Gallery owner Mark Ruschman still energized after 20 years Jim Walker Listen
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to part 2 of the interview via mp3 After the opening of his November show with local artists Paul Harris and Michael Begley packed in 500 people who drank 50 bottles of wine and bought lots of work, longtime art gallery owner Mark Ruschman didn't kick back and bask in one of his biggest successes. Instead, he made his way to the Murphy Art Center in Fountain Square, cracked open a can of beer and chatted with revelers at that month's First Friday after-party. Just a day before, Ruschman drove around town delivering gallery maps for the Indianapolis Artist and Dealers Association, which he helped start. Twenty years into running his downtown gallery and working the whole time to cultivate a cultural scene here, nobody could blame Ruschman if he decided to step back and let Indianapolis take care of itself. He represents a long list of nationally known artists and has hundreds of regular patrons in the habit of buying art. He's made it. So why worry about the rest? "'Why not just take mine and be happy with it?' People ask me that all of the time," he says with a ready smile as he sits in his space along Alabama. "For one, where I am right now is a product of the early years on Mass. Ave. with everybody pulling for each other. Really, this whole activity with IDADA and my interest in making the bigger picture happen is an extension of that. I'm always looking for that next challenge. It keeps me energized." Planting the seed
Originally from the East Coast, Ruschman moved to the Eastside of Indianapolis with his family in 1964. He graduated from Warren Central High School, which was then considered something of a country school, before moving to Bloomington for an art education degree. Growing up, Ruschman had little connection to the art scene here and only visited downtown Indianapolis for Christmas shopping at Blocks or L.S. Ayres. After graduating from IU, Ruschman worked briefly as a graphic artist, but soon fell in love with the tiny gallery scene along a Massachusetts Avenue much different than what we see today. There were no trendy coffee shops or boutiques. This was skid row: boarded up windows in condemned buildings, winos on every corner. So, in 1985, Ruschman took over one of those vacant spaces on the 400 block for $600 a month. At 26, he was a gallery owner. "I had always been interested in the business of art. I was trained as an artist. I have a degree in art education. But I'm not very good at either one. So I was looking for my niche. And, at that time, Mass. Ave. was just kicking off and I went to a couple of openings. And I was really intrigued with the whole operation," he says. "I didn't have any experience working in a gallery or anything like that. It was just my interest that carried me through. So, with my limited carpentry skills, I managed to build a white box gallery in the 421 space." Suddenly, Ruschman was doing many things - beyond carpentry - he had never done before. "I had a goal I was shooting for, which was to open a gallery and sell fine art. If I had thought about all of those things I knew nothing about, I probably would have never done it. It's a business that has a lot of its challenges. Sometimes being ignorant helps. If you think about it too much, if you get too caught up in all of the details of it, then you'd never make that leap," he says. "From that point on, it was a real eye opener. I didn't have any experience selling anything." It helped that he didn't have a lot to lose. Single and living in what was then a low-rent district near the Avenue, Ruschman helped make ends meet as a bartender at the Chatterbox. "It was really an interesting time because I didn't have a lot and I didn't need a lot. It was all about the experience and the scene. Mass. Ave. was the Wild West of Indianapolis," he says. "A lot of things were done on a shoestring - holding onto an idea and running with it - like some of the ideas that are taking place in Fountain Square right now." At the time, Ruschman was literally on top of his world. "I was living on the 17th floor in the South Tower, so I had a view of the whole city. You just had an eye on the world in that regard. I was looking right down on Mass. Ave. And the whole idea of being on the Avenue, running a business, was reinforced all of the time," he says. He knew then that Massachusetts Avenue and downtown Indianapolis were home. "When I left Bloomington, I half anticipated that I would just stop through here, make a couple of bucks, move somewhere else," he says. "I realized there was some opportunity here. So I decided to give it a shot. I had family here, so there was a support system. But, in the end, it was just what I could pull together and what I could pull off." Cultivating a scene
Beyond developing his own business, Ruschman and the other cultural and business leaders he worked with along Massachusetts Avenue had a vision for this historic stretch of street in the skyscrapers' shadows. They opened hip art galleries and bars - soon to be followed by theaters and restaurants. They formed community groups, including the Riley Area Development Commission, of which Ruschman is president. They supported each other as friends, neighbors and fellow business owners. They made a group effort to save this sagging part of the city through art and culture. And it worked. "This was very much a grass-roots effort. It really came down to the individuals or small groups of individuals getting together and getting things done," Ruschman says. "In those days, it was a sense that there was always something going on - through the art scene or through Riley Area and being involved with other people in the neighborhood. A real sense of camaraderie existed. Everybody was pulling for each other. There was a support system. Business owners supported each other. David Andrichik from the Chatterbox would come down and occasionally buy something. Then we'd all wind up spending the money in his bar. That really contributed to that scene. There was this synergy and everybody was working toward this common goal of making the Avenue work." Eventually, the city noticed the success that arts and culture had helped bring to the Avenue. "It started to recognize there was value. And that really laid the groundwork for what's going on with the Avenue now," Ruschman says. "The early days gave Mass. Ave. an authentic quality of not being this manufactured mall where development happened in a year or two. It happened over a long period of time. A lot of characters came and went. A lot of rich history there. And that gave the Avenue the footing to do what's going on there today." And it helped with the city's ongoing focus on developing neighborhoods through the arts. "I've got to believe that the powers that be sat down and looked at Mass. Ave. and what had happened there and said, 'We can expand on this.' There's investment in the Avenue. Over the years, galleries came in, restaurants came in, businesses came in," he says. "Anybody who looked at that could see there was a formula that works. It provided a road map for what else could happen in the city." The experience left Ruschman with a personal sense of community, an understanding of the importance of arts-minded people working together to create a greater good. "This business is about building relationships with the customer, with the artist, with the community, with your next-door neighbor, so that everybody is moving in the right direction," he says. Some new seeds
By the late-1980s, more than 10 galleries lined a few blocks along Massachusetts Avenue. Eventually, the face of the neighborhood began to change and Ruschman - who tired of reminiscing with everyone who stopped in about the Avenue in its "good old days" - moved, nine years ago, to his current location a few blocks north at 948 N. Alabama St. With the neighborhood well-established, Ruschman turned three years ago toward starting and maintaining IDADA, the group responsible for launching the First Friday Gallery Tour every month, and the group determined to take the ideas that made Massachusetts Avenue thrive and apply them to Indianapolis as a whole. While far from all it does, IDADA's highest profile effort has been the First Fridays - starting early this year with shuttles taking patrons around to the member galleries in the downtown area. Organizers eventually discontinued that service due to funding and logistical issues. But First Fridays have continued with considerable success as an event. "Not having the shuttle is unfortunate. And it may be revived at some point," says Ruschman, who serves as IDADA's president. "I'm glad that we did it because it brought us incredible name recognition and business recognition. A lot of people were talking about it. "In a very short time it had gained some footing. We found that people liked having all of the galleries open the same night. And we found that the smaller venues could participate in the event without spending tons of money on advertising and promotions. If they can piggyback along and benefit from the fact that people know that art venues are open the first Friday of every month, then that's just a win-win for everybody." Enjoying the bounty
Now 47, Ruschman and his wife, Nancy, have two young children, Will and Alex. He's quick to point out the importance of support from his family and from Telenene Edington, assistant director at the gallery for 16 years. Likewise, he still speaks about his job with enthusiasm. "The gallery is like a stage. Every month, you're changing that setting. Every month, the event takes place, the opening," he says. "And people are coming in and experiencing something new. That, in itself, is kind of what this business is all about - creating the environment for people to appreciate these kinds of things." Filtered through Ruschman's taste, refined over the years, his shows have a collective cohesiveness that isn't always seen at galleries. "That's a conscious effort on my part. If I was going to go the other route and put my finger in the wind and try to figure out what's going on, that's a whole different business model," he says. "When somebody walks in and sees the work on the wall, it's not going to be something they're going to confuse with a hundred other things they've seen. The first thing I hope they're going to notice is the quality of the work, that it's unique and that it is very much of the artist's hand. "Whether it's very hands-on work or very minimal work, there's a strong sense of the artist's physical hand on the work and also the thought process that went into it. This work is more than just knocking them off the assembly line and doing long edition runs and framing them up nice and sticking them on the wall and hoping they sell." This approach lends itself well to showing and selling medium- and large-scale sculpture in the space. "So few others in town are doing it. I really enjoy it. I have a real appreciation for it and I enjoy selling it," he says. "People ask, 'Why are you selling this?' One answer is I really enjoy it. Another answer is: Nobody else is. I'm filling that niche." Ruschman is always looking for new people to fill the niche as customers, too. "Being around this long, people know about you. I do my best to keep my name out there and stay visible without compromising myself or the artists. If you can keep a base of collectors of a couple hundred, I think you're in pretty good shape with that," he says. "But you obviously have to keep adding to that. Because, over time, people will move on and do something else. Having been around 20 years, I'm now selling to kids of the people who I started selling to." Still, he'd like more people to get interested in art in Indianapolis. "The trick is getting people comfortable enough in their own skin so they'll actually spend the money. Jeff Martin, who owned the J. Martin Gallery before it closed recently, said if everybody in the city who went to an opening bought one piece of art [each year] from any gallery, it would have a significant impact on the local art scene," Ruschman says. "And it's true. A lot of people are going to galleries. We want people to come here. We want people to look. And that's important. But if every one of those people made one purchase a year, it would have a significant impact. It would send the right message to artists who are practicing here, to gallery owners. "It's just putting that money out there and allowing people to turn around and spend that money in another art venue or buying supplies or paying rent or whatever. I won't say it's a small group of people that fuel the art scene. But its one we want to see grow." Visit www.ruschmangallery.com
for more about Ruschman's gallery or IDADA.