visual arts review | ongoing

The new Indiana State Museum provides visitors with a family├▒friendly joyride through Indiana history with slick multisensory, hands-on, interactive exhibitions. Video components, buttons to push, music to hear and differing floorplans to stroll through immerse the Average Joe into a subconscious and effective learning experience. It is actually a fun and full sensory encounter with Indiana culture.

That is, until you enter the NiSource, Inc. Gallery on the third floor. The high-tech continuity suddenly breaks and fizzles hard, flattening the experience of viewing the 200 years of Indiana-made fine art that this gallery is dedicated to showing. It"s actually so startlingly sober in contrast to the rest of the facility that it feels like an underdeveloped afterthought.

Museums have evolved into design-heavy entertainment facilities meant to seduce all walks of life through their $7-per-adult doors. Steep admission costs and capital campaigns compensate for the now-absent Daddy Warbucks big-time donors. Museums have full-time staff grant writers who have to prove museum interaction with community, education, children and everything else other than the quality of art to garner funds. Donors would rather contribute $10,000 to have a hallway named after them than anonymously funding fine art acquisitions. And so, art and art experiences have become dictated less by quality than by catering to those who will scrape together dollars to keep the museum afloat. Are museums forgetting how to present fine art?

Doubly dull in the painting gallery were the taupe-colored walls that struck awkward angles. I suppose this was done to break up the monotonously sanitary-toned space and add a dynamic energy to the room. Plunked down in the center of this space are two free-standing exhibition walls, moveable I hope, that face each other and contain mostly Hoosier Group favorites. I watched about 30 people enter the gallery and bumper car off of each other, not knowing what kind of a traffic pattern to follow. The gallery space didn"t flow or represent how the rest of the museum was handled. There was no obvious topic, theme or other explanation to guide visitors through it.

Most people seemed seduced into the gallery by John Domont"s two large and glowing color landscapes near the entrance. After that, they consistently made their way to the large window in a corner of the room that juts over the canal to check out the view.

Those free-standing walls, by the way, are painted a too-bright shade of French blue. It"s so bright it dulls the rich colors of extraordinary paintings like "Pastoral" by Richard B. Gruelle. "The Bridge," an expressionistic landscape by William Forysth, has so much blue in it already that it only made me dizzy, hung as it was against the overpowering blue on the walls.

Work was crammed together. Did the museum feel the need to exhibit every single piece in their collection (or so it seemed) in this new, climate-controlled space? "The Confers," by Thelma Confer, hung only 2 inches away from "Acme Milling Co." by Harry Davis. That"s not close, it"s cluttered. Placed at an open end of an exhibition wall, the Confer piece was hanging crooked, no doubt the result of being elbowed by a patron cutting the corner too close.

Paintings were shoved into the corners of the mostly useless interior wall configurations. The viewer is forced to view large-scale work at close range in this tight space. "Still Life," by John Otis Adams, is too large to be placed in one of these cupped ends. Only when you stand directly in front of it can you begin to see it properly. Forsyth"s "Dahlias" has to be viewed within 8 feet (with a slight glare) or less before you back into an exhibition wall. A Willie Faust piece was tucked behind one of the weird room exterior wall angles next to the emergency door exit. You have to turn around to look at it. One woman commented, "Is this art?" and then promptly walked to the window.

And one more thing. Where was the security guard when an early 20-something woman, admiring the T.C. Steele portrait of James Whitcomb Riley, slowly wiped her hand across it?

The NiSource Inc. Gallery space is awkward for the art and for visitors. It"s as if the museum is saying, "Here"s our art!" and that"s it. Compared to other exhibitions, there is nothing to effectively engage or guide the Average Joe through the work or tell the stories of styles, influences, technique and successes of the rich fine arts heritage of our state. It does the art, the artists represented and the Indiana State Museum"s ambitious contemporary collection an injustice.


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