Assessing Maxwell Anderson's IMA tenure

Maxwell Anderson in 2011.

On Oct. 20, Maxwell Anderson announced that he would step down as the director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art to become director of the Dallas Museum of Art. Most local experts would say that Anderson was a genuine innovator, but some are questioning the IMA’s relationship with the city during his time at the helm.

During Anderson's five-and-a-half year tenure, the IMA sought to expand its presence in the art and museum world. In the digital sphere, the IMA designed and launched ArtBabble, a cloud-based service which features digital content created by partners that include the Art Institute of Chicago and J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. In addition, this year the IMA quite literally crossed borders by organizing the U.S. Pavilion for the Venice Biennale.

“He really put the IMA on the international map in terms of art,” said Christopher West, acquisitions associate at Antique Helper Auctions and former curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art. “With the acquisitions that have happened over his tenure, the (100 Acres) nature park, and certainly the Venice Biennale, lots and lots of eyes have been on Indianapolis.”

Indeed, The New York Times — which has published in-depth features about Anderson's arrival and the opening of 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park — noted Anderson’s departure in an article entitled “Dallas Museum Lands New Director,” published in the Oct. 24 print edition.

“Max was a visionary,” said Katie Zarich, the IMA’s deputy director for public affairs. “He was a very ambitious museum director and he brought out the best in the staff because of that clear vision. He helped people to dream and to share their ideas in order to explore new programs, new exhibitions, new artists, new ways of doing things.”

Anderson’s new ways of doing things sometimes rubbed people the wrong way, according to philanthropist Jeremy Efroymson, whose family’s foundation funded the entrance pavilion at the IMA.

“I think you had a pretty entrenched middle and upper management there that probably needed to be shaken up a little bit,” he said of the period before Anderson’s arrival in 2006. “You really needed someone with a strong personality to come in and move forward at the IMA, and I think he succeeded in doing that.”

Anderson previously served as the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York from 1998 to 2003. He resigned after a conflict with the board.

“We’re talking about a super-smart East Coast guy,” continued Efroymson. “He comes in here and probably has a lot more direct way of dealing with things than we do in Indianapolis, and if he wasn’t that way, he wouldn’t have gotten everything done that he got done.”

Budget and staff cuts

The years of Anderson’s tenure were particularly challenging ones. The economic recession, which began in late 2007, didn’t spare the IMA. The museum’s $315 million endowment took a hit in 2008 and 2009 and spurred $7 million in budget cuts as well as a 10 percent reduction in staff.

Perhaps Anderson's most controversial personnel decision came in 2010 when the IMA eliminated 33 full-time and 23 part-time security guard and gallery attendant positions. This change was part of a comprehensive security revamping which included increased monitoring by electronic surveillance on IMA grounds and the hiring of 14 off-duty police officers to patrol the premises.

Zarich, in an online IMA blog dated Sept. 27, 2010, explained the rationale for the change.

“Unfortunately, we were unable to meet the objectives of enhancing security at 100 Acres; responding to potentially serious incidents that arise on the IMA campus; and reducing the cost of the security program with the previous staffing model,” she wrote.

As part of this new staffing model, approximately 20 IUPUI work-study students are employed, not as security guards, but as “visitor assistants” acting as “trained ambassadors of the museum experience,” according to Zarich.

“All (the former security guards) were invited to apply for jobs in the new security program, but only a handful of them did. All who applied for the jobs in the new program were hired,” Zarich wrote in an email.

Amos Brown III, the host and managing editor of Afternoons with Amos on WTLC-AM, takes issue with the decision to eliminate the security guards’ positions.

“Not only were they a racially diverse group, it was individuals who were predominantly over 40,” he said. “You would expect that kind of treatment out of a big corporation that was searching for profits, not necessarily from a non-profit that’s part of the community.”

Another decision made in the wake of the financial crisis was to discontinue certain educational and children’s programs.

“We did discontinue summer camps and art-making classes as a part of our budget reductions in Feb. 2009,” Zarich wrote in an email. “These programs did not break even, and they were a tremendous drain on our resources. We believed that the Indianapolis Art Center served the community in these same ways.”

Local talent

On the other hand, in regard to the issue of community outreach, the IMA has recently exhibited a number of local artists. In the past few years, Judith Levy and Emily Kennerk mounted exhibitions in prominent museum spaces. In addition, Indianapolis-based conceptual artist Brian McCutcheon’s “Out of this World” is currently showing in the IMA’s Forefront Galleries through March 4, 2012.

And a recent IMA-curated retrospective of the work of Thornton Dial, a self-taught African-American artist based in rural Alabama, seems to demonstrate a significant commitment to the representation of minority artists.

Brown, for one, was impressed by this retrospective — the most extensive showing of Dial's work — which ended Sept. 18 and will travel on to New Orleans, Charlotte, and Atlanta.

“The last time I saw Max, he took me on a tour of Thornton Dial before it opened,” said Brown. “I thought it was a daring exhibit for IMA in terms of the power of the work, the radicalness, if you will, of some of the pieces.”

But Brown also thinks that the IMA’s relationship with the city — and particularly with the African-American community — could’ve been better under Anderson’s tenure.

“The next challenge is for the IMA to return to the balance of connecting to the community,” he said.

This sentiment is echoed by Efroymson. “I think that Max did a lot of international things, and maybe the next person needs to have, to add to that, more of a local emphasis, more local programming, being part of the community, and things like that,” he says.

In general, though, Efroymson isn't surprised to see Anderson depart. “I personally just assumed that he would leave sooner or later,” he said. “Because I think what’s going to happen is … I think that he’s going to end up being the head eventually of a really large museum like one on the coasts. And I think he needed a step from Indianapolis to that. And, plus, Dallas is where his wife’s family is from.”

He added, “Five to seven years for an executive director is quite a long time.”


Arts Editor

Dan Grossman is NUVO's arts editor.