This year's closing of Ruschman Art Gallery and the shift of G. C. Lucas Gallery to a virtual presence provided local arts watchers with a large helping of food for thought. These events signaled significant changes to the city's arts landscape, at the very least a changing of the guard.
If the business model for most art galleries in Indianapolis looks more like a leap of faith than ever, this hasn't kept people from opening new venues. Small-shop galleries, with the potential to open minds more directly, literally at street level, continue to appear. Among the newer protagonists on the gallery scene, three relatively recent arrivals offer different models for providing high quality, contemporary art by living artists. Work that is of the moment, but that also offers something new, sometimes even radical.
These spaces are looking to show the work of artists who are on a track to make art seriously - to show, to grow, and to become better known - and, of course, to sell their work.
It's a business model, certainly, but with a twist.
The art is for sale, but the galleries selling it do so because they believe in art - not just for its own sake, but for the possibilities it introduces to a community in terms of collective self-reflection and cultural diversity.
Upsizing at the Stutz: Jason Myers' ARTBOX
Jason Myers, who grew up just north of Indianapolis, in Logansport, opened ARTBOX gallery in April of 2007 as an extension of his design firm in the Stutz Business Center. Myers, a youngish 37, left Indiana to pursue his BFA and MFA elsewhere, but came back - and seems committed to Indianapolis and its possibilities as a growing city.
Myers, also a practicing artist, says he opened ARTBOX for several reasons: "One big reason was that I really saw a need for a local venue that was capable of showing large-scale work." Large-scale, in this case, can mean 25-30 foot paintings.
He adds, "We really needed to have more space to exhibit work for the purpose of connecting the artists with the designers that we work with." Myers and his colleagues at Myers Design work with clients all over the country to design spaces and fabricate interiors, including furniture.
Taste is subjective, of course; but design clients may not always know how to connect with artists or know where to start when it comes to selecting work. So there's an educating process that Myers must engage in if he plans to sell art.
Myers' artists aren't selected for their sofa-matching suitability. As Myers explains, "Essentially what I've tried to put together as far as a stable of artists are people that work in what I consider to be new or different or creative approaches to making their art."
There's the focus on larger scale artists, even some installation work, but Myers hopes that his artists "are doing something that you would not typically see in Indianapolis. Our underlying philosophy is people who push their mediums and their creative context in their work."
ARTBOX artists are mostly based in Indianapolis, with about 25-30 percent, Myers says, from out of the state and out of the country, including Europe. There is no shortage of "good" artists in Indianapolis, Myers believes, from just starting out to well-established - and many of these artists choose to stay for the possibilities that galleries such as ARTBOX offer.
Myers admits, "Indianapolis is a really tough market as far as the community being involved. I think that's probably one of the hardest things for a gallery in Indianapolis to overcome, is to get the community interaction."
Difficult, but not impossible - otherwise, why bother? "I think it really forces the galleries to direct their energy towards being creative and finding new ways to engage the public." Each gallery fills a sort of niche - if it doesn't, then it's just another storefront selling art.
"I do feel that we fill a very specific niche," Myers reiterates. "I would like to believe that we produce shows that are always unexpected. That's what keeps people coming back to ARTBOX."
Who are those people? Myers claims they represent all walks of life, and parts of town - from downtown Indianapolis to the suburbs. Among those who actually purchase the art, "I see a change in people who have collected art for a long time; I see a lot of change in their collections, I see them moving into more cutting edge work."
As art patrons become more educated about the possibilities beyond traditional expressions and mediums, they become more open to and excited about alternatives.
"I think they need something new and they desire something new, and they really just don't know about it. You see so much landscape painting, and so much of these really traditional forms of art making in Indiana, and a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that's what people buy here, and that's what they want to see. I don't think that's true. I think that's the reason people disengage, because they've seen that before.
"Christopher West is a good example of that. He's constantly trying to bring something new that hasn't been seen. I think that's a big ticket to community interaction."
Downsizing on the Avenue: Christopher West Presents
Christopher West, former curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (iMOCA), opened "Christopher West Presents" last October on Massachusetts Avenue. West arranged to lease the space - an intimate 13' x 13' room attached to the Dean Johnson Design gallery, where work by local and regional designer-artists has been exhibited for several years - in exchange for offering curatorial services to the firm, which would like to establish a stronger presence in the community showing contemporary, design-related shows.
West, like Myers, is an Indiana native. He has extended the sensibility he established at iMOCA, showing work by non-traditional artists making a name on the national scene, including Indianapolis based artists. "It's a combination of bringing young contemporary art stars to Indianapolis as well as helping to promote some of the local talent that I've been involved with for a number of years... and also bringing it to Mass Ave, which, I think, is more accessible to collectors," West explains.
What does West look for? "The 'wow' factor," he says unequivocally. "It's got to be exciting and fresh." Hard qualities to quantify, but West, like any curator worth his or her wall space, follows his hunches. "I spend all day every day looking at art, so I see a lot of it; so I'm really looking for the stuff that stands out to me."
West says his latest show, featuring the photography-based work of Craig Doty, was well received. Yet the work could be considered difficult and even offensive to some. Doty's subject matter is women striking allegorical poses, not necessarily caught in their best light. But that may be the point: when art becomes the subject of discourse, there's an opportunity for greater understanding of art's role in the culture.
Edginess is not a prerequisite, West adds. "Contemporary art doesn't have to push boundaries. It can simply be beautiful." At the same time, West does like to "push it," as he says. "When I've done shows for the past five years," referring to his work at iMOCA, "every time we tried to push it a little bit, those shows were the best received by the audience." West's sentiments echo ARTBOX's Jason Myers, who believes Indianapolis is starting to move beyond its previous comfort zone.
Sometimes you have to be willing to meet the audience halfway. "One of the goals of having this ground floor space on Mass Ave is to be accessible," West says. "Some of the work may, from time to time, be challenging, but at the same time I want to encourage the interaction with the neighborhood."
West recalls a couple that wandered in off the street on a recent fall weekend. "They turned to me and said, 'Thank you. We've been looking for a place like this in Indianapolis.'" Other passers-by have walked in, raised an eyebrow, and walked back out. But West doesn't see that as a bad thing. "If I do a show that appeals to everyone's taste I'm doing something wrong."
West's small space can only show single installations or modest-sized shows of hung work and freestanding work, but if that work is powerful, West's point of view as a curator will come through. Again echoing Myers, in order to reach anyone at all, West says, "You've got to be creative these days. I think the economy is definitely a part of it."
And with the city's refocused attention on public art - the Arts Council of Indianapolis and Herron School of Art have made inroads in that direction - the culture here may indeed be shifting. The old "build it and will they come" model doesn't always work, but if Indianapolis is going to remain compelling at any level, quality of life is crucial. The arts in general are a widely-accepted aspect of that.
West concedes that "There's still the educating the audience part." If you build it, they won't necessarily come. "Part of my job is sitting down with people and talking about the work and broadening their understanding." That's the beauty of street-level, and West's presence in his own space: when the next couple wanders in, the work doesn't have to speak for itself. West can help.
While West has the advantage of being on Massachusetts Avenue, spaces outside this culture zone rely more on word-of-mouth and old-fashioned marketing efforts.
Expanding the Fountain Square frontier: Casey Roberts' Mount Comfort (A Space for Champions)
Indianapolis-based artist Casey Roberts, another Indiana native, shares Myers' and West's concerns about Indy's art future, and yet he too decided to open a gallery just as the economy went bust.
Roberts opened Mount Comfort (A Space for Champions) in the Fountain Square district, in a building owned by Christopher West. While Roberts rents the ground-floor space from West as his studio, he holds exhibitions of the work of other artists (never his own) in the storefront once a month. But he doesn't really view his space as a traditional gallery.
"My goal was really just to show art that doesn't get shown," Roberts explains. "There's a history of apartment style galleries. People who just want to show art. That's why I hesitate to call myself a gallery. I don't really represent artists... I don't promote artist's careers."
His goal is not to make a living; he's hoping to do that with his own art. "I don't take a commission. I don't make any money off the sales of this. I want the artists to make money; I want the artists to get respect."
While Roberts' goals are pretty straightforward, he doesn't have high expectations. "You can count on 100 people at an opening. Never more, and often less. It can be very frustrating."
During a recent exhibition of his work in Boston, Roberts said there were easily 300 people in and out of the gallery over the course of the show's opening. And Boston is a smaller town, population-wise, than Indianapolis.
Roberts, West and Myers feel the low ebb of interest and support here, even as they share their gratitude for what they have, and their optimism for a brighter future. Roberts doesn't claim to have the solution to the audience problem, he sees the larger institutions and the media as responsible to some degree, and credits the innovations of artists (opening such spaces as Bootleg, across the street from Mount Comfort) as bringing much-needed attention to what's being done currently.
Other spaces, such as Big Car in Fountain Square's Murphy Building and Wug Laku's Studio and Garage east of the Mass Ave Arts District, offer collaborative approaches to showing art while making an effort to connect with the greater community.
Roberts, considered one of the city's hottest talents, shows art that reflects his own evolved sensibility, offering a venue for similarly high quality art. Roberts shows nationally established artists as well as local artists, many of whom, he believes, might do better somewhere else. "The amount of talent of artists here is comparable to other cities, but we don't have the infrastructure to support it," he emphasizes.
But Roberts' Mount Comfort space - as modest and relatively hidden as it is - must be doing something right. "Every show I've sold three or four pieces," he says. "For me, it's not about the business end of it. It's about bringing people together." But the people he brings together, he bemoans, are relatively few. "I think the Indianapolis art scene has been distilled down to its base."
Roberts named his gallery accordingly. "Space for Champions is based on the idea that we had the same 100 people showing up. We considered them art champions." As far as the mountain reference, "I wanted a positive feeling thing. And mountain hearkened back to my own work, where I used mountains for people. It's all tongue in cheek."
Roberts, who spent some time in the military before attending art school at Herron School of Art and Design, strikes an imposing presence, at least until he breaks a smile. "It would be really great if there were more people interested," he shrugs, adding modestly, "I'm not really an outreach kind of guy. I'm having fun. I show good work, have fun doing it, and take what I can get."
Author's note: Many other Indianapolis galleries and groups of artists are doing innovative things in diverse spaces and places. Learn more about them by visiting www.indyarts.org or www.beindypendent.org.
SIDEBAR: Demystifying art at the Harrison Center
Some believe there's a seemingly insurmountable gap between those who "get" art and those who "don't." Joanna Taft believes that art's value exists apart from price tags, and that the gap can be bridged, if only we can get both sides to the table.
As the director of the Harrison Center for the Arts - home to individual artists studios, Harrison Gallery, and a handful of other institutions located in a building at 16th and Delaware streets owned by Redeemer Presbyterian Church - Taft knows that in order to understand art's intrinsic value, an education process is often necessary.
"I really think that 97 percent of Indianapolis is afraid of art," Taft says. "It means that you have to start at the very beginning."
For Taft, this means that the eight-year-old Harrison Gallery, under the curatorship of artist Kyle Ragsdale, needs to dispel the snob factor when it comes to art. "We try to make sure our shows are done in a way that you can come from any kind of background and not be intimidated," she explains. It's not about a person's formal schooling, either: "What we've learned is you can be a doctor or lawyer or a Ph.D., it doesn't matter. Art is intimidating."
This isn't to say that the shows at the Harrison Center are exclusively soft, but they tend not to be shocking. The Harrison's thematic approach might invite artists to collaborate with educators, scientists or ecologists, say, to make art on a particular topic - placing it in a particular context and removing it from notions of "art for art's sake," a misunderstood notion which often fuels misunderstanding and, by extension, intimidation.
The Harrison's approach seems to be working. "There are so many emerging patrons I can't keep them all here," Taft says. "Most organizations don't want to give up any of their people. I'm happy to give up our people." Particularly if that means there are more lined up behind them - ready for that first ah-ha art moment: "I do think that art for art's sake is valid. Art shouldn't be an excuse."
Far more than an excuse, art can be a means of reflection, of connection. "I think that art is part of what makes us human," Taft says. "And when you experience art with another person, when you come together as a community around something, it changes you. I know it's changed me. I believe that there's tangible evidence that the Harrison Center, the way we do art, it's healing the neighborhood."
Learn more about the Harrison Center by visiting http://www.harrisoncenter.org/home.php.