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.