IMA director Venable fends off questions

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IMA director Venable fends off questions

Charles Venable, 53, was appointed Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art in October 2012.

For a chief executive hoping to double attendance at the Indianapolis Museum of Art by reaching "nice, average people" and eliciting support from "other constituencies at the top level," CEO Charles Venable is rather cagey and opaque.

He declines to offer specifics on recent budget cuts, describing recent staff eliminations as taking place "across all departments." While those cuts came quickly in most departments, the knife still hangs over conservation.

The IMA is delaying staff cuts until the annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation is held at the J.W. Marriott (with stops at the IMA) this summer. He says that the delay will allow employees to present papers and network to find new positions. An excerpt from our March 29 interview with Venable:

NUVO: But does each person know whether or not he's losing his job?

Venable: No.

NUVO: Then how can they possibly network?

Venable: I'm not saying they won't know before the conference. At this minute of the day, the answer is no, but we're having a meeting this week, and we're having some other ones to make sure we're evaluating the situation appropriately and making very strategic decisions that in the long run will lessen the impact in the long run.

Asked how the IMA's day-to-day operations would change because of cuts, Venable instead asked this reporter to consider the long-range plans of the museum - how it will look like five years from now, instead of today. It was only when I brought up specific changes that I earned specific answers. To paraphrase two such exchanges: Would the library be no longer open to the public except upon appointment? Yes, but that's a necessary cost-cutting measure. Was the director of publishing and media fired, and if so, how will she be replaced? Yes - but we'll still publish things; we'll just be more selective about what projects to take on and when.

Asking for an exact list of the positions that have been eliminated has been a trial. I've been gently rebuffed on that request several times, least gently by the CEO himself. Here's a passage from my recent interview with Venable:

NUVO: The tricky thing here is that because I don't know the exact nature of the job cuts - and because I can't talk to people laid off because they signed a non-disclosure agreement with their severance package - it's hard to figure out exactly what's going on.

Venable: It'd be inappropriate for you to have a list from us. If Lilly lays off a hundred people, you're not going to get a list from them.

NUVO: Yeah, but people think of the IMA differently than Lilly.

Venable: Well, they might, but we're also an organization that cares about our HR and the privacy of our employees whether they work here now or worked here last. Why would that be any different from a company outside these walls?

NUVO: Well, because of the sense of participation people have in the IMA. They become members and if they don't know what's happening...

Venable: Well, that's fine but that doesn't mean they should have access to employees.

NUVO: Well, I'm not saying employees but to have a sense of what's being restructured.

Venable: [Silence.]

And that's when Katie Zarich, of IMA public relations, who seemed to be acting as a buffer of sorts during my talk with Venable, broke in to again describe the cuts as taking place across all departments. In all fairness, perhaps Venable thought I was requesting a list of past employees' social security numbers and tax IDs, information a good HR department would want to hold on to. But I made it clear I was only trying to get a sense of how staff cuts and other restructuring moves will affect day-to-day operations - and Venable made it clear he wasn't going to talk about it.

Venable talks about running a non-for-profit like a for-profit by attending to the bottom line, making money back on investment, eliminating waste, etc., but his comparison of the IMA to Lilly with respect to transparency and accessibility confounds. One entity is trying to keep a lock on trade secrets; the other, well, I'm not quite sure why the common person shouldn't have access to IMA employees.

Staff cuts were made this year in the absence of salary cuts or furloughs, which were implemented when the museum made budget reductions in 2009. Were such cuts on the table during this round of cost-cutting? "Yes, and the answer is no, because the philosophy was if we were creating from whole cloth the IMA today, where do we need to have certain levels of staffing and where can we get by with a few less?" Venable says. "Unfortunately, they're our colleagues, our friends, real people, but you also have to have a management strategy. Right now I'm getting ready to launch a search for a Director of Development and Marketing. That's a major, major job."

In 2011, the IMA's then-CEO Maxwell Anderson was paid $400,936 in base compensation, plus $139,573 in other reportable compensation, including housing expenses and his cell phone bill. Part of those housing expenses include upkeep of the Westerley Estate, which serves as both a residence for the IMA's director as well as a venue for fundraising events. Venable says that Westerely is "totally" a fundraising tool. "Why else would you live there?" he asks "Do you think my goal in life is to live in a giant 20-room house with a lot of upkeep and people running around?" He also points out that it's par for the course for a chief executive to live in such a home: "It's intriguing to me that the Historical Society's director lives under a house under similar circumstances, IU's president has a big house on Meridian and in Bloomington - and yet for the IMA it seems to be something odd."

It's been "something odd" in part because of a Tweet that Venable sent on the afternoon that layoffs were made at the IMA. It reads: "Celebrated by birthday @ Cafe Ginger here in Houston. Really is like an opulent Beijing eatery. Really good food." Trouble is that Venable wasn't in Houston that day; although he left on a European trip shortly after making layoffs, he was at the museum when the Tweet was posted. Venable says his Twitter account was hacked twice, and also blames a social media tool (Buffer) for holding on to his Tweet for several days (Venable enjoyed the birthday dinner the weekend before). Still, the misfired Tweet has drawn attention to Venable's social media presence. A Facebook page he launched for the Westerley estate was recently taken down, perhaps in response to comments like those by blogger Tyler Green (whom Venable singles out as an irresponsible blogger during NUVO's interview): "House of the IMA director has its own FB page, complete w/ China pairings, renovation pix/plans & assorted opulence. Astonishing. Layoffs... but you can check out china pairings and the IMA director evaluating caterers for a series of dinner parties."

Venable says of the Westerley page that "it's actually being retooled. I've had some conversations on how we want to integrate that into an overall museum umbrella one day, and we have no decisions on that. The Facebook page was created for it because we constantly got bombarded with people who wanted to see the house."

Cutting through the social media noise and following the money, we arrive at the following facts: The new CEO serves at the pleasure of the IMA's board, which brought him in to make cuts. Here's Venable: "There was total clarity on the board's part that there was a $5 million budget gap that the museum needed to correct." Venable may be making those cuts in a maladroit way (even a misfired Tweet can do damage), but he's doing what he was brought in to do - and it's something he's done before. He notes that when he started at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the first thing he had to do was make staff cuts.

The board is deadset on making up for losses sustained during a period when the museum didn't grow as quickly as it had hoped. While IMA management says that the construction bonds on their books will have little or no impact on the museum's long-term financial health, they serve as a reminder of the eagerness with which the board approached the expansion and renovation of the IMA's campus during the '00s. (Moody's affirmed its A1 debt rating of the IMA in 2012, describing the IMA's financial outlook as "negative.")

Venable notes that costs associated with the building are fixed, and that the IMA's attendance consistently hovers at just above 400,000, whereas the building was constructed for use by 1 million people. "Well, you can say it's a burden; I would say it's an opportunity," he says of the building's size. "Why does The Children's Museum get 1.2 million people?"

While the IMA may be embarking on a period of belt-tightening, money can be had when the board is committed to digging it up. Venable says that past or current members of the board contributed almost all of the $1.22 million recently raised to finish an industrial design show that will open this fall. And Venable retains his travel budget. Asked about the cost and timing of the two-week European trip he took after making layoffs, he counters that such questions are misguided: "The goal of the institution isn't to get smaller; it's to get bigger. If you don't invest in the future you'll never have a future."

So many mixed messages. The director who's reluctant to live the life associated with a roughly $500,000 a year salary (including benefits), but who says salary cuts and furloughs are totally off the table. Who notes that the IMA is a "wealthy organization" whose endowment has done "very, very well" but is sticking to a case that drastic changes need to be made to cut costs now - and not gradually - "so we won't be constantly dealing with our finances." Who says he wants to make cuts openly and honestly but has left employees in the conservation department wondering who's going to be eliminated and when.

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