There’s no punchline, but the name stuck and the little organization that began with two idealistic artists and a pair of pints has grown to become a certified 501(c)(3) non-profit with a board 10 members strong and over $50,000 worth of fund-raising beneath its belt. They’ve hosted some of Indy’s most unorthodox art events and dabbled in ethical controversy. And while their name is still largely unknown outside the artistic community, Primary Colours has every intention of spicing up the Midwestern palette permanently.
But our story actually begins back in 1997 when things were looking a little more dour. The state of art in Indianapolis was relatively grim for a city of its size, with only two major studio facilities to act as anchors of the artistic community: the Faris Building (closed in 1999), in which artists lived and worked, and the non-residential Stutz Building. There were a handful of upscale galleries, but most catered to traditional painting styles and expensive tastes, leaving little room for experimental and emerging artists. Coffee shops like The Abbey and MT Cup on Massachusetts Avenue welcomed rotating displays of contemporary work, and there were opportunities in a few restaurants and corporate lobbies, but such venues held obvious limitations. Even the local government kept a cool distance from the scene, and the Arts Council itself, under a different administration then, was conspicuously detached from the individual artist. For someone looking to build a name in the art world, exposure to the public is critical — and without a studio to display during publicized open houses, a working relationship with a gallery or the funds to hold one’s own event, the opportunities for a solo artist in Indianapolis were uncomfortably dry.
Chess and coffee at the MT Cup
Against the above tableau, enter our frustrated protagonists: Fred Shields and Jeff Martin, introduced to one another by a mutual acquaintance. Martin, a Morristown High School grad, and Shields, a graduate of Howe, both held BFAs from Ball State University, though they never met on campus. Separately struggling with the prospects for an art career in the Circle City, both were entertaining fantasies about a low-cost warehouse-type exhibition for artists with few professional opportunities. The two struck up a serial dialogue over chess and coffee at the MT Cup, which Martin was managing, and immediately brewed up a project: Allotropy.
The event, several long years in the making, shuffled vaguely through budget pitfalls, logistical hassles and the wafflings of outside individuals involved in its inception. It was not until 1999, when Shields and Martin struck a deal with John Goodman, owner of the building which houses Rock Bottom Brewery, that Allotropy truly coalesced. Shields had attended an art show in the structure’s upper floors that Goodman hosted in the 1980s — a raw, poorly-attended event featuring performance artists from Chicago.
“This city wasn’t ready for it,” Shields says, but over a decade later, when the two approached him with their vision, Goodman was willing to give it another shot. Rock Bottom pitched in as well with the donation of a generous amount of food and beer — refreshments which, in addition to live music, the group saw as essential to keeping the atmosphere relaxed.From left to right, standing: Jeff Martin, Hugh Vandivier, Alan Schoff, Dane Sauer; seated: Jim Clinger, Fred Shields, Brian Myers, Shannan Schaaf
“Allotropy” is defined as “the phenomenon of an element existing in two or more physical forms” — a bombastic name for an event which was conceived to shatter what Martin calls “the perceived pretension of art galleries.” It refers to the cohabitation of music and visual art in the two-day event, the communication moving between the artists, the work they are displaying and those who have come to take it all in — an informal union of ideas.
Local artists speculate that a significant portion of our population is interested in art but may be too hesitant to enter galleries or put off by work they don’t understand. Herron grad and co-creator of arts blog OntheCusp.org Scott Grow describes art as a “complex language ... in a constant state of flux.” That flux, he says, creates a barrier between contemporary artists and the public. Like most Indianapolis natives, Grow only visited the art museum on school field trips and studied a couple Renaissance painters in class; he recalls his art education prior to Herron as distant and formal. “Art to me was just a bunch of interesting stuff by dead guys in big museums.” That sort of limited exposure leaves out several hundred years worth of evolution in artistic expression and form.
Bridging the divide
To bridge the divide between what people are shown in textbooks in middle school and high school and what they are likely to see in a gallery today, there has to be room for dialogue. Allotropy is engineered with that in mind. Artists are on-hand to discuss their work casually with the curious, food and drinks promote mingling and offer something for nervous hands to hold, and live music and other performances jazz things up — at the very least, they provide a subject to fall back on when guests need a break from conversation.
With the help of three weeks’ publicity in Rock Bottom’s weekly newspaper ad, hundreds of handbills, 8-by-10 posters and extensive word-of-mouth promotion — not to mention a giant searchlight out front on the night of the show — the first event, held in May of 2000, drew roughly 800 patrons. Half the proceeds from the sale of tickets, then a mere $2, was donated to the non-profit Urban Arts Consortium. Allotropy was deemed a rollicking success for both the artists and the community, and the unofficial entity which brought it to life saw the enormous potential it represented for Indianapolis.
Exhilarated by the show’s first incarnation and at last under the spell of a shiny new name, Shields and Martin welcomed three new members — artists Dane Sauer, Robert Evans III and Tony Garcia — to Primary Colours. This time around, with the extra manpower and a formula that had already proven itself, the crew needed only six months to regroup. In October of the same year, they pulled it all off again, laying the foundation on which they would build six more such events — three of which were put on without the funding benefits of being an official non-profit. (P.C. wasn’t awarded 501(c)(3) status until 2002.)
Part of Allotropy’s appeal rests on its ambiance, the barren landscape of unoccupied warehouses. Part of its success comes from the strange symbiosis between Primary Colours and the frustrated owners of vacant properties. In 2002, when new P.C. member Larry Endicott approached John Mavris about using Mavris’ former freight-receiving station for the fifth installment of Allotropy, it was a supreme match. Mavris, who had once planned to convert the building at 121 S. East St. into condominiums, was struggling with major structural problems, an elevator that did not function and scores of broken windows. “The place was an unknown mess before they came along,” he says.
In exchange for two days’ use of the space, Primary Colours and the artists in the show performed an exhausting makeover. “The artists [had] to put in several hours of clean-up time on a building that was not nearly ready to show art,” notes Scott Grow, who exhibited in the seventh Allotropy. The cleaning, he says, was the most stressful part of the experience. The work involved was usually significant; before the first event in John Goodman’s property, the team moved machinery, wired electricity, painted, cleaned carpets and fixed plumbing — not to mention hauling an enormous art installation up the fire escape. While they were not equipped to fix all of the building’s damage in Mavris’ case, they made a considerable difference in its appearance. With extensive publicity work, Allotropy V drew another large crowd, and within months, Mavris was receiving a steady stream of inquiries about using his facilities. The next year, he graciously welcomed Allotropy VI. Now the facility, structurally overhauled and renamed the Mavris Arts & Events Center, is a popular banquet site. Goodman’s space at 10 W. Washington is currently home to the Health Department.
Midwestern sports mecca
The vision behind Allotropy will have “a very long-term impact on a town trying to be cultured,” John Mavris says. But no one expects things to change overnight. Mayor Peterson’s cultural tourism plan, announced in 2001, outlines a 10-year $10 million boost to local arts. The Indianapolis Museum of Art, Eiteljorg Museum, Herron School of Art & Design and Indianapolis Art Center have all undergone facelifts within the past two years, and the city saw the opening of iMOCA, its first contemporary art museum. Last year, Indy was the staging ground for a public exhibition of nationally known artist Tom Otterness’ sculptures. Private marketing firms have been brought in to help educate citizens about Indy’s unintentionally hidden treasures, acknowledging the fact that most of the city’s tourists are here visiting family and friends. In addition, regional advertising campaigns have targeted the curious in neighboring states, portraying Indianapolis as more than the sleepy heartland city that plays host to a couple big races each year.Joanna Nixon, Janine Betsey
Getting past the reputation of being a Midwestern sports mecca has proven difficult. For starters, the status is welcome for many businesses that have seen decades’ worth of taxpayer dollars returning with each moment Indianapolis holds the finicky national spotlight. It has become part of the Hoosier identity, which makes sense, says Jim Clinger, who joined Primary Colours in 2002. “There’s a lot of comfort with sports here. You know what you’re getting, more or less, when you buy a Pacers, Colts or race ticket.” Art is a different ballgame with very ephemeral rules. And for artists growing up here or graduating from Herron, the tantalizing proximity of cosmopolitan Chicago or the promise of gallery fame in New York City often seem more realistic than an art career in Indianapolis.
Never mind the relatively inexpensive cost of living, central location, availability of studio space or what artist and gallery owner John Domont calls the “petri dish” nature of the Midwest — artists are still leaving. Which is why, Shields says, Primary Colours wants to make artists aware of the opportunities that are here. In addition to the shows the group puts on and the work each of the board members does individually, Primary Colours actively seeks ways to advocate and empower emerging talent. In 2005, according to Janine Betsey, P.C.’s current treasurer, the board held focus groups with local artists to determine what they really needed to bolster their careers. Primary Colours then approached the Arts Council who agreed to co-sponsor a set of workshops on the business-side of art production.
The Professional Development Series, held last summer, was advertised to all the artists on Primary Colours’ and the Arts Council’s contact lists and mentioned in the council’s weekly e-news letter. Over 125 attendees showed up for the free sessions covering topics such as accounting, grantwriting, portfolio techniques and legal advice — led by professional accountants, representatives of various state art agencies and CALL, a collective of art-advocate lawyers. Primary Colours received resounding positive feedback on the series, Betsey says, with 100 percent of the respondents agreeing the classes had taught them useful new skills and informed them of helpful resources. A second Professional Development Series is planned for this summer, and other area organizations have since developed their own business-advice programs.
The information in the workshops is designed to equip artists with the knowledge and ability to effectively market themselves in an Internet and business-minded culture. The litmus test is the public’s response. A huge piece of Indy’s art scene puzzle is the stubbornly low amount of local art sales; even while the number of attendees at exhibitions and gallery hops like IDADA’s First Fridays continues to grow, the number of items being sold has not caught up. Martin implicates “grazers,” people who frequent shows and galleries and consider themselves patrons of the arts, but who never consider purchasing what they claim to support. “If these people would buy one piece of art per year from any gallery,” Martin says, “the art scene in Indianapolis would dramatically improve.”
Here comes the chain saw
Even so, Paul Baumgarten of S.E.N.D (Southeast Neighborhood Development) is betting on the momentum of Indy’s art community. “We are actively and consciously developing an artistic atmosphere in Fountain Square,” he says, pointing to the Murphy studio complex and the Wheeler Building, which is home to nearly 40 live-in artists. “We are trying to reach a critical mass of creative people.”
With that in mind, S.E.N.D. has no intentions of allowing the Wheeler Building to share the fate of the Faris Building, as it will not be sold or redeveloped. Instead, the organization is focusing on fostering a healthy commercial corridor and attracting the attention of city dwellers who might not know it exists. Expectations are so high, in fact, there are even plans in the works to update the namesake fountain, create a community green space near the square and make the entire area safer for pedestrians.
“We think Art vs. Art ties into everything we’re doing,” says Baumgarten, referring to another Primary Colours project which S.E.N.D. helped market. “It’s an edgy event, very Fountain Square.” The understatement lies in the word “edgy.”
In truth, Art vs. Art, with its slogan “Some Art Will Die,” has awoken an impassioned discussion about how far artists should go to attract an audience — the most controversial point being the show’s infamous “Wheel of Death,” a game-show style wheel inscribed with merciless fates such as “Acid Bath,” “Kill Bill” and “Chain Saw.”