The Indianapolis Museum of Art (image via Flickr user chocolatedisco)

OAKLAND, Calif. — In May, just over two months after 29 employees of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) were laid off, internationally renowned curator Lisa Freiman announced that she too would be leaving the museum. Freiman’s appointment as the inaugural director of the VCU Institute for Contemporary Art began on July 1 of this year. Now, Sarah Green, the Curator of Contemporary Art, has also declared her departure as well. As of next week the only person left in the contemporary department will be Gabriele HaBarad, the Senior Administrative Coordinator.

Although I have already expressed my dismay and worries about the actions of the then newly appointed Director of the IMA, Charles Venable, this gutting of the IMA, especially in the contemporary department, is far worse than I feared. The IMA has been a fantastic and mostly free art museum, one that had a great commitment contemporary art that rivaled many museums in much larger cities. Retaining capable people like Freiman and Green must have been hard for Anderson, but I never guessed the remaining talent would leave so quickly under Venable.

“Bench Around the Lake” by Jeppe Hein at 100 Acres (image via Flickr user sarahvain)

The IMA’s contemporary art department was phenomenal. Freiman served as the Senior Curator and chair of the Department of Contemporary Art and was internationally renowned for her work at the IMA. She was chosen in 2010 to represent the US at the Venice Biennale, where she showed work by the Puerto Rican duo Allora & Calzadilla. Freiman, along with prior IMA Director Maxwell L. Anderson, led the IMA to house 100 Acres, the largest Art and Nature Park in the country dedicated to contemporary and non-permanent installation art. In addition to supporting Freiman’s work, Sarah Green brought in her own top-notch exhibitions from the likes of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei. Green also helped curate the Efroymson Family Entrance Pavilion, where she exhibited large-scale installations by artists like Spencer Finch and William Lamson.

Green’s last day at the IMA will be this Friday, September 27. After her departure, she will begin working for PBS as a curator and host of a new video series called The Art Assignment, which will premiere in 2014. Each episode will focus on an emerging to established contemporary artist from the US working through a single assignment, from start to finish. In an email announcing her departure Green said, “I am thrilled to work with the great people at PBS to build The Art Assignment, a project that I’m confident will bring new audiences to a wider understanding of what art is and what it can be.”

Sarah Green in the trailer for her new PBS series “The Art Assignment” (screenshot via YouTube)

Sarah Green will be working in collaboration with her husband, John Green, who is an author and part of the widely watched Vlogbrothers and Crash Course! series. Sarah Green said that together they hope the show will be a means for “legitimizing and celebrating the enormous creative output that the internet and social media has made possible.”

“I don’t believe in Venable’s mission for the IMA, and our visions don’t align. When this opportunity with PBS arose, it was an easy decision for me to make.” — Sarah Green, Former Curator of Contemporary Art

Freiman and Green are not alone in deciding to leave the IMA for other jobs in the arts. Brad Dilger, the new media installation expert, Brittany Minton, Registrar for Exhibition, Katie Zarich, Deputy Director for Public Affairs, and R. Craig Miller, and Senior Curator of Design Arts and Director of Design Initiatives have all decided to leave the museum. But is the staff leaving due to the new director or general job turnover? Richard McCoy, a former Conservator of Objects & Variable Art laid off this summer, told me over the phone, “Of the people I know that have left since the cuts, they left because they disagreed with the direction Venable is taking the museum.” This sentiment was echoed on condition of anonymity by several current and prior employees; the staff is voting on Venable with their feet.

When asked by email about her reasons for leaving, Green wrote, “I don’t believe in Venable’s mission for the IMA, and our visions don’t align. When this opportunity with PBS arose, it was an easy decision for me to make.”

When asked to comment on Green’s departure and the museum’s current lack of a contemporary art department, Public Relations Manager Candace Gwaltney emailed this statement from Charles Venable: “The IMA is committed to its robust contemporary art program and the presentation of works by both emerging and established artists through the organization of major exhibitions and commissioned projects. We will conduct a national search for the next curator of contemporary art who we expect will continue the IMA’s tradition of scholarship in this area.” Per Gwaltney, the IMA is currently looking to fill only one contemporary curatorial position.

How the IMA will do at attracting equal talent to replace Green and Lisa while staff morale is so low remains to be seen. As for the interim, McCoy said, “From a local perspective, I live very close to the IMA and I am disappointed that challenging content won’t be there anymore; I’ve lost a lot of reasons to go.”

Although both positions taken by Freiman and Green are still being formed, they sound like fantastic matches and I look forward to following their work; I would never blame them for leaving the IMA. Between the 11% staff cuts and an uninspiring new Director, I asked five months ago if the IMA was in jeopardy; with these two gone I’m afraid we have our answer.

Yet Green, despite her disagreement with Venable’s vision, is more hopeful than I am. She writes, “As for the future of the contemporary department, I still have hope for it in the long term. We’ve established a strong program here and have the infrastructure for continued success. The legacy of commissioning here is impressive, the collection is strong, and 100 Acres is an amazing model for art parks in the 21st century. I hope to see it continue to succeed.”

Editor’s note: The author, an Indiana native now based in the Bay Area, was a paid intern at the Indianapolis Museum of Art from October 2009 to July 2010.

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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...

4 replies on “High Profile Exits Raise Questions About Indianapolis Museum”

  1. The IMA is a unique and impressive contemporary institution, especially for an out of the way city like Indianapolis. It will be sad to see it lose this distinction. Art parks are the future!

  2. Whenever the position at the top of an organization changes — be that the President of the United States, the head of a major corporation, or a museum — it is far from uncommon that a change in staff follows. As a resident of Indianapolis, I was disappointed to hear of Ms. Green’s decision. That said, I wish her the best. But her leaving does not mean that the IMA is doomed or that Charles Venable has failed. Venable was hired for his vision and competence — not to function as a mirror image of those who came before him. I’m grateful to the IMA Board for hiring him and am looking forward to being here in Indianapolis when he hits his stride.

  3. Interesting thoughts, Rhonda L-S!

    Can you give an example of a major corporation or president that has so dramatically and so quickly changed direction? Pick a successful major corporation or president that is either producing a high quality or innovative product or a popular president, and then replace this person with someone who has a limited social and communications skills and a vision that drives away all of the senior employees or cabinet and you’ve about got it. I’m looking forward to seeing your examples!

    Also, I wonder why you’re so grateful that this Venable is at the IMA, and what exactly you think “his stride” will look like, and how it will involve his use of Twitter.

    From what I’ve read and seen, it seems the only stride this guy will be hitting is the one he hits on the way out the door.

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