Grassroots art: The Indianapolis Art Center's Patrick Flaherty 

Patrick Flaherty, in charge of exhibitions at the Indianapolis Art Center, has played a variety of parts at the IAC since being hired there to hang pictures for exhibitions in 2003 by then-curator Julia Muney Moore. Flaherty has taught classes and now coordinates the IAC's busy exhibition schedule. This summer he plans on turning his attention to finding new ways to utilize the IAC's Artspark, the 12.5-acre sculpture garden adjacent to the Monon Trail. Flaherty met NUVO in the IAC's Michael Graves-designed library space for a conversation about his job and the role the IAC plays in the city's visual arts environment.

NUVO: Was there a single arts experience that made a decisive difference in your life?

Flaherty: I knew I was going to art school, but when I got there, I didn't know why. In my second year [at Ball State University] I took an introduction to printmaking class and this hasn't happened a whole lot in my life, but when I pulled my first print through the press, it made sense. Something felt right and I felt at home. I felt almost like maybe I had done it before.

NUVO: Where did you grow up?

Flaherty: In Indianapolis. Ironically, I did not know about the Art Center until after I graduated from college. I graduated from high school in 1998, and I had a friend who mentioned something about taking a photography class here, but it wasn't on my map.

When I left Ball State, I moved to Noblesville and was waiting tables and playing music - I'm still very active musically, I have a band - and I met a man who told me there was a job at the Art Center to hang artwork. So I came in for what I thought would be a 20-minute interview and was here for three and a half hours.

NUVO: What was your initial impression of the IAC?

Flaherty: What took me about a half year to adjust to was we didn't need to wear white gloves, we didn't have a state-of-the-art humidity system, we didn't have all these things that I took for granted if you were showing work. I soon realized, and now absolutely love, the fact that we work with mostly living artists, people that are still around. I started to get the sense that we may not be doing museum shows, but we're doing a whole different thing.

I wasn't sure where I'd wound up because I'd just come from university and five years of critiques and here's this work where there are no grades. There's nothing but a desire for people to come in and learn. At first I had this sort of looking-down attitude and now I'm looking up to these people who have the courage to come in and take a class, whether they have art experience or not.

I started teaching woodcut at night - now I'm head of the printmaking department; it's an army of one. I started with one night class and began to get a double-vision of the Art Center because now I could see it from a faculty and student perspective, as well as from exhibits. Eventually I started with education and, after schlepping tables around, I found that I got to know the faculty very, very well, and I got a good sense of why people are here and what they're doing.

NUVO: Given all the hats you've worn at the IAC, how would you characterize the Art Center's role?

Flaherty: I think we play a different role. We can certainly work with the IMA or the Eiteljorg - and should, in any way we could - but I see us as a very different identity in that what I would like to see is a demystification of art, wherein people aren't afraid of us. My mother's in her mid-sixties and she took her first art class this year. She does not consider herself an artist. She was nervous. So we reach out to the naïve first-timer, as well as provide support for professional artists.

What our outreach department has been trying to figure out is how do we reach people in my income bracket - lower to middle class - that want something to do on the weekend, like the chance to meet an artist, make something and take it home. You spend three hours of time and you have something to show for it.

The student show is at the heart of our mission. These are our people taking classes and we provide them with a juried experience. They don't all get in. There's prize money. They can sell their work. The top five winners get another show during the faculty show. It's not uncommon at the Art Center to hear, "I took a jewelry class and now I have a business."

NUVO: How do you see the IAC's exhibition focus?

Flaherty: There are so many artists, locally and regionally, that need to show and that can deliver an intelligent, interesting exhibition. I want very much to see what's going on out there. I want us to be accessible for folks to apply. To send us their ideas. The problem is we only have so many slots for shows available.

NUVO: What are you up against given the economy and the lack of funding - and what are the opportunities?

Flaherty: Everything has to be very grassroots at this point. We're looking to social media to get the word out and things like that. There are times you need things - like lightbulbs and paint and gas to go get artwork. The biggest limitation concerns shipping and transporting large works of art. And so that speaks to looking more regionally, so people can deliver their own work.

When I started, we were growing all over the place. Money was there. It was not uncommon to have a show where we had work shipped from Massachusetts, we used professional art handlers, and I signed the invoice for $4,800. That may be my entire shipping budget for the next year, if there's a shipping budget.

But I don't think that will affect the quality. I think it means that you have to find artists that need the show more than are available to show. We're not going to be doing any packaged exhibitions. It's all going to be locally curated. The funding becomes your reality. You either have it or you don't.

Exhibitions currently showing at the IAC through June 6:

"Freaky Forests," paintings by Indianapolis artist Casey Roberts

"The Encoded Landscape," works by Guy Benson of Evanston, IL and Nichole Maury of Kalamazoo, MI

"The 18th Annual Michael A. Carroll ArtReach Exhibition," presenting works created by students as part of the IAC's neighborhood outreach program

For more information about IAC services and classes, go to www.indplsartcenter.org.

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