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Wikipedia’s attempt to summarize Indianapolis (via wikipedia.org).

Indianapolis, Indiana, does not often come to mind when thinking about art scenes, especially for those who live in global hubs like New York City, London, Berlin and Los Angeles. People in those cities tend to believe that next to nothing occurs outside of them. Having moved from Indiana to Brooklyn two years ago (I’m from Richmond, where Indianapolis is referred to as “the big city”), I wanted to explore Indianapolis’s art scene with fresh eyes.

First, a little background about the state capital. Indianapolis is the 12th largest city in the US, with almost 830,000 people. Spread out over 372 square miles, this makes it roughly half the population of Manhattan on ten times the land. Formerly a heavily industrial city, Indianapolis has managed to adapt and transform into a tourist locale. It has the most public artworks and monuments of any city in the US besides Washington, DC, and it’s now a hub for all manner of sports fans, with football (Colts), basketball (Pacers), the Indianapolis 500 and, of course, NASCAR.

Today, Indianapolis is known more as a sports city than as an arts city, and rightly so. People flock from all over to watch games, and when the Colts are playing, much of the city turns white and blue. But what about the arts? What is there to see and do?

Aerial view of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (via wikipedia.org)

The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) is the #1 destination for art in Indiana. The IMA, which offers free admission except for occasional special exhibitions, underwent a $74 million expansion in 2005, making it a huge museum. It also recently opened 100 Acres, the largest art and nature park dedicated to commissioning contemporary installations in the United States, and represented the country in last summer’s Venice Biennale with works by Allora & Calzadilla. The IMA has put Indianapolis on the map as a destination for the arts. Unfortunately, it’s also most likely the only arts institution in Indianapolis you’ll recognize.

The opening of the exhibition “The Natural World” at iMOCA (all photos by the author unless otherwise noted)

A newer addition to the scene is the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, iMOCA, which has steadily been growing in size and stature since its beginnings as a pop-up gallery in 2001. There’s also the Herron School of Art and Design at Indiana University–Purdue University, which turns out some quality artists, although it’s more focused on crafts rather than conceptual or contemporary art. The Harrison Center for the Arts, which includes multiple galleries and studios, does a lot of community outreach, while the Murphy Fine Arts Center houses various galleries, artist studios and creative businesses. And … that’s about it. Indianapolis has a very small and extremely interwoven arts community.

Because of the modest size of the community, the city has a lack of art buyers, an issue I talked about with Jeremy Efroymson, the former director of iMOCA and a curator, founder or board member of many cultural institutions. He is also an artist and involved with his family’s Efroymson Family Fund. At one point in our discussion, which covered his work in the arts as both a philanthropist and a creative professional, he joked about Indianapolis’s struggling market. “I thought it was customary that if you come to every opening and drink the wine, you would have to eventually buy some art,” he said.

Efroymson has extensive experience as a grassroots organizer, with deep pockets for local arts organizations. “Since the fund was established in 1998, it has awarded more than $60 million to not-for-profit organizations in central Indiana and beyond,” he said.

The Efroymson Pavilion in the entrance of the IMA with work by Alyson Shotz

When asked what his favorite contribution to the arts has been, Efroymson quickly responded with the Efroymson Contemporary Arts Fellowship, which gives $20,000 to five contemporary artists in Indiana and Illinois every year. The fund is crucial to convincing creatives to stay in Indiana. “Indianapolis is a place where anyone can have an immediate impact in the arts,” he said, and building a strong arts community there seems to be Efroymson’s chosen impact.

“In Indiana, the real need is to get art into schools all the way back to kindergarten,” he added. “If kids don’t learn about art from a young age, how are they going to decipher it in a museum when they are 21?”

The farmers market portion of the Harrison Center for the Arts’ FoodCon, in 2010

This is where Joanna Taft’s work with the Harrison Center for the Arts, City Gallery and Herron High School comes into view. When I was living in Indianapolis and my sights were set on moving to New York City to become a professional artist, I completely missed the importance of Taft’s work. I was perturbed by the wide range of artists put under one roof for an opening night I attended, arrogantly thinking that an opening of my work should never coincide with art by high school students down the hall. Taft, however, believes in collapsing these walls between various creative communities to help foster new dialogues and enrich Indianapolis. She often organizes theme shows to get people in the door who aren’t necessarily art enthusiasts; for instance, FoodCon, an unconventional food convention, housed several galleries dedicated to art that explores food and a gymnasium packed with a farmers market selling the local organic harvest.

One of the galleries at the opening night of FoodCon 2010

Taft believes that raising a new generation of creatives is crucial to future of the Indianapolis. She helped create Herron High School with the goal of providing a creative curriculum to a diverse student body. “They will grow up to be our voters, scientists, artists, moms, volunteers, doctors, philanthropists,” she told me. “It is what Indianapolis needs to be a world class city.” She also started a cultural entrepreneurship program geared toward high school and college students.

Taft is just getting into her newest project, City Gallery, which acts as a meeting place for local residents and creatives who need help finding affordable housing, and who want to work together to engage their neighborhoods. This type of informal space, dedicated to responding to local needs and open to new projects, is what excites me about Indianapolis.

Jim Walker showing me the Service Center’s new chicken coop

A similar space across town is the Service Center, founded by Jim Walker and his wife, Shauta Marsh, in April 2011. The Service Center was born out of the disconnect the couple saw between the fine art world and the Indianapolis community, and what better spot to connect with the people than a run-down strip-mall parking lot? Inspired by the work of artists Mark Allen, of the Machine Project, Harrell Fletcher, Theaster GatesCandy Chang and more, as well as Walker Art Center education director Sarah Schultz, Walker wanted to make a space that responded directly to residents’ needs — a hub for a myriad of creative, cultural and community services.

I met with Walker to get a tour of the facility and learn about the staggering number and diversity of the projects undertaken there. “Keeping it flexible is the best idea,” Walker said. “I don’t want to build anything that is too precious to get in the way — we always say ‘yes’ to anything someone wants to do here.” This statement essentially describes the mission of the Service Center: offering a place for creative engagement with local residents and a means for potential growth and enrichment. “It is so important to work with the existing community,” he added.

Inside the Service Center

Walker also founded the Big Car collective, which used to run a gallery, but his ideas about the ability of traditional art spaces to help Indianapolis’s community have shifted. “The people at the openings used art as a backdrop. They were mostly there for themselves. But creativity is something everyone needs to be exposed to, and it must be priority.” A blue-chip artistic practice today is complete disconnected from the economy right now, in Indianapolis or anywhere. “If we are going to do this,” Walker said, “why not make something that helps people?”

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Ben Valentine

Ben Valentine is an independent writer living in Cambodia. Ben has written and spoken on art and culture for SXSW, Salon, SFAQ, the Los Angeles Review of Books, YBCA, ACLU, de Young Museum, and the Museum...

12 replies on “Getting to Know the Indianapolis Art Scene”

  1. Cannot believe you have overlooked one of the biggest art colonies in Indy… The STUTZ! This 4 story building hosts over 90 artists at various levels. A residency program to help upand coming artists as well as the biggest art show in the Midwest. Hopefully you will take off the “big city” blinders and really look around!

  2. I’m not sure I agree about Herron being a “crafts” school. I went to Herron for a degree in Visual Communications and felt almost as if I was getting a design-focused liberal arts degree. Currently living in New York, I’m proud of our “little city” and what it has become in even the last 5 years. Something is definitely happening there. Also look up Know No Stranger. They’re an amazing artists collective based in Indianapolis.

  3. If you had actually researched Herron School of Art and Design, you would have found Herron’s programs are driven by conceptual study and contemporary work. In addition to classrooms that provoke conceptual development, Herron schedules visiting artists and exhibits that supplement the study of contemporary art.

  4. Thanks for pointing out the work by organizations like the Service Center, Harrison Center for the Arts and others to build an awareness and appreciation of the growing arts scene in central Indiana.

    I wonder why you characterized Herron School of Art and Design as “more focused on crafts rather than conceptual or contemporary art”. Both our academic programs and our galleries are conceptual and contemporary art focused. I don’t think we’ve ever identified as a craft school, although we do place equal emphasis on thinking and making. Do the works by our students and faculty and the exhibitions in our galleries not seem contemporary or conceptual to you? Actual question, not rhetorical.

  5. Of the applied arts at Herron, there is Ceramics, Furniture Design, General Fine Arts, Painting, Photography, Printmaking and Sculpture; three of these are craft-based traditions. Also, much of what I saw come out of Herron, albeit within a year, was work emphasizing functionality or craftsmanship seemed emphasized. I also said this because of conversations I have had with locals there in the past.

    However, I just talked with some of local arts professionals in Indianapolis to see if my stance was out of line, and I would say that your statement “equal emphasis on thinking and making” came out as more accurate than mine, so I apologize. One contact said that my statement of Herron being craft-focused wasn’t entirely true, telling me that Herron had been craft focused for years but that is slowly changing. I will say that Lauren Zoll is a great artist and thinker and adjunct professor there, and I trust her presence to be a much more contemporary and theoretical one. I also enjoy the work of Danielle Riede, a painting professor there, but outside of those two professors I do not see many really pushing the boundaries.

    This becomes a matter of taste though in a way. Much of the artwork I particularly enjoy and see as pushing the boundaries of the contemporary art dialogue comes out of more conceptual schools like Calarts, NYU, Columbia, RISD, etc, and are exploring new mediums and platforms, whereas there is also no new media program at Herron, or it is lumped with photography and I didn’t see much work really pushing the limits of what art can be.

    I say this coming from Earlham College, where I studied traditional metalsmithing, and much of the art history/theory I was taught was before the 1960’s, now I make animated GIFs and web-based art. Would I say Earlham College was craft based, traditional, and not pushing a contemporary arts dialogue? Yes. Do I regret going there? Not one bit. Do I want to go to that type of grad school? Not at all.

    As for Stutz, I did consider Stutz and chose not to talk about it. It is true it is a enormous space with many artists and a few well attended events, and this would a good time for you to provide names of artists who are making work there you consider particularly meaningful, or say what impact you think the building has on Indianapolis, instead of trying to insult me.

    1. Ah, I see. No need to apologize. I was just curious about about why you characterized Herron as craft-focused. I really appreciate your response and explanation. As the communication designer for Herron I’m always interested in hearing how people who aren’t close to the school perceive it.

    2. Concerning “whereas there is also no new media program at Herron, or it is lumped with photography” — as a recent graduate of the school in the Painting department, my perspective on the new media angle is that it’s half-contained within the Photography department and also encouraged as interdisciplinary pursuits within thesis programs. I can’t speak for my other alumnae and students, but I feel as if Herron is presently undergoing a series of growing pains; there have been new hires just within my former department alone that made a big shift between a hard emphasis on craft to a more holistic and conceptual approach to studio practice. It makes for an interesting and exciting place to study; you can tell that the school is going towards new and exciting things, but it might take a while to see them.

      I hope this comment was helpful; moreover, I wanted to thank you for a lovely overview of Indianapolis and what we’re doing arts-wise in the city. Hyperallergic is one of my favorite reads and it is nice to be represented within its pages.

      1. Thanks Allison, and it is good to hear the new hires are pushing the school in that direction. It always is slow to see changes in institutions, but hopefully my next trip back I will see them!

        We are glad you enjoy the blog, and it was my pleasure to re-look my homestate with fresh eyes.

      1. You are welcome. I wanted readers (critics) to consider that you were not doing a holistic round-up of art offerings in the city, but rather illuminating for those unfamiliar with the city the breadth and depth of the art scene here. Also, too often people only comment when they are mad, not when they want to say something positive. So kudos. Be well in your new adventures.

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