The building is iconic: a Michael Graves creation designed specifically for the purposes of making, showing and discussing art. Standing as it does on the southern bank of the White River, on the northern edge of Broad Ripple Village, surrounded by an arts park also designed by Graves (and cleverly dubbed ARTSPARK), the Indianapolis Art Center complex is one of Central Indiana's cultural landmarks. But the building is no more iconic than the woman who dreamed it into existence.
For the past 33 years, Joyce Sommers has headed up the Art Center, its first - and, to this point, only - executive director. In that position, Sommers has turned what was more or less a lively little club for hobbyists (with a few veterans on hand to teach classes) into one of the largest, best-known community art centers in the country, with a faculty of more than 150 practicing artists and a student population that topped 50,000 in the 2007-2008 fiscal year.
In addition to offering classes in everything from painting and sculpture to glass blowing and animation, the Art Center is an award-winning community arts provider, with outreach programs that span audiences from disadvantaged inner-city children to disabled adults. It also has a vibrant exhibitions program, staging shows by local and regional artists, as well as by faculty members and students; and it periodically hosts speakers ranging from famous writers and artists to acclaimed curators and arts administrators.
But when Sommers assumed the newly created post of executive director in 1976, the organization - which was known then as the Indianapolis Art League - was a thriving, yet small, operation run by volunteers. The Art League opened its first Broad Ripple building the same year that it hired Sommers (who already had served in various volunteer positions with the organization for five years), a 10,000-square-foot wood-sided facility that came to be known affectionately as the art shack. It was there that Sommers got her on-the-job training.
"We were both naïve," Sommers said recently, referring both to herself and the Art League at the time when she was hired. "They had never paid anyone to lead the organization before and I had never had that sort of job. Fortunately for everyone, it worked out."
Finding herself in a building in Broad Ripple was familiar territory for Sommers, who had grown up in the area and graduated from Broad Ripple High School. After attending Indiana University, she married Jan Sommers and settled into domestic life; their family eventually included four children. But the urge to participate rather than merely watch from the sidelines led Sommers to volunteer with the local chapter of UNICEF, which she headed up for four years; that was her first brush with leadership, albeit on a voluntary basis with few of the nitty-gritty responsibilities she would come to have later.
In 1971, her friend Marilyn Price, an experienced artist, encouraged Sommers to take a class at the Art League. In true Sommers fashion, it wasn't long before she made the leap from student to volunteer, then to board member and finally to president of the board. She resigned from that post when the League hired her as its executive director. Soon after, the organization moved into the art shack, taking Sommers back to her roots in a sense, but also allowing her to envision a future for the Art League that gradually surpassed anything anyone else had ever imagined.
A product of the Great Depression-era Works Progress Administration, the Art League began as a small painting class for 10 local women, taught by painter Bill Kaeser. Over the years, the group grew, but until Sommers came along, no one had ever foreseen it being more than a small organization of like-minded folks learning to draw and paint while enjoying a cozy club-like camaraderie. Sommers saw it as something more: a true community art center, open to everyone from aspiring amateurs to accomplished professionals.
But not immediately. "It's easy to think that I always had a vision for the organization," Sommers said, "but I had no idea what I was doing at first." What she was doing was figuring out if she'd made the right choice when she accepted the job. "I definitely did not imagine a lifetime career," she said. "I didn't have a depth of passion at the time. I don't know where along the timeline a whole new life opened up for me, but it did. And I just started building."
The building process began, not with a physical construction process - that was off in the future - but with a philosophical one. She began gathering around her people whose creativity and knowledge inspired her. She began reading widely on issues ranging from leadership to spirituality. And she ventured out into the community and began talking with people from artists and fellow non-profit administrators to business executives and philanthropists. "I was coming at my job from the idea of building a better community. I didn't have vision - most of what I did in the early days just made sense to me."
But not to all the people on the Art League's board; some of them objected to Sommers spending time outside of the office. She prevailed by showing them just how she was applying what she was learning to her day-to-day duties. And she continued her education, taking classes in art history and attending management training. It wasn't a sequential approach she said, but it was effective. "Some of it was just absorbing knowledge as I went along," Sommers said. "I'm a generalist, so I could tie things together. And where I felt I was weak, I would bring in people with the skills or knowledge I felt I was lacking."
In the process of educating herself and improving the Art League's operations, Sommers gained confidence, and what had been just a job became an essential part of who she was. The more confident she became in herself, the more confident she became in her ability to transform the Art League into something more than it had ever been. A visionary was born.
More than anything else, it's her reputation as a visionary that has come to define Sommers, especially since it was her vision that led her to commit what is probably one of the most audacious acts ever by a local arts administrator: a campaign to raise $8.5 million to commission and construct a building by internationally renowned architect (and fellow BRHS grad) Michael Graves. Faced with a report by a nationally known consulting firm that predicted the best the Art League could hope to raise was $2.5 million, Sommers asked her board to help prove that prediction wrong.
Over the course of the following five years, the organization (which, in the process, was renamed the Indianapolis Art Center to better represent a collective view of its role in the community) raised the required funds and in June 1996 opened the doors of the facility that became a must-see for architectural buffs, as well as a wildly popular place among artists who flocked to its state-of-the-art studios. The building remains the highlight of Sommers' career. "It represents a bigger vision," she said, "and the realization of that vision."
Now, with retirement imminent and her successor recently announced - local non-profit professional Carter Wolf - Sommers said she's happy with what she has accomplished over the past 33 years. But she deflects all attempts to give her more credit than she's due. "I think I brought the Art Center up to a new standard. And we brought the community in - it's not a club anymore. But my greatest pride is that other people have felt like I did. They had the same dreams I had and they're as responsible for what it has become as I am."
As much as she has enjoyed guiding the Art Center to its current status as one of the city's cultural leaders, Sommers says it's time for someone else to take the reins, bringing new passion and new visions to the organization. "My job was to be the lightning rod, but to be a lightning rod, you have to have lightening strikes. Fortunately I did."
To learn more about Joyce Sommers, visit www.joycesommers.com.
As the former visual arts writer for
The Indianapolis Star, S.L. Berry has known Joyce Sommers for 15 years. He is also the author of two books about the Art Center:
For the Sake of Art: A History of the Indianapolis Art Center (1999) and
Fanning the Flame: The Indianapolis Art Center Turns 75 (2009).