David Hoppe

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:: Those cuts at the IMA

The end of an era?

by David Hoppe

The other shoe dropped.

That’s what happened last week when the Indianapolis Museum of Art cut 29 jobs, or 11 percent of its staff.

First the symphony, now this.

It was just last summer that ISO management locked out its musicians, demanding wicked cuts to salaries and a truncated season due to what the symphony board said was an unsustainable business plan. The orchestra was drawing heavily on its endowment, a situation that threatened its future.

So the ISO board found another way of threatening the orchestra’s future, by trying to impose cuts that would have rendered the ISO irrelevant as a major league performing arts institution.

The lock-out was eventually ended. But not before musicians made $11.5 million in concessions, including a 32 percent pay cut in the first year of their agreement.

The board, for its part, succeeded in soliciting more money from the community in less than six months than it usually raises in a year, or $8.5 million.

The lock-out came as a shock because it showed just how precarious life has become for one of the city’s most venerable, and highly regarded, arts institutions.

The ISO, for the time being, appears to be off the hook, though the professional musicians who are the orchestra’s reason for being have taken a hit.

Now we have the IMA to worry about.

The city’s art museum isn’t going away. But recent comments by Charles Venable, its new director and CEO, coupled with last week’s staff cuts, make me wonder about the museum’s continuing relevance in this community.

Like the ISO, Venable says the IMA has been drawing too heavily on its endowment. “We need to maximize audience and perform financially at a different level,” he told the Star’s Will Higgins.

Well, fine. But once you get past the pseudo-corporate boiler plate, what, exactly does this mean? Venable expressed displeasure with “Beauty and Belief,” a recent exhibition of Islamic art, for costing $500,000, yet only drawing 7,000 patrons. His answer, so far, appears to be an upcoming show of works by Matisse. That’s fine, but it’s rather like the orchestra deciding to program Beethoven’s Greatest Hits. It’s art, in other words, aimed at people who don’t think very much about art.

That’s most of us, I know. But before we give in to yet another populist attempt to persuade folks who could care less that art is good for them, it’s worth remembering what the IMA has managed to accomplish in the past few years.

Since the museum’s expansion in 2005, the IMA has become a major venue for contemporary art. It’s hard to remember now, but prior to that time (and the arrival of curator Lisa Freiman), Indianapolis really was no place in terms of contemporary art. We had IMOCA, the inaptly named Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, doing one-off shows in a gallery space, the odd bit of funk at Herron, and that was about it.

If you wanted to see new work of any significance, you had to travel to Chicago, Minneapolis or Columbus, Ohio.

The IMA committed a floor to the stuff, practically a museum in its own right. And then there was the creation of the outdoor art park, 100 Acres, a truly unique — and decidedly Midwestern — wedding of contemporary art and nature. There was the blockbuster design show, “European Design: Shaping the New Century,” and such extraordinary exhibitions as the Gee’s Bend quilts and a Thornton Dial retrospective. All this work culminated in the IMA’s organizing the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

I haven’t been crazy about all I’ve seen at the IMA during this stretch. But that’s not the point. The IMA, more than any other arts organization in town, has made Indianapolis safe for contemporary art in ways it never was before.

This has meant two things to the city that are actually bigger than the art itself or, for that matter, the museum. Contemporary art and, especially, design, is now part of practically every conversation about the city’s future. There’s a critical mass of people here who understand that part of making things that work means making them cool. This doesn’t happen without ambitious, high-profile and ongoing support for contemporary art. The IMA has provided that.

In so doing, the IMA has also made itself a place where people who care about these things can gather. Contemporary art isn’t just artifacts; it’s a way of thinking about the world. It is social and global. The IMA has been our local portal to this scene.

In April, the IMA will present what promises to be a massive exhibition of works by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. The show, which predates Charles Venable’s arrival here, opened at the Hirschorn Museum in Washington, DC. People will doubtless travel from Chicago, Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio to see it. There will probably be long lines, and that should make the IMA’s new CEO very, very happy.

The Ai Weiwei show represents a kind of high water mark for what the IMA has accomplished since 2005. That accomplishment has been to put Indianapolis on the map of contemporary American culture. Let’s hope it’s not the end of an era.