes of tourists such that the reputation of its collections benefit from the rubbing off effect of the general reputation of the city where it is located. And the Indianapolis community is not so loaded with billionaires that vast sums can be raised with comparative ease like they can elsewhere. So how does an institution like the IMA manage to both showcase what it is, and carve out a niche for itself on the world stage?

I had lunch with Director Max Anderson last fall and asked him the question that I always think is so telling, “What is your ambition for the IMA?” In response, he said, “To be indispensable to the life of the city.” I thought this was a pretty good answer. It recognizes the IMA’s role as primarily a local and regional institution, and sets an aggressive agenda for how it wants to engage with the community. And how is it doing that? There are a number of ways, but I’ll highlight a couple. The first is the The Toby theater. This 600 person or so auditorium is now the premier venue in the city for serious film. A recent screening featured Buster Keaton’s The General with a live orchestra, for example. The Toby also features other types of events, such as lectures and performance. The second example is related to the Toby. That is, in a very conservative city and state, what has historically been a traditional and conservative institution is now trying to bring in more edgy programming that expands the horizons of what is on offer locally. Some of this might potentially be controversial. But as Anderson puts it, he wants the IMA to be the “unflinching home of the first amendment in Indiana”. The IMA is actually taking institutional risks to try to advance its view of the direction the community as a whole should be going. (Some of this is more planned than actual at this point, so stay tuned).

But beyond that local role, Anderson also highlighted three areas where he thought the IMA could carve out a niche for itself on the world stage. These were the interaction of art and nature, conservation, and museum ethics. To that I would add the use of digital media as a communications channel.

On the first point, the IMA’s Art and Nature Park is attempting to redefine what a contemporary scupture park can be – and is attracting significant attention for it. This is a very unique project. On the conservation front, the IMA has recently acquired some rare digital imaging equipment, and started building endowed funding dedicated to conservation thanks to a recent Lilly Foundation grant. And on the museum ethics front, the IMA’s recent moves in the de-accessioning space have been landing kudos from around the country. The IMA not only has its de-accessioning policy posted online, it also has a database of objects that are proposed for de-accessioning, where the public can comment before works are disposed of. And it even tracks what the money from any sale was used for. (You can read coverage here and here). On the digital media front, the IMA has gotten national media coverage for its blog, many of its employees are active on Twitter, and it has rolled out a super-cool new high definition art video site called ArtBabble.

All of these inititiaves are far from complete, but they are all underway, and all showing results. I think this goes to show that a regional museum can not only be a major force in its own community, but also can create a national and international role and reputation for itself in multiple areas even without a stock of Russian billionaires on tap.

I think this also goes to show the importance of leadership. Most of this goodness came about after Max Anderson came on board as director. He’s brought a lot of new energy and new direction to the organization. I think it is fair to say that if Anderson had been at the IMA when the recent expansion was planned, it wouldn’t be possibly the worst major museum expansion architecturally in recent times. You also have to give credit to the IMA board for realizing that they needed a guy like Anderson.

I’m a grass roots guy and think bottoms-up change and activity is absolutely critical to a community. But it isn’t a substitute for top-down leadership. Communities that are successful have a winning combination of great leadership from the top and a powerful grass roots movement from the bottom. There is a natural tension and distrust between the top-down and bottom’s up folks in many if not most communities. Some of this is healthy tension, but often it is poisonous. I think again successful communities figure out how to bridge the gap between the establishment leadership and the grass roots, to find ways to harness the best of both to move the city forward.

Lest you think the IMA paid me to write this, I have to say that the jury is still out on the Art and Nature Park. I liked the previous iteration of the design better. (I want my Cor-Ten steel bridge back!) And despite their leading use of digital media, the IMA needs a completely new web site in the worst way, with a vastly improved interaction model. So everything isn’t perfect. But I think this is clearly an organization that’s seen a major uptick in its trendlines and where a lot of positives are happening on many fronts. The economy has hammered their endowment, like most other museums, and funding my limit what they can achieve. So stay tuned. But in my view this is an organization that put together a very strong strategy and is following it up with good execution, and deserves community support, financial and otherwise.

Topics: Arts and Culture, Strategic Planning
Cities: Indianapolis

8 Responses to “Strategies Done Right – Indianapolis Museum of Art”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    Do you think IMA can model itself after the museum in New Haven? The Yale University Art Gallery is small, but still displays a number of first-tier artists. It’s Yale, but it’s still far smaller and more manageable than the mammoth museums that exist in New York or Paris.

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    I don’t know anything about Yale’s art museum, however the small but quality approach is probably not a good fit for the IMA. The IMA is a fairly sizeable museum, though nothing like the Met. And it aims to be an encyclopedic museum.

    There might be other directions they can go, but been a general museum for Indiana, with some notable collections in some areas and targeted niches where they aim to make a mark seems to be working for them.

  3. Katie Zarich says:

    I thought I'd add to the conversation with some of the features of the IMA's collection of international significance. Also, some of these statements might help to give more context to the size and scope of the IMA and its holdings.

    The IMA is among the 10 largest encyclopedic art museums in the United States.

    As one of the 10 oldest general art museums in the country, the Indianapolis Museum of Art was founded during American history’s most remarkable movement in creating museum institutions, starting in the 1870s when New York and Boston established their museums.

    The IMA has one of the most significant collections of works by J.M.W. Turner outside of Great Britain.

    The IMA has one of the most outstanding collections of Japanese Edo-period paintings in the United States.

    The IMA’s Neo-Impressionist Collection is one of the strongest in the United States. The collection, which features the work of Georges Seurat and his followers is a hallmark of the IMA’s European collection.

    The IMA’s Pont-Aven paintings by Paul Gauguin and his followers form the most important collection of such works in North America, and the Museum’s 84-piece collection of prints by members of the Pont-Aven School is the finest in the world.

    Slated to open in 2010, 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park at the IMA will be one of the largest museum contemporary sculpture parks in the United States.

    We appreciate the recognition, and want our fellow Hoosiers to know that the IMA is a museum of international significance.

    Katie Zarich
    Acting Director of Public Affairs
    Indianapolis Museum of Art

  4. Anonymous says:

    The 100 acre nature/sculpture park will be a huge 'perception changing' development for the city of Indianapolis. I just wish this city could some day boast a significant architectural work…like the suspended walkway through the canopy by Mary Miss, which was scrapped due to budgetary constraints. At least the Virginia Fairbanks A&NP will bring art beyond the walls of IMA and educate people about the importance of our public spaces, especially within a prominent, naturally changing environment. I still would love for Indy to invest in someone like Mary Miss or Maya Lin to create a MEMORABLE outdoor space for this city: It's not like Indy is blessed with great natural amenities. I will always think how significant the suspended walk from the IMA's atrium through the tree canopy out to the nature park would have been for ordinary Indy. Lets put our tax dollars to WORK FOR ONCE!!!!!

  5. Scott says:

    Once again another great post concerning the arts in Indy. Thanks. I agree that there has been a noticeable shift in the art scene since the IMA reopened and Max and Lisa came on board. The historic collections have for the most part been strong in areas with some key pieces scattered into the mix. I have always felt the contemporary collection was a bit of a mess. Not to say that we did not have some good works but it often felt as if we had a check list of artist names we should have in the collection but rather than getting a great work or a solid example of their work we ended up with something quite mediocre, leaving you left wanting. I feel this has changed considerably in the past decade or so. It is great to see holes in the collection being filled and a new vitality to their acquisition plans. This is a great sign for the city and I think the IMA is doing things right and people are beginning to take notice.

    I too would love to see a major architectural addition to the city. I have been spending a good bit of time recently looking at buildings and posts on new architectural projects popping up all around the globe. I keep asking myself, why is that none of these exciting projects ever end up here? What will it take to inspire local businesses looking to build, to think outside the box? To make a statement?

    I have also been thinking a lot about this rift between the top and the bottom when it comes to the arts in the city. Is this an actual issue or is simply a perceived one? Being a grass roots person myself, I have a tendency to think that we can make the scene we want, at least with in reason but then again the IMA is still king of the hill. Could their vision and influence help shift the view and/or acceptance of art city wide? Will this help elevate the local galleries and artists trying to make a go of it in the city? I would like to think so and hope we will see these changes take place over the next few years.

  6. The Urbanophile says:

    Scott, thank you for the thoughtful comment. I should clarify one thing. I wasn’t at all thinking of the local arts community in declaring a rift between the establishment and grass roots, only trying to make the point that bottoms up change in an organization is difficult. My comment was a general one, not specific to the Indianapolis art scene.

  7. pattern254 says:

    Thanks for this interesting view of the IMA; I think one interested challenge for the IMA that perhaps you could address in another posting is how it can be more closely physically/psychologically tied into the city. Its location, isolated out on 38th street near the (beautiful) cemetery, Butler University, the velodrome, and a few gated communities, makes it out of site/mind of many Indianapolis residents. Its semi-hidden siting with a generous setback makes it feel exclusive, elite, unlike most great museums in Washington, NYC, and Chicago, for example.

    I think that makes it less likely that residents, especially young people, will stumble through its doors. How could the museum bring more students and others into its activities (or perhaps go to them, by taking activities/arts into the schools, after school programs in other locations, etc.)? Perhaps it could draw in a different crowd with special occasions, such as a free open-all-night museum night. I love how the Children's Museum is right on a main street, near to some poorer neighborhoods where kids can head there after school. The IMA can't do that, but how can it become more accessible despite its location?

    The city missed a great opportunity to tie the IMA into the city when it redesigned 38th Street in 2004-05 and failed to add a bike path to the wide avenue. Instead of becoming a multi-use avenue it is a automobile-focused divider of the city north and south of it. A main east-west bike path along 38th could run from the Monon Trail to the IMA, passing through charming neighborhoods and making IMA more easily accessible by bike. As it is, the location feels accessible only by automobile (I don't know how easy it is by bus, or if shuttles exist). I didn't even realize the museum was there for quite some time after I moved to Indianapolis, due to its isolated location and a lack of prominent signage.

    Granted, the isolated location is what allows it to have the Art & Nature Park and Lilly Gardens adjacent, and perhaps it should accept its constraints and embrace its rare ties to nature (as the Nature Park is clearly doing); but surely something could be done to make it more directly tied to the urban environment.

    On another note, I used to run frequently in the area of the Art and Nature Park and hope that it will remain open to joggers, fishermen, and such. If IMA wants Art to be part of nature and the world at large, it will be a space that remains used for many purposes, not restricted to formal art viewing. The best outdoor art/nature park example I can think of it as Kentuck Knob (http://www.kentuckknob.com/) a lesser-known Wright house near Falling Waters that has sculptures dotting the hills around it.

  8. The Urbanophile says:

    pattern, there is no doubt that the IMA is not downtown. But many museums aren't in downtowns. Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry comes to mind. With Indy's extreme ease of getting around, the IMA is only 15 minutes from downtown in any case. Also note that the Children's Museum isn't downtown either.

    I think taking advantage of the setting through things like the A&N Park are good. By the way, I believe the idea is to leave it open and more or less in its natural state. In fact, one of the art pieces actually is a fishing pier.

    I agree that the 38th St. project could have been better. The design isn't bad, but the choice was made to keep it as a purely automobile thoroughfare. It is an unconscionable oversight to have not included sidewalk connectivity to the IMA.

    Longer term, I would like to see MLK St. redeveloped into one of America's premier black heritage corridor. Perhaps a spoke of the cultural trail could follow along this, along with improved public transit, to better link the IMA with downtown.

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