The Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art's new CityWay location, opening Oct. 3, is the 12-year-old non-profit's first gallery "made for the purpose of exhibiting art," according to executive director Shauta Marsh. Founded as a "museum without walls" in the interest of catching up with similarly sized cities with contemporary art museums, iMOCA roamed from venue to venue during its first three years of life, putting on events such as an installation at the Stutz during its annual open house and a screening of Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle at Key Cinemas. It found a semi-permanent home in 2004 at the Emelie Building (now home to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library), before moving in 2009 to its Fountain Square space at the Murphy Arts Center. Both locations came with drawbacks: "In the Murphy we've had to fight with the space at different times," says Marsh.
Not that iMOCA is leaving Fountain Square behind. The museum is expanding from one gallery to two, from doing six annual shows to eight. The new 3,000 square foot location, separated by a courtyard from South Street and connected to The Alexander Hotel, was created in partnership with CityWay parent Buckingham Companies, which wanted to add a rotating gallery to complement The Alexander's permanent collection of contemporary art. It'll primarily feature 2D work, and, in turn, the Fountain Square gallery will become iMOCA's home for installation or sculptural art.
The move comes a little more than two years since Marsh, then new to her job as executive director, gambled big on iMOCA's future, putting all the money in its depleted coffers toward two relatively expensive shows: a tenth anniversary exhibition featuring the increasingly acclaimed LaToya Ruby Frazier and a group show, The Natural World, pairing videographer Min Kim Park with photographer (and onetime MTV News reporter) Tabitha Soren. "I decided that if we were going to go out of business, we were going to go out of business on top," she says. The bet paid off: National foundations began inviting iMOCA to apply for grants, Vanity Fair and other influential publications covered The Natural World, and a wider variety of local donors — both individual and corporate — began to contribute.
iMOCA was founded at a time when Indianapolis museums were not particularly well-known for their contemporary programming. That's no longer the case. The Indianapolis Museum of Art hosted the U.S. pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, becoming the second Midwestern museum (the other being the Art Institute of Chicago) to do so. The Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship has awarded $1,125,000 to Native American artists since 1999, challenging perceptions of what constitutes Native art along the way. And the Indiana State Museum has hosted groundbreaking shows of work by 20th century Hoosier artists in its White River State Park location, notably this year's retrospective of the nearly forgotten James Russell Spencer.
The question might then be asked: If the city's dominant institutions are increasingly aware of the importance of contemporary art, then does Indianapolis really need a contemporary museum? After all, the competition for funding is fierce — and the IMA, Eiteljorg and others have a huge head start. But one might argue that iMOCA has made a case for its continued existence by commissioning the kind of work that the city's other museums or galleries are unlikely to mount.
Shows like Slava Mogutin's In the Name of Love, an August 2013 show that was tame by the Russia-born photographer's own standards (his work is often in some kind of dialogue with gay porn), but that prompted someone (not Vladimir Putin) to ask Marsh at the opening, "Shauta, are you trying to shock people?" Or a Dec. 2013 pairing of new work by the Nigeria-born Toyin Odutola with landscape paintings by a Florida-based group of self-taught, African-American artists who created over 200,000 paintings from the mid-'50s to the '80s. Or the show currently on display at iMOCA's Fountain Square gallery, The Black Knight Archives: Chapter 1, Migration, which tells the saga of a fictional, Black Panther-esque organization through artifacts created by Chicago artist Ian Weaver.
The Andy Warhol Foundation, which bills itself as "the preeminent national funder of innovative contemporary art" (and is selling off its entire Warhol collection to keep that title), helped to fund the aforementioned shows when, in 2013, it awarded iMOCA the Wynn Kramarsky Freedom of Artistic Expression Award, given to "organizations with a deep-seated commitment to preserving and defending the First Amendment Rights of artists." The award came with a $50,000, two-year grant for exhibitions and was, as past executive director Jeremy Efroymson puts it, "a real stamp of approval from a national funder that we're really doing great work."
Another stamp of approval came when Lisa Freiman, then the contemporary art chair at the IMA, suggested to Buckingham Properties's Brad Chambers — who was looking to build on the successful permanent art collection that Freiman had helped to curate — that he might invite iMOCA to move to The Alexander. "When I was leaving Indianapolis, I suggested, 'You should really speak to the people at iMOCA because they have an incredible program that's really ambitious and matches the approach we took at The Alexander," Freiman says. "It would allow them to have a more prominent space, plus it would add a lot of value to the experience at the Alexander." But the partnership might have remained a good idea if iMOCA board member Brandon Judkins hadn't "picked up the ball," as Marsh puts it, hashing out preliminaries with Buckingham before bringing the proposal to the board. And after a year's worth of negotiations and buildout, the space will open with a free party Oct. 3 featuring Richard Mosse's infrared photography of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (up through Dec. 20), as well as a concert by Asthmatic Kitty recording artist Helado Negro.