"I tend to leave around 5, 5:30 because I want the rest of the staff to feel the workday’s over, we don’t have to obsess. One of the reasons to live here is that you don’t have to obsess,” Maxwell Anderson says, sitting at the conference table in the part of his office reserved for planning and small gatherings. His attitude is refreshing in a town where too many CEOs tend to measure value by hours worked. Few, however, have managed to actually accomplish as much as Anderson has in his first year as head of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. That track record suggests that while Anderson may not obsess about his work, he has a formidable ability to focus.
Among his accomplishments so far has been the command decision to reverse the IMA’s recent policy of charging general admission, restoring the museum’s longtime tradition of granting access to its general collection for free. There have also been some strategic acquisitions for the permanent collection and substantial progress on the 100-acre Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park, scheduled to open in 2009. Then there’s talk of major new works by Maya Lin and Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, not to mention a dam designed by Peter Eisenman.
But Anderson’s biggest accomplishment may be summed up in one word: buzz. The IMA has it. Staff members show a certain gleam in their eyes; talk to them and you get a sense they feel they’re involved with a place that’s happening, where exciting things are being realized.
Better yet, this vibe seems to have found its way to a significant portion of the local populace. IMA openings have become hip places to see and be seen and the museum’s creative programming (where nonmembers are required to pay admission) is often well attended.
Anderson came to the IMA in May 2006, after having spent time as a cultural consultant with AEA Consulting of New York and London. Before that, he served as director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York for five years and as director of Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum. Anderson taught in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University and was a curatorial assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He received his A.B. in art history from Dartmouth and Ph.D. from Harvard.
It was hot and humid on the day Anderson met me. The blinds in his office were partially drawn, deflecting sunlight and providing a cool distance. Anderson, who claims to be fluent in French, Italian, German, Spanish, ancient Greek and Latin, spoke softly, but at a rapid pace.
ANDERSON: This museum affords us with the opportunity to take chances on the future and foster creativity and to be innovative about the marshalling of resources, be they financial or natural.
I see a lot of colleagues in different contexts — I can’t think of another position that has this much opportunity. I don’t know of any. I’m going to have coffee with the CEO of the Getty Trust next Wednesday; he is sitting on top of an enormous reserve of wealth and power, but, really, the job for him is stewardship to a certain extent. The facility there is built, plans are in place for the future.
Whereas the opportunities are just beginning for this place. They’re built on the great generosity of the people who went before, but we’re finally at the point where, since 1970 we’ve been on this property but never harnessed what’s behind the museum.
So I look at the twin, exciting challenges facing us in the world today: one, managing our natural resources responsibly and, two, figuring out how creativity can flourish outside the crushing power of the marketplace.
I was just on the phone with this guy from a leading gallery whose job is to harness the creativity and talent of some of the world’s leading artists and be profitable in so doing. Of course, I look at the profitability side as problematic for artists. For this guy, the money is at the core and, for me, the experience is at the core.
NUVO: What is happening in the art world that contributes to this threshold moment?
ANDERSON: I think there’s a de-definition of “the center.” It’s very parochial to think that one place has a lock on creativity. It really doesn’t make sense anymore. I’ve always been fascinated by how that might change, and I think it actually has clicked.
Here we are with a scrappy, young IT department and we’ve put together, in just the last two or three years, one of the most extraordinary museum efforts in technology I know of in the world. We were just awarded a half million-dollar grant from the Institute of Library Services in Washington to run a collective effort with the Metropolitan Museum, L.A. County, the Guggenheim, to figure out how the public can reshape how artwork is described.
We have dozens of videos on YouTube now. It’s like having our own channel. We have a group of programmers on staff building a dashboard for a Web site that will certainly be the most transparent window into a cultural institution anywhere in the world.
NUVO: What does it mean to be an art museum in Indianapolis in the 21st century?
ANDERSON: Well, you start with the individual confronting the creative act. Clearly, you want as much depth of experience as possible. That starts with our galleries. With 54,000 works in the collection, only a fraction of which are ever on view for public consumption — 5, 6, 7, 8 percent.
Then, in Indianapolis, you begin with the most interesting statistic, which is what percentage of our metro area visits us. When I arrived, the board had a study done of what our likely attendance was after re-opening. I looked at the study, and was aware of the methodology and the people doing it, thought it had credibility — but I also thought it wasn’t an unchangeable goal if we went to free general admission, and if we promoted ourselves. We already had the goods: a story, an encyclopedic collection with strengths in European and Chinese art, textiles and fashion, and contemporary art — and if we could plug in what we already had to offer with a larger demographic …
So I said the key measurements shouldn’t just be the number of people coming through the door, but what percentage of Central Indiana, or the metro area around Indianapolis, is coming. The answer seems to be that we’re heading north of 25 percent. That’s a pretty staggering outcome. With that percentage, we would be among the top museums in the nation and I think we’re going to get there this year because we’ve already had close to 200,000 visitors since January.
NUVO: How do you attract younger audiences while retaining older people?
ANDERSON: The short answer is we try to have younger staff members here who know who their friends are and who share a place at the table in deciding how to reach visitors. YouTube is a huge part of that for us.
A lot of what people tell us generally, whether in Indianapolis or around the country, is that decisions are made about cultural destinations on the fly — they’re not planned. Certainly, for Simon Crookall [of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra] or Steven Stolen [the Indiana Repertory Theatre], season tickets are decreasingly of interest to patrons who want to decide at the last minute. In our case, that’s easier because we don’t have a bums in seats problem — though we will next spring, when we open the Tobias Theatre with 600 seats, and we’re going to be programming it very actively.
YouTube is a way of saying we’re going to try and stay on top of every new development in reaching audiences we can. It makes us less formal, more inventive and more relevant in a generation’s lives. And that relevancy, from our point of view, connects not only to creativity and art, but also to how we manage our natural resources and our buildings on the property. The fact we had a Smart Car launch here last week is not an accident. It was looking to create some excitement around openness and innovation.
I was happy when I left that day — to see the glee of everyone test-driving the Smart Cars down 38th Street and coming back on campus was really exciting. It was a moment on the museum calendar where it felt like we were connecting to a new world.
The hope is that in the way we program our collection and special exhibitions, there will be reasons for older patrons to stay involved and see us as an incubator of ideas that are important. But I must say a lot of people in their 60s don’t want to think of themselves as past it. They want to think of themselves as vital and connected in cultural terms.
One of the reasons that Jacqueline and I were excited to move here is that this is not an institution that’s driven by a commercial paradigm. And having written a fair amount about this, I think they knew what they were getting. It wasn’t a surprise to hear me say, “I think philanthropy is the paradigm for a cultural organization.” We’re not a commercial venture. We could never succeed as that. Somebody might argue that, given the scale of our grounds, we could be an amusement park, but it wouldn’t work.
NUVO: Were there museums that made a difference in your life growing up?
ANDERSON: I have a fetishist streak, absolutely. When I was 6 we lived in France for a year. At the Musee de la Marine I saw ship models and I just thought this must be heaven on Earth. To see 17th century brigantines made by people with bone and ivory, and bits of cloth for sails and miniature cannons that were cast — it was unbelievable.
Then we were in a flea market and I saw a pair of flintlock pistols and my parents — my dad was a professor on sabbatical on a Fulbright and didn’t have a lot of money — but I remember my parents standing out there for 10 minutes debating whether they should buy these things — and me hoping they would!
But I wasn’t as keen on visiting museums as I was about going to Carcassonne, a fortress city, to sit on the cannons and feel a part of history.
I grew up in Manhattan, where nothing is really very old, and everything is cement. We also had a country house on land my grandfather bought in the ’20s and divided up among his three sons, which had a deep woods, so I had that experience, and it was formative.
But the cement experience in Manhattan meant being a faculty brat who visited the homes of wealthy kids in townhouses, having servants and elevators. I got used to that, it became part of my reality, but it wasn’t mine.
What could be mine, I felt, was connecting with precious things that didn’t necessarily belong to anybody.
NUVO: What museums do you most admire?
ANDERSON: It’s a changing list. There are a lot of new institutions or institutions that have revived themselves. Obviously, the treasure houses are very important. I was in the Prado three weeks ago working on a show on Spain in the Baroque era, and to go to the Prado again after a number of years was to be reminded of a venerable institution, but to see it enhanced with a sense of vitality by a young, vigorous director with a sense of ambition around innovation and audience building was very exciting. I wouldn’t have thought that about the Prado a few years ago. I would have thought of the contemporary art museum there, the Reina Sofia, and I went to the Reina Sofia on this trip and found it a little tired in comparison.
So every time I think I have a list in my head, it morphs. For me, the pleasure that was honed during my time at the Whitney was to be around creative people. There’s so much energy and power to experience from works of art of the past, but also through the presences of artists and designers, architects and collectors.
NUVO: You used the word ambition. How do you understand ambition in the context of institution building?
ANDERSON: We bought a digital X-ray machine. It’s the only one in the United States that’s in an art museum. It’s the coolest thing. We had to lead-line the conservation lab around it because it’s so powerful. The Getty doesn’t have that. Harvard doesn’t have that. They’re both looking to acquire them, but, thanks to an anonymous donor, we bought the best one you can get, the state of the art. Now we are sitting on top of the potential to do scientific analysis of works of art that no one else can do, that will absolutely catapult the capacity of our objects conservation department.
Ambition, for me, involved asking why set the bar in terms of existing buildings or infrastructure? What if we just aim for the sky, become lightning rods for people to see us as ambitious? When you’re ambitious, people tend to support you. If you’re seen as struggling, or punching beyond your weight, it’s disappointing, defeating. But I thought that we could actually pull something off, and it’s been great for the conservation program to have that device because it’s also a promise of what could happen. Now we can assemble more energy around the conservation and caring for these collections.
NUVO: What about the Art & Nature Park?
ANDERSON: Most of the projects we’re now talking about for the Art & Nature Park are not permanent. They’re mostly installations that will have a life of two to five years. So that was a kind of revelation when I got here, thinking about the park — what we could do with different material from what’s done in Seattle, or Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, or Storm King, for that matter. Nature’s going to be constantly assaulting whatever we do. Why fight that? Tell the artists: Your gig is to figure out how to make a gesture that has resonance long beyond the time it’s visible. Part of what I find exciting about the addition of the Art & Nature Park is not, ultimately, about trophy hunting and monument building …
NUVO: Gestures instead of footprints …
ANDERSON: And different from our front lawn. The Sutphin Mall is the perfect croquet lawn for large sculpture on cement pads. That’s what it’s for and that’s what it should do. Claes Oldenberg and Coosje Van Bruggen are coming out in a few weeks to talk about the front lawn, and that’s where I think Claes and Coosje should be — on the front lawn.
NUVO: How do you engage donors about acquiring the kind of art that becomes a significant addition to the collection?
ANDERSON: What’s really exciting is acquiring art. Everything else is in service of that. My first year here was really about refreshing the culture of the place. We’ve got a path launched for the Art & Nature Park. Whatever I accomplish here, whenever I am asked to leave, it’s going to be about the collection. Everything else is transitory. But the collection is where the real legacy is felt. And I feel that acutely as the art market has gone into overdrive and our capacity to compete is hobbled by the price wars.
One of my great pleasures here is that this is an encyclopedic collection. The responsibilities begin with antiquities and roll forward. To buy great things is absolutely at the top of the agenda, but sale prices in the last few auctions have gone up as much as half what they were at previous auctions. So the game is gifts and bequests. I don’t think a collector has to live in our zip code to see their collection get a certain profile, make sure that it enjoys a life among other, like objects. We can do that here. We have the space, the methods and the resources — and there aren’t many places that have all those. That’s where we need to be making the case for ourselves.
NUVO: What do you find distinctive about this particular part of the Midwest?
ANDERSON: I always thought that the Midwest was conservative, but I haven’t found that here. I haven’t found it to be intolerant of gays, I haven’t found it to be overtly racist, or any of the things that I would associate with some sister cities in the Midwest, where you keep your head low if you’re acting outside the agreed-upon ethos. That’s been really attractive to discover. It’s not that I didn’t expect it; I always had this sense that Indianapolis lacked the sort of stoicism of St. Louis, say — that culture belonged to the few and you could invite everybody in, but it didn’t happen. Here, people are desperate to see participation. That’s interesting.
But where we don’t seem to show any muscle is in spending money. The total budget for promoting the city is minor compared to other cities. There’s also a kind of sameness to what we mean by culture ...
The problem with supporting “culture” is there’s a lot of mediocrity. There always has been. Wander down the halls of a palace in Bologna filled with brown 17th century landscapes and you’ve got to say that 60-70 percent of them are dogs. You wouldn’t want to touch them with a 10-foot pole. They’ve got gilt-edged frames, but they’re dogs. You can’t reflexively say, “I am a cultural advocate,” without definition, without any adjudication. Then you create mediocrity.
So I like the idea of aspiration — clear momentum that leads to identifying something of importance to the organization. Supporting it because it’s good and it matters.