Maxwell Anderson's announcement that he was leaving his post as The Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art for a job with the Dallas Museum of Art brought a transformative chapter in the history of Indianapolis' chief arts institution to a close.
Over a five-year period, Anderson presided over changes at the IMA that would make it one of America's most respected encyclopedic museums.
During Anderson's tenure, the IMA established itself as significant venue for contemporary art, with the opening of 100 Acres, The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park. The museum also served as host for the United States Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale.
Anderson oversaw the museum's technological makeover, launching such projects as AMICO, documenting the collections and activities of art museums, and ArtBabble, which posts videos from museums around the world.
On Anderson's watch, the IMA undertook a major design initiative and opened The Toby, a multi-purpose performance space. He championed policies and design fixes that made the museum building one of the greenest facilities of its kind in the United States, and succeeded in getting his fellow museum administrators to adopt 1970 as the cut-off date when considering the acquisition of archaeological material and ancient art.
Anderson was outspoken in his opposition to censorship. He joined a lawsuit against every prosecutor in the State of Indiana to strike down a statute abridging freedom of expression.
Anderson, who starts his new job in January, recently met with NUVO in his office at the IMA for an exit interview.
NUVO: When you first arrived at the IMA, you revoked a recently levied admission fee, making museum admission free of charge again. Can you revisit your thought process at that time?
Anderson: I do think a lot about how a museum is a resource for its public. Having spent years looking at how museums operate financially, versus how they're perceived to operate, I recognized that admission revenue is, for the most part outside of Manhattan, a virtually negligible sum. The exceptions are spikes around major, blockbuster shows that come and go. But, year-to-year, it isn't that important — three-to--four percent of most museum budgets around the country.
NUVO: It also seemed to be a statement about wanting the museum to be as publicly accessible as possible.
Anderson: That was the overarching goal, but you couldn't make it happen unless the other ingredients were in the stew because if it were a financially unwise decision it would have been hard to make. But it wasn't.
By having paid parking now we hope that two things happen: one, we drive membership so that people say, well, that's an aggravation; but I'm going to finally join. It's kind of like NPR and WFYI, where you say, OK, I'm gonna do this thing. Otherwise it's still pretty painless. For a carload of four people, it's a buck-25.
So we're trying to live within our means, but at the same time, be as open and available as possible.
NUVO: You led the IMA through a technological awakening. Why is technology important for encyclopedic institutions?
Anderson: I guess moving [to Indianapolis] was also moving to a place that wasn't the center of anything other than Indiana. Hoosiers don't arrogate to themselves the right to be central very much. That's a mindset that doesn't, in many respects, seem appropriate. Being a good place to live, being a place which is family-oriented, being a place which is convivial, is a high value set.
So what I began to look for, when I arrived, were the ways this museum could distinguish itself nationally, internationally, as well as serving a local interest and need. Really making ourselves a place of convening seemed to me to be in the spirit of this region and in the spirit of our city.
What's distinctive about what we do with technology is that unlike, say, MOMA [the Museum of Modern Art] would go out and build a battleship and say, see what we did? Aren't we great? We took an opposite tack. We said, what can we do with technology that will benefit our constituents and benefit the field? Then we're doing something that matters nationally and internationally, we're also improving the field of art museums and, not coincidentally, we're giving something to our visitors, whether it's the tap tour to experience exhibitions, whether it's the Dashboard to learn more about how our museum operates, whether it's the debut of online scholarly publishing that we've just announced with Chicago that is going to make reading scholarship from our collections easy and accessible.
They've all been free, open-source, given away, grant-supported. The other magic bean here was the change with federal grants, that we got very few of, to a lot of federal grants, millions of dollars of federal grants, with federally negotiated overhead rates, so when you get a big grant, part of the grant pays for salaries. It benefits the bottom line.
Innovation was not, as some have painted it, a vanity project. It was financially responsible. Innovation brought lots of new support to offset core expenses of operations, particularly salary expenses.