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Watts: The Suburbanization of the IMA

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“Newfields,” the new brand for the institution formerly known as the Indianapolis Museum of Art, is more notable for what it does not say than for what it does.

It is not primarily concerned with art.

It is not in the city of Indianapolis.

And, most emphatically, it is no longer a museum.

Before I get to the consequence of these pointed omissions, let me begin with two concessions.

First, in some theoretical and hypothetical way, the name of the Indianapolis Museum of Art still exists. While the letterhead, website and sign on 38th Street all now proclaim the Newfields name, the IMA exists as part of the new brand. As Charles Venable, director of the institution formerly known as the IMA explained, in his announcement, “The Indianapolis Museum of Art, The Garden, Lilly House, and The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: 100 Acres will all continue to exist as key attractions at Newfields, a Place for Nature and the Arts.”

In other words, this is a marketing stunt. We can now think of the IMA as comparable to the Big-K sub-brand at Kroger. If you root around on the bottom shelf, you may be able to find the Indianapolis Museum of Art, next to the Big-K spaghetti sauce. But your destination is Newfields, or Kroger, not Big-K, or the IMA.

Second, “Indianapolis Museum of Art” is not the original name of this 135-year-old institution. The original organization came into being in 1883 as the “Art Association of Indianapolis.” In 1895, the fledgling institution received a bequest from John Herron, a wealthy local real estate developer. As a result of this bequest, the organization purchased a plot of land at 16th and Pennsylvania and opened the John Herron Institute of Art, housing both an art gallery and an art school, in 1906.

For more than 60 years, both the art museum and the school were located on the 16th Street campus under the Herron Institute name. In 1967, it became necessary, for accreditation purposes, to separate the museum and the school. In that year, the Herron School was transferred to Indiana University, and it persists, in name at least, on the IUPUI campus.

In 1966, J.K and Ruth Lilly donated Oldfields, the family estate bordered by Maple (now 38th) Street and Michigan Road to the Art Association. In preparation for the move to this new campus, the Art Association changed its name, in 1969, to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Thus, the IMA was born in 1969, and it moved to its new campus in 1970.

As suggested in the authorized history of the IMA, Every Way Possible: 125 Years of the Indianapolis Museum of Art¸ published in 2008, this new name represented a kind of promise to the city of Indianapolis. Throughout the 1960s, as the museum looked for more space, there were concerns that moving to the edge of the city would sever the museum’s relationship to Indianapolis. At a protest in 1962, “One person stated that the Herron Museum belonged to all citizens, not just to the wealthy or to families with automobiles. Others spoke of the need to keep the city’s core strong and the obligations of institutions like the Museum to stay in a central location.” In renaming itself, the museum was seeking to allay these concerns, and to say that, even as it moved from its central location, it remained committed to the city of Indianapolis and to its citizens.

Thus, in renaming itself “Newfields,” the former museum is reversing not the 135-year history of the institution, but the 50-year history of the IMA. Crucially, however, this new name reneges on the museum’s commitment to the city. In important ways, the museum is no longer in or of the city of Indianapolis.

To begin with, the “Newfields” name has no local resonance. Yes, some people in the city know that the original name of the Lilly estate was “Oldfields.” And, yes, the Lilly family played with that name by designating the children’s house on the estate as “Newfields.” But, the inevitable reaction of people who have lived in the city and known the museum over the years is, “What? Where did that come from?”

I can see how the name might appeal to a professional marketer from Brooklyn, or Bel Aire, or Bogota, making a pitch to the director of the IMA: “Newfields, it’s like Oldfields, but it’s new, get it? Get it?”

The rebranding reminds me of another infamous and ill-fated branding effort in the city.  When the city’s venerable hospitals, Methodist and University, merged a few years ago, they hired a marketing company to come up with a new name for the organization.  They called it “Clarian,” and they made a similar pitch: “Clarian, it’s like clarion, as in ‘clarion call,” but it has an ‘a’ instead of an ‘o.’ Get it? Get it?”

The Clarian name had no meaning for people who had a long attachment to Methodist and University hospitals. The name did not last, and the organization now calls itself “Indiana University Health.” I predict a similar future for the ill-conceived Newfields. It's a nowhere name.

In a physical sense, Newfields has also removed itself from the city of Indianapolis. Like many long-term members of the museum, I first caught wind of the changes to come two years ago, when the IMA suddenly closed its pedestrian entrance on 42nd Street, and began building a series of internal barriers where none had existed before. These moves effectively closed the museum to the surrounding neighborhood, and ended access to the upper grounds for pedestrians and cyclists. I refer to this stage of development as the “fortification of the IMA.” Others began calling it an “art prison.”

At the same time that it closed access to pedestrians, the museum also eliminated its charge for parking, and effectively made the grounds a landing pad for suburbanites from Zionsville, Carmel and Fishers seeking a bucolic experience. When he explained these changes, Venable emphasized his desire to make the museum grounds comfortable for pedestrians, and to maintain a “level of tranquility and atmosphere” for patrons.  

In taking measures for internal tranquility, however, Venable forced pedestrians and cyclists coming to the museum to travel through the intersection of 38th Street and Michigan Road, one of the most dangerous in the city. And, there is still no sidewalk that leads from the old pedestrian entrance to the automobile entrances pedestrians are now forced to use. Newfields is the fulfillment of the worry expressed by the protester in 1962 that the museum would become accessible only “to the wealthy or to families with automobiles.”

This move to cut the museum off from local residents and from pedestrians and cyclists is all the more appalling because it flies in the face of recent developments in the city. While there is still much to be done, Indianapolis has made impressive strides in becoming more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians. Since the construction of the Monon Trail in 1999, the city has developed a remarkable network of trails that run along that run along Fall Creek, White River, Pleasant Run, and Pogue’s Run. During the Ballard years, we went from zero to 80 miles of bike lanes, with more now under development. And, the city is rightfully proud of its Cultural Trail, which connects downtown neighborhoods and cultural destinations with a Danish-style pedestrian and cycling trail.

In my view, the IMA should have been actively working to connect itself with this developing system of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. Ray Irvin, the architecture of our Greenways system, always spoke of his passion for “connectivity” as the guiding force in his efforts. He wanted to create ways for people to move from one area to another in the city without having to get in a car. The IMA could and should have been working to connect itself with its neighbors and other institutions. It should have joined partners in Midtown to bring the bike share program to the area, and to extend the Cultural Trail to its gates. It should have become more, not less accessible to pedestrians. In this regard, the anti-urbanist agenda of Venable and the IMA board has been damaging both to the institution and to the city as a whole.

The fortification of the IMA was part of its efforts to raise additional funds by instituting a charge of $18 for admission not only to the museum, but also to the grounds, both of which had previously been free. To justify what would inevitably be viewed as a very high price of admission to the museum, patrons were offered access not just to the art within the buildings walls, but also to some of the most cherished outdoor spaces in the city. In addition, this strategy was designed to encourage more people to join the museum. Rather than pay $18 for a single entrance, patrons could pay $50 to $80 per year (subsequently raised to $55 to $100). The fortification was, then, a plan to monetize the grounds, and nudge more people into membership.

In an effort to draw more visitors and members to the IMA, the museum began de-emphasizing its art collections and developing outdoor attractions. Venable pointed to studies that showed that potential patrons from the central Indiana were relatively uninterested in art, but would be interested in “curated outdoor experiences.” In keeping with this line of thinking, the museum built a beer garden in one part of the greenhouse, brought back a popular putt-putt golf course designed by artists, planted thousands of bulbs for a spring flower show, and put on a large-scale display of Christmas lights. In these various ways, then, the museum was to become less a museum and more like an 18th century pleasure garden.  

In responding to these changes, both critics and defenders of Newfields have used the word “elite.” Opponents suggest that the $18 admission charge makes the institution less accessible to citizens of the city, and therefore makes it more elite. Those who criticize the museum for turning away from art and toward beer gardens and putt-putt golf have been called “elitists” by defenders of Newfields, who defend a more populist and accessible approach to the former museum.

"LOVE" by Robert Indiana at the IMA at Newfields

"LOVE" by Robert Indiana at the IMA at Newfields

To my mind, the word “elite” doesn’t really work very well in either direction. I don’t think it unreasonable to impose an admission charge to the museum, although I shall have more to say below about how this charge was imposed and justified. On the other hand, there has long been a populist strain at the IMA; it is the home of both Van Gogh’s “Enclosed Field with Peasant” and Robert Indiana’s “LOVE.” Personally, I have no objection to the beer garden, the winter lights exhibit or the putt-putt golf. But, I still want a serious art museum.

And, here, I think, there is real reason to worry. The energy and resources of the institution seem to be flowing toward these “curated outdoor experiences,” and away from art. One way to see this is in the special exhibitions of the museum. The IMA had a very good record of bringing in exhibits that connected its patrons with developments in the rest of the world.  In recent years, I have enjoyed and learned from exhibits on Matisse, Georgia O'Keeffe, the Craftsman art movement, and art from Fontainebleau. I especially appreciated the 2013 exhibit of the works of the Chinese artist, Ai Wei Wei. I had read a lot about this artist, and I was grateful for and moved by the opportunity to see his works up close and in Indianapolis.

When the changes in the museum got underway, I asked Charles Venable, in a private exchange, whether we would have exhibitions like the one focusing on Ai Wei Wei in the future. He responded that we would, but that the museum would have to take greater care to make sure that these exhibitions paid for themselves. But, the record of the past three years has been unimpressive, and exhibitions for the foreseeable future look to be low-key affairs, drawing mostly on the IMA’s own collections. We seem to have gotten putt-putt golf instead of, and not in addition to, Ai Wei Wei. And, that seems, to me, a real loss.

For me, the changes that have accompanied the Newfields branding campaign have been discouraging in and of themselves. But, the pain has been compounded by the ways in which Charles Venable, the director, and Thomas Hiatt, the chair of the board of governors, have explained and justified them. In particular, I object to their suggestion that these changes were necessary, in light of the financial needs of the institution, and that they have already proven successful.

In coming to grips with what has happened to our cherished institution, one must understand that the IMA was in some financial difficulty. These difficulties came from a variety of factors, including a decline in the value of the museum’s endowment (now over $350 million) during and after the Great Recession, and the accumulation of about $100 million in debt from recent expansions of the museum. These two factors meant that, even after a round of staff reductions, the museum was drawing more than the 5 percent from its endowment that is customary and prudent to support its operations. It is my understanding that the board charged Venable with bringing this drawback to 5 percent over a number of years.

Without entering too deeply into the finances of the IMA, and without claiming financial expertise I do not possess, it seems to me that this situation called for adjustments but not for panic. One could have imagined any number of other ways of responding, without locking down the grounds, renaming the 135-year-old institution, and shifting the focus from art to “curated outdoor experiences.” One obvious course of action would have been to raise admission to the Museum to a more palatable $10 to $12, and to allow citizens of the city to continue to enjoy the grounds, as they had for more than 50 years. Going from free to a charge for each visit to the museum would surely have created a substantial new revenue stream, with little disruption or added expense.

In justifying this course of action, Venable and Hiatt have pointed to a record number of members of the museum-formerly-known-as-IMA. Newfields now has more than 17,000 members, but this is not a terribly impressive number. One can point to comparable or lesser museums with higher membership. In the 1970s, when the museum did not charge an entrance fee, it claimed more than 12,000 members. The mere imposition of an entrance fee, where none existed before, is bound to drive membership up. And, it seems to me, this would have happened whether the IMA charged $12 for admission, and allowed the public free admission to the grounds, or charged $18 and closed the grounds.

Perhaps more than anything, though, I am disturbed by the lack of accountability of Venable and the board to members and to the general public. I have a relationship with the IMA that goes back to the early ‘70s, when I bought a membership from earnings from my newspaper route. I understand that, as an individual member, I cannot expect to have a voice in the direction of the Museum. Nevertheless, I have been astonished by how little interest the leadership and board of the IMA have in what members think about these changes. There is quite a bit of discontent with the direction of the museum among long-time members and even some donors, but Venable and Hiatt seem to have insulated themselves from this criticism.

I understand the fiduciary responsibility of the board, and the imperative they must honor to ensure the long-term solvency of the museum. But, I think they have other obligations as well. The IMA has grown through the generosity of generations of donors, and through the tax-protection enjoyed by both the institution and its endowment. While it is a private institution, it has commitments to the public and to the ages.  I am not sure the museum is fully honoring those commitments.

In many ways, it is fitting that Newfields has been unveiled under the Trump administration. My attitude toward Newfields parallels my attitudes to this country under Trump: I object strenuously to the policies, overall direction and communication practices of this administration, but I do not wish for the enterprise to fail. After the fortification of the IMA, I refused to renew my membership, and I boycotted the museum. After a year, though, I came back for one year.  Then I let my membership lapse again, feeling no real warmth for the Newfields branding.

I expect that I will be back again. I can only hope, though, that this ill-considered effort to make the IMA great again will pass, and that new and wiser leadership will one day work with the community, rather than against it, to create a better and stronger museum.

Bill Watts professes English and directs the First-Year Seminar program at Butler University.

Bill Watts professes English and directs the First-Year Seminar program at Butler University.