Design at the IMA 

All things to all people? The Indianapolis Museum of Art, having just celebrated its 125-year anniversary, can look back to its humble beginnings and make some pretty dramatic comparisons: From a concept dreamt up in Victorian parlors to its present manifestation as the fifth largest general art museum in the U.S., the museum has significant collections where once there were none, or at least few. Its contemporary collection and exhibition program, now formidable, have done much to bring the institution recognition in the past few years, coinciding with the IMA’s spacious face-lift. As it goes in the museum world, all it takes is someone else’s generosity to make a collection — that, and a curator and other staff to turn that generosity into a meaningful collection.

Robert Irwin, one of the world’s preeminent contemporary artists whose stock and trade is the use of light, was commissioned in honor of the anniversary to add a permanent monument, of sorts, in the museum’s cavernous Pulliam Great Hall on the first floor (made possible with the support of longtime museum patrons Ann and Chris Stack). Irwin’s piece, “Light and Space III,” now lit in all its subtle but pronounced glory, spans the wall flanking the escalator reaching up through three levels to the third floor. A series of fluorescent tubes emit white light, forming a sort of pattern if one chooses to discern one. I was reminded of the childhood game Labyrinth, the object of which is to turn the handles on either side of the wooden box to move a marble through a maze of wooden barriers — resembling Irwin’s light sticks in their formation — without letting it fall through a hole.

Irwin’s work is arguably more consequential in terms of what it suggests symbolically, and what it is intended to evoke in the viewer’s experience of it. Then again, the fact that anyone might respond to this piece is a good thing from the museum’s standpoint: With their no-admission-fee policy, the IMA certainly is taking pains to be all things, or at least many things, to a great number of people.

Coinciding with the anniversary, more or less, the museum’s latest area of development, design, has taken its first baby steps towards becoming another strong collection at the IMA. With the appointment of R. Craig Miller, curator of design arts and director of design initiatives (hired in 2007), the IMA is making a concerted effort to acquire and show design art, with a modest-sized gallery flanking the contemporary galleries now focusing on works from the post-WWII era.

In the gallery, heavily weighted towards the chair as art, a corrugated cardboard chaise longue, “Bubbles,” by Frank Gehry (known largely for his architecture) is a less inviting manifestation than, say, Gaetano Pesce’s equally curvaceous but softer “UP3 Lounge Chair,” the choice of materials said to be a response to the 1960s sexual revolution. Minimalism almost singlehandedly defines contemporary design prior to post-modernism, but a peek downstairs in the IMA’s retail arm of its design initiative, the Design Center, is all about sleek  — minimalist or not. The Design Center, a separate retail entity from the Alliance Gift Shop, focuses on modern and contemporary design products — from the iconic Alessi teapot to Herman Miller chairs, and much in between — also offering consults and special ordering of furniture, lighting, textiles and accessories galore.

The IMA Design Department’s first exhibition, European Design Since 1985: Shaping the New Century, coming in March, will flesh out the notion of contemporary Western European design — distinct from the IMA’s formidable Decorative Arts collection, which encompasses a wider catalogue of functional aesthetics.

All things to all people? Not necessarily; but the IMA continues to make the most of what it has, and what it is able to bring in. As Director Maxwell Anderson states in the museum’s mission statement, “The IMA has a commitment to produce compelling ways of understanding, interpreting and presenting art, design and nature.” Certainly that encompasses a lot.

Learn more about the IMA, its design collection and Design Center by visiting www.imamuseum.org, or call 317-923-1331 for information.

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