In the last few years the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) has developed a deserved national and international reputation. The IMA’s 100 acre Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park, which opened in 2010, is one of the largest contemporary sculpture parks in the world, and one of the only such parks with a commitment to contemporary and non-permanent installation art. The following year, the IMA was chosen to present the US pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, arguably one of the most important art shows in the world. Their 2011 exhibition of outsider artist Thornton Dial represented the first-ever retrospective of his work, and received widespread acclaim, including glowing reviews in the New York Times and Time magazine. These are exceptional accomplishments for any museum, much less one offering free general admission and located in a state whose population is smaller than the five boroughs of New York City — the IMA is simply an anomaly in the United States. And this spring the museum and its new director, Charles L. Venable, are back in the spotlight, but not for more accolades.
In October of 2012, Maxwell L. Anderson stepped down as The Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO of the IMA to become the Director of the Dallas Museum of Art. He was replaced by Charles Venable, formerly the director and CEO of The Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. Though Anderson had brought “over $30 million to the museum’s endowment through gifts and pledges; built a significant international exhibition program; resumed a free general admission policy; more than doubled attendance to reach some 450,000 visitors annually” (Dallas Art News), the IMA’s board felt that the museum was financially unstable. In a recent interview with Indianapolis alt-weekly NUVO, Venable stated, “There was total clarity on the board’s part that there was a $5 million budget gap that the museum needed to correct.”
Venable’s solution to the purported budget problem was to cut 29 jobs and lay off 21 employees on March 4, and at least three more employees on April 9, as confirmed by IMA Deputy Director for Public Affairs Katie Zarich on April 15. Staff cuts are a hard decision for any institution to make. When 24 employees of a major museum are let go, one might fairly assume a grave financial crisis, yet this was not the case for the IMA.
The IMA currently has an astonishing endowment of over $326 million, placing it among the top ten art museum endowments in the United States. Tyler Green, of Modern Art Notes, laid out many of the flaws in the IMA leadership’s thinking in a fiery article comparing the IMA firings with MOCA’s unending turmoil.
It’s true that in the 2008 financial crisis, the IMA lost around $100 million, or roughly a third of its endowment. Venable also claims that some major donors were less willing to continue supporting the museum at the same levels they did under Anderson’s directorship. Yet, relationships appear to have been patched and the endowment has bounced back.
The IMA cuts first came to the greater art world’s attention after Green blasted Venable for an ill-timed tweet about a luxurious birthday lunch in Dallas on the day of the layoffs. In citing the tweet, Green did not realize that Venable was then on a business trip in Europe, and his birthday lunch had taken place earlier. Though the tweet in question was apparently posted by his Twitter management platform, Venable later claimed that his account was simultaneously hacked and he experienced software problems.
Brushing off Green, a respected arts journalist, as “irresponsible” after this tweet imbroglio is questionable, especially as Venable ignores the writer’s empirically-justified claims that the IMA’s situation is both “sad” and “unnecessary.” These accusations still await a rebuttal from the director, whose poor handling of the layoffs has only made matters worse.
Not only is Venable thoughtlessly dismissing Green, he has callously tried to taint the work of his predecessor by claiming visitor attendance at a specific show was far lower than documented, and that the museum was spending far too much money on exhibitions, quality aside. Anderson’s Facebook response, beyond breaking down the numbers, pointed out that:
It is not realistic to assume that every area of a museum should be self-supporting, let alone a profit center. We are educational institutions that support our missions with philanthropy. Art museums are about more than cost per visitor: the value of exposing Indiana residents to Islamic art is incalculable.
And herein lies the crux of the problem: museums are never expected to self-sustain from ticket sales. Ticket sales represent a negligible portion of a museum’s revenues as a whole. In the case of the IMA, with a massive endowment, they have room for quality exhibitions that don’t turn a profit. Anderson recognizes this and that’s why he made the IMA a largely free museum. Putting the quality and accessibility of the museum in jeopardy instead of seeking new grants and new donors is a decision that reflects an abdication of the museum’s mission on the part of Venable and the board. Venable’s finger pointing and unwillingness to join in a real conversation about the firing in any meaningful way is only adding fuel to the fire.
Anderson, it should be pointed out, fired his share of employees at the IMA, including replacing security guards with local police officers and gallery attendants with student volunteers on a work-study program. Yet Anderson’s mission to improve the quality of the work shown and expand the museum’s impact was by every account incredibly successful.
Anderson worked to fulfill the IMA’s core mission, and as Green points out, expanded that mission to include making the museum more accessible in exciting ways. He made admission free (except for certain special exhibitions), implemented a unique and transparent deaccession policy, released endowment and attendance figures — sometimes kept private — through an online Dashboard, and launched ArtBabble, a free online collection of art video content. This isn’t to say that Anderson was perfect, but his record at the IMA was perceived as glowing by the city’s museum public.
Will these improvements be sustainable in light of the recent layoffs? Will the quality and innovation of the exhibitions, publications, and artworks survive? The future looks grim to many. Cutting Rachel Craft, director of Publishing and Media, and many of the imaging specialists was a quick way to decimate the institution’s reach within the Indianapolis area and beyond. Not only that, the museum library, an invaluable resource to the community, is now accessible by appointment only due to the cuts, adding a barrier to scholarly research and casual browsing of their important collection.
What’s more, many internship programs have been halted as the staff needed to run them are no longer there. In this respect the felt effects of the layoffs will only grow larger as interns that would have come into the museum are turned away.
What is possibly most troubling is the decimation of the conservation department, essentially losing the museum’s capacity to properly care for some of its most prized collections. The conservation department is critical to the historical purpose of a museum. These cuts are especially disappointing as the IMA Labs were enlarged and upgraded in 2010 after receiving a $2.6 million dollar grant, presumably given to an expanding museum. I cannot emphasize enough how important a thorough conservation team will be to properly maintaining this expansion, not to mention the huge Art and Nature Park which garnered so much acclaim. That the board has fundamentally reneged on their position in support of these projects two years ago is bewildering.
Though sad, employees in the arts have long ago resigned themselves to long hours and low pay; the work being far more important to them than the promise of a much more comfortable job somewhere else. I myself interned at the IMA for almost a year in 2009. I am familiar with working hard on something I care passionately about and receiving little in return monetarily. Yet having just visited the IMA for the opening of Ai Weiwei: According to What? (which is a must-see, and further proof of the quality of the museum prior to the cuts) and talking to many staff members, I didn’t feel any of the usual camaraderie I had before.
The overarching mood of the staff was that the cuts were a devastating blow, that the future ability of the museum to continue its mission is in jeopardy, and that Venable is alienating and upsetting every employee, not just those he already fired. Of those who remained, all spoke of possibly leaving for a better workplace; many were actively looking. It was not the nurturing IMA I had left, which had taught me so much, helped me land a job in NYC with artist Tara Donovan after her solo show there, even introduced me to the world of blogging by inviting me to write my first post.
But what does Venable see on the horizon for the IMA? What innovations and exhibitions are in store to help the museum continue to grow and maintain its success? Venable talks more about a need for more visitors and money than any specific notions of how to achieve it. Venable sets his sights on The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis’ attendance of over 1 million, which when compared to the IMA’s attendance of 400,000 is impressive. Of course, among other art museums, the IMA ranks 19th in attendance, again proof of its importance. The Children’s Museum is a fun place for kids, but it is basically a corporate-sponsored playhouse whose exhibitions fulfill a function closer to “Disney Channel” than “cultural institution.” Comparing The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis to the IMA is apples to oranges, and drawing any conclusion from such a comparison is illogical and misses the point of an encyclopedic museum’s mission entirely.
One idea Venable has publicly proposed for the future of the IMA is a car-as-art show, as a way to get the Hoosier audience into the doors. Indiana, home of the Indy 500, has its fair share of car shows in every town and city, seeing another one in a museum recast as art is pretentious, and would alienate the already-strong numbers of IMA visitors. Certainly not an inspired future to look forward to.
Combined with consistent public relations failures, crippling and unnecessary staff cuts, and a board seemingly unaware of the gravity of the situation, will the IMA be back in the news receiving more accolades anytime soon? With Venable there, I doubt it.