New Year's Eve at the IMA 

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If you thought, as I did, that schools of fish were flocking to your feet as you stood in line at the Indianapolis Museum of Art's Efroymson Entrance Pavilion getting your tickets at the IMA’s New Year’s Eve bash, don’t worry. It wasn’t just your imagination.

Because there were, in fact, images of schools of koi fish projected down on the floor of the pavilion. The koi fish were programmed to flock towards people as they stood in line. And there were certainly a lot of people, judging from the 1000 tickets sold at this event, which sold out. The tickets ranged from $125 to $200 a pop (and with the open bars everywhere it was certainly possible to drink like a fish).

The koi fish were brought to the IMA by the art collaborative Know No Stranger (KNS) working with Purdue University Assistant Professor Estaban Garcia who programmed this interactive installation.

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The IMA has gone big on the idea of collaboration, of course, hiring Scott Stulen, the IMA’s first ever curator of audience experiences and performance, this year. So it’s no accident that IMA’s partnership with collectives Know No Stranger and Big Car — which has done much to bring arts programming to underserved Indianapolis neighborhoods — were highlighted during this New Year’s bash.

Another KNS installation was a seemingly humble manual typewriter (an Olympia) that was hooked up to a Bluetooth digital interface. Patrons were invited to type their New Year’s wishes on the typewriter and have that text projected onto the lip of the balcony overlooking the Pulliam Family Great Hall.

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That text, once the enter key was pressed, travelled from left to right from the balcony lip into a sort of word pond on the Great Hall's wall. This was the repository of New Year’s wishes typed by other partygoers, texts that slowly faded to gray and then black. Each New Year’s wish in this constellation of words seemed to have its own center of gravity—drawing in individual words of other texts—because this installation was programmed with something called a flocking algorithm.

I talked to Mike Runge, a member of KNS—who describe themselves on their website as “a collective of artists facilitating experiences that make a more vibrant and creative Indy.” He viewed the KNS collaboration with the IMA as a watershed moment for this collective.

“This is completely new territory for us,” he said. “Partnering with the IMA has made it possible for us to do something that we’ve never been able to do before.”

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I typed out on the Olympia “Listen to your parents’ music in 2015,” and pressed enter thinking how art history more or less began with the cave paintings of Lascaux, France 17,000 years ago and is ending up with this? My message began to travel left to right across the balcony lip. Then I took a photo of the text with the camera on my Samsung Galaxy Light and texted it to a certain friend.

This friend, who is considerably younger than I am, have an ongoing argument about each other’s musical taste. If anything comes on the radio that’s older than she is, she labels as her parents’ music. I tell her that designation shouldn't necessarily make it unlistenable.

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Speaking of music, I caught up with Kyle Long, who writes a column for NUVO entitled A Cultural Manifesto, which explores all kinds of different musics from all over the world that he comes into contact with as a DJ. He was spinning records on the third floor balcony playing a mixture of pop music mixed with that of Mulatu of Ethiopia, known as the father of Ethio-Jazz, and this music informed the ambience of the bash. People were not dancing yet—that would have to wait until later in the evening.

What people were doing in a big way, in the early hours of the party, was eating and drinking. The Mixology Lounge was stirring up drinks at a sprightly pace—while Scott Stulen deejayed in that space. On the balcony food stations, mounds of all kinds of ethnic and ethnic fusion dishes abounded. My favorite was the Thai meat salad that I washed down with a splash of champagne. At that second floor food station there was a sculpture, incorporating Styrofoam as a medium, called “Lemon Emoji,” by Tré Reising. Taking its cue from emoticons you might see on your smartphone, this particular emoji looks just like a lemon….with testicles.

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One young woman came up to the sculpture and cupped a hand around the lemon testicles, posing for a photograph.

Later I went down to the first floor and looked through the galleries of the American Wing. Just as I was about to relax a little and enjoy the gallery, I stopped in my tracks as a catering employee carrying a tub full of fried shrimp. I found it surprising that the caterers for the night were bringing their trays of food straight through the gallery into the Pulliam Great Hall. Imagine the press coverage the IMA would receive if one of those caterers tripped and got Pollock-like drips of Thai Meat salad all over a Georgia O’Keeffe painting…

I checked out the outdoor lounge. Heat lamps kept the patrons and the bartender warm and toasty and while Laurel and Hardy features were broadcast onto the IMA’s limestone walls. Temptation came to me there not in the form of a young woman but in the form of a cigar offered to me. I declined the cigar at the last moment as my paranoia kicked in; I feared that my insurance rate would go up if nicotine was detected in my system.

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I wandered back inside to see what Big Car was up to. Their contribution to the evening was a printing press. It was manned by staff artist Brent Lehker. He was making screen prints depicting the IMA, designed by Big Car member Andy Fry, on thick white paper. He was using orange paint in his screen print press positioned at the entrance of the Pulliam Great Family Hall when I walked up.

“We’re screen printing mementos for the evening,” Lehker said. “We’re going to print all the way through midnight.” And patrons were free to take a screen print home with them. (I took home two: one colored blue, the other red.)

As midnight drew near, the band for the evening, the Impalas, began to tear through a selection of what might be described well — depending on your age — as your parents’ music (with a couple of exceptions such as “Roar” by Katy Perry). I was somewhat surprised, considering the cutting edge interactive art and DJ Kyle Long’s presence that the IMA would go for this wedding band with a V-8 engine, as it were, playing Top 40 hits from the ‘70s up to the present. “

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But they were very good at what they did, and they had a sea of partygoers on the floor of the Pulliam Great Family Hall dancing their asses off.

It was mentioned in the program that there would be big reveal at midnight.

And I don’t know what I was expecting for the New Year. I had visions of Herron School of Art and Design associate professor Anila Quayyum Agha’s large “Intersections” cube descending from the ceiling and spinning like a disco ball with its shadow-casting light in the center as the lights in the Pulliam Hall draws dark with IMA CEO Charles Venable announcing at the same time that he had acquired it for the museum. (This six foot cube won the Grand Rapids-based ArtPrize juried grand prize as well as the public prize in October 2014.)

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But, alas, this fantasy of mine was not to be. Just before the clock struck midnight the Impalas cleared the stage. And at the stroke of midnight the screen behind the stage shattered into thousands of pieces, getting all over the band’s equipment and behind the shattered screen two saxophonists clad in white blew atonally a la Ornette Coleman to ring in the New Year. After such a fantasy — an admittedly absurd one, I admit — I was feeling a little let down.

Speaking of letdowns, many in Indy, not just in the arts community, are feeling let down by the IMA’s decision to charge a general admission fee starting in April. I must admit that I’m one of them.

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Sure, it can be argued that the IMA is now a hipper place thanks to its innovative programming under Stulen. But it’s hard to argue that the general admission fee makes the IMA more connected to the community, especially to its poorer residents.

I think the museum could do a lot to rectify this, though, by having a weekly free day or evening for Indiana residents rather than just every first Thursday evening of the month as is planned. (Just by way of comparison, the Art Institute of Chicago offers a weekly free evening for Illinois residents from 5 to 8 pm).

I’m not going to lie, though. I’m not going to say I let any of these contradictions bother me while I was ringing, and texting, in the New Year. I had a great time. And I’ll continue to frequent the IMA — my synagogue, my sanctuary, my favorite place in IndianARTpolis — even if I have to pay admission to get in.

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Dan Grossman

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