While it didn't exactly come as a shock, the news that Maxwell Anderson decided to leave the Indianapolis Museum of Art to head a museum in Dallas, Texas, was, nevertheless, the kind of bulletin that makes you stop and acknowledge a milestone of sorts.
I think it's fair to say that over the course of his five-plus years in Indianapolis, Anderson became a polarizing figure. It seemed, increasingly, that you were either a fan or a detractor. While some saw this as a sign of dynamism, an inevitable byproduct of ambition, it had to be a hard position to sustain in a town that places maximum value on being a team player.
Indianapolis takes great pride in its volunteerism, peoples' willingness to step up to help make things happen — from food pantries to the Super Bowl. The problem with this approach — apart from the fact that it masks an unwillingness to come to grips with what civic improvements really cost — is that it inhibits strong personalities and makes serious criticism almost impossible. How can you knock the efforts or demand more from people who are donating their time for free?
Indianapolis favors people who get along, who laugh at each other's jokes, root for the home team and keep an even keel. This makes us nice to be around, but it also means that change comes so slowly as to be almost imperceptible. That way no one gets the vapors.
This was not Max Anderson's way. He behaved like a man in a hurry, someone willing to use a sharp elbow to move you out of his road if he thought that was necessary. The result was that in little more time than it takes a kid to enter and graduate from high school, Anderson oversaw the transformation of the IMA from a well-intentioned community resource into a go-to destination, where locals, who had previously relied on visits to other cities for information about what was happening in the cosmopolitan worlds of art and design, could plug-in for the latest news and inspiration.
It's remarkable, when you think about it, how quickly we've come to take Anderson's IMA for granted. This reflects the pent-up appetite for world-class arts experience that continues to grow here. But it also speaks to the size and scope of Anderson's ambition, his understanding of Chicago architect Daniel Burnham's maxim: "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized."
During Anderson's tenure, the IMA opened the majestic 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park. It created a conservation science program and laboratory to help preserve antiquities. Memorable exhibitions included significant shows on Thornton Dial and Andy Warhol, not to mention the dazzling compendium of European Design since 1985. The Toby Theater opened, offering avant-garde performance and film programming. And the museum commissioned the U.S. Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, the Olympics of the art world.
Oh, and Anderson made going to the IMA free again — a move as nervy as it was enlightened.
Anderson understood that, in a constantly morphing cultural landscape, where dollars are harder and harder to come by, it is not enough to ask people for support, you have to make news. This is particularly true in the arts, where the playing field isn't local but, in fact, international. In this setting, big picture thinking isn't an indulgence — it's a life preserver.
Anderson's process made some people uncomfortable, others downright angry. He alienated some local donors, enraged some local artists and exasperated some members of his staff. His effort to make design a major wing of the museum's identity has, apart from the blockbuster European Design show, seemingly fizzled. The acquisition of the Miller House and Garden in Columbus, while historically important, has yet to jell as part of the museum's overall identity. And while Venice was an international coup, it also diverted financial resources during a time when the IMA was scrambling to recover from losses incurred by the 2008-09 stock market crash.
Finally, Anderson's entrepreneurial attempt to create an additional revenue stream through an art consulting service backfired when the museum found itself in the eye of a self-inflicted storm over what to do about works of art, most notably a piece by local artist James Wille Faust, that had previously been commissioned and installed at the new Indianapolis International Airport.
But, like they say, to make a soufflé, you have to crack some eggs. If Anderson, at times, overreached, it was because he was trying not just to put the IMA on the map, but alter the very geography the museum inhabits. Anderson acted on ideas most cultural administrators only contemplate, most notably, the recognition that if museums are to remain relevant in a multi-mediated 21st century, our definition and experience of these institutions must change.
In too many cases, this perception has led museum directors to turn their institutions into faux theme parks. Anderson, on the contrary, turned the IMA into a living laboratory for the research and development of contemporary cultural practice. This has made the IMA — right here in Indianapolis! — not just vibrant, but indispensable. We can only hope the museum's board, in their search for Anderson's successor, will build upon this vision.