The Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art's new CityWay location, opening Oct. 3, is the 12-year-old non-profit's first gallery "made for the purpose of exhibiting art," according to executive director Shauta Marsh. Founded as a "museum without walls" in the interest of catching up with similarly sized cities with contemporary art museums, iMOCA roamed from venue to venue during its first three years of life, putting on events such as an installation at the Stutz during its annual open house and a screening of Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle at Key Cinemas. It found a semi-permanent home in 2004 at the Emelie Building (now home to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library), before moving in 2009 to its Fountain Square space at the Murphy Arts Center. Both locations came with drawbacks: "In the Murphy we've had to fight with the space at different times," says Marsh.
Not that iMOCA is leaving Fountain Square behind. The museum is expanding from one gallery to two, from doing six annual shows to eight. The new 3,000 square foot location, separated by a courtyard from South Street and connected to The Alexander Hotel, was created in partnership with CityWay parent Buckingham Companies, which wanted to add a rotating gallery to complement The Alexander's permanent collection of contemporary art. It'll primarily feature 2D work, and, in turn, the Fountain Square gallery will become iMOCA's home for installation or sculptural art.
The move comes a little more than two years since Marsh, then new to her job as executive director, gambled big on iMOCA's future, putting all the money in its depleted coffers toward two relatively expensive shows: a tenth anniversary exhibition featuring the increasingly acclaimed LaToya Ruby Frazier and a group show, The Natural World, pairing videographer Min Kim Park with photographer (and onetime MTV News reporter) Tabitha Soren. "I decided that if we were going to go out of business, we were going to go out of business on top," she says. The bet paid off: National foundations began inviting iMOCA to apply for grants, Vanity Fair and other influential publications covered The Natural World, and a wider variety of local donors — both individual and corporate — began to contribute.
iMOCA was founded at a time when Indianapolis museums were not particularly well-known for their contemporary programming. That's no longer the case. The Indianapolis Museum of Art hosted the U.S. pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, becoming the second Midwestern museum (the other being the Art Institute of Chicago) to do so. The Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship has awarded $1,125,000 to Native American artists since 1999, challenging perceptions of what constitutes Native art along the way. And the Indiana State Museum has hosted groundbreaking shows of work by 20th century Hoosier artists in its White River State Park location, notably this year's retrospective of the nearly forgotten James Russell Spencer.
The question might then be asked: If the city's dominant institutions are increasingly aware of the importance of contemporary art, then does Indianapolis really need a contemporary museum? After all, the competition for funding is fierce — and the IMA, Eiteljorg and others have a huge head start. But one might argue that iMOCA has made a case for its continued existence by commissioning the kind of work that the city's other museums or galleries are unlikely to mount.
Shows like Slava Mogutin's In the Name of Love, an August 2013 show that was tame by the Russia-born photographer's own standards (his work is often in some kind of dialogue with gay porn), but that prompted someone (not Vladimir Putin) to ask Marsh at the opening, "Shauta, are you trying to shock people?" Or a Dec. 2013 pairing of new work by the Nigeria-born Toyin Odutola with landscape paintings by a Florida-based group of self-taught, African-American artists who created over 200,000 paintings from the mid-'50s to the '80s. Or the show currently on display at iMOCA's Fountain Square gallery, The Black Knight Archives: Chapter 1, Migration, which tells the saga of a fictional, Black Panther-esque organization through artifacts created by Chicago artist Ian Weaver.
The Andy Warhol Foundation, which bills itself as "the preeminent national funder of innovative contemporary art" (and is selling off its entire Warhol collection to keep that title), helped to fund the aforementioned shows when, in 2013, it awarded iMOCA the Wynn Kramarsky Freedom of Artistic Expression Award, given to "organizations with a deep-seated commitment to preserving and defending the First Amendment Rights of artists." The award came with a $50,000, two-year grant for exhibitions and was, as past executive director Jeremy Efroymson puts it, "a real stamp of approval from a national funder that we're really doing great work."
Another stamp of approval came when Lisa Freiman, then the contemporary art chair at the IMA, suggested to Buckingham Properties's Brad Chambers — who was looking to build on the successful permanent art collection that Freiman had helped to curate — that he might invite iMOCA to move to The Alexander. "When I was leaving Indianapolis, I suggested, 'You should really speak to the people at iMOCA because they have an incredible program that's really ambitious and matches the approach we took at The Alexander," Freiman says. "It would allow them to have a more prominent space, plus it would add a lot of value to the experience at the Alexander." But the partnership might have remained a good idea if iMOCA board member Brandon Judkins hadn't "picked up the ball," as Marsh puts it, hashing out preliminaries with Buckingham before bringing the proposal to the board. And after a year's worth of negotiations and buildout, the space will open with a free party Oct. 3 featuring Richard Mosse's infrared photography of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (up through Dec. 20), as well as a concert by Asthmatic Kitty recording artist Helado Negro.
State of the art
"For a gallery, it's probably over AV-ed," Scott Travis, Buckingham's senior vice president of development, jokes — or humble brags? He's referring to the audio-visual equipment in iMOCA's CityWay location. "But it's also an event space," he continues, walking with Marsh through the gallery as construction workers put on the finishing touches. Travis was the project manager for CityWay — the multi-use complex just north of Lilly's headquarters that includes retail space, apartments and a luxury hotel — and he carries himself like a guy who could see through a major construction project: polished but solidly built.
And he means an event space not just for iMOCA-thrown programming. It'll also be a setting for receptions and meetings coordinated by The Alexander. The luxury hotel has made contemporary art a selling point — there are bespoke pieces in the bathrooms (photos of Brian McCutcheon playing ball with his son, both of them in spacesuits), in the parking garage (street art by Nick Walker). And bringing in iMOCA is way of giving lodgers reason to return: "People do come to see the art at the hotel, and if they come three months later, people get to have a different experience That's a real nice component for us." And it's because that component is so desirable that CityWay has established a "very generous partnership," according to Marsh (who declines to detail the exact financials), with iMOCA, which included CityWay paying all costs involved with transforming the space into a gallery.
Travis says the renovation process was "very collaborative. We had a certain amount of restricted area to begin with, and then we walked the gallery at the Murphy, talking about what works and what doesn't, what we could do better over here. We leaned on Shauta's experience to guide us through that process." One of Marsh's requests: "I really wanted the floors to be unpolished concrete because I don't want people to walk in and say, 'Oh, this is really awesome flooring!' I asked for a really minimal space where a person's focus would be really on the artwork."
The end result is a gallery that's "as flexible as possible," according to Travis. And that means a white-walled space interrupted only by several columns. There are two openings on the back wall, one leading to a small video art space and the other to a staging area that connects directly to CityWay's loading dock. Visitors will enter through one of two garage doors that are part of the all-glass front wall. "The garage doors are a really good solution to allow the space to be very open in a really short period of time," says Travis of the gallery's entrance. "When those doors are open, you feel like they're really connected to the lobby space and it's appropriate for you to walk through here." That sort of transparency does have a drawback: iMOCA will need to "film" the all-glass front in order to reduce UV impact on artwork, and curtains or shades will be installed so that the space can be totally closed off to onlookers.
Track lighting in the gallery includes immobile cans as well as adjustable directional lighting. "We can pretty much put a piece anywhere in the space and illuminate it properly," Travis says. The main gallery space is equipped with a multiple-speaker sound system as well as a projector and drop-down screen (in addition to the setup in the video art room). iMOCA has the option of subdividing the space by bringing in temporary walls — or not, as will be the case for the Richard Mosse show, which will feature the largest works Marsh has ever shown. "I couldn't show them at the Murphy because the ceilings are 12 feet high there, whereas these are 24 feet," she says.
They're not stupid
"I think the general public has a perception of the art world as being pretentious and elitist." The drinks haven't even arrived at our table at Plat 99, The Alexander's mixology bar, and Shauta Marsh is already making BIG GENERALIZATIONS. It's part of her straight-shooting charm, her low-key irreverence.
She edited a tattoo magazine without having been tattooed herself. She took over the job at iMOCA in 2011 without degrees in non-profit management or art history. As iMOCA's sole full-time staff member, she'll admit to being afraid "all the time" as she prepares to open the CityWay space, but what comes through is her poise and candor.
"When I'm at the Murphy, people will walk in and say, 'I don't belong here. I didn't go to college,'" she continues. "People feel like they might get made fun of or that they don't know enough. That's just not true. I think there were some pieces in the past — like 'Piss Christ' — that really alienated people. If artists want to be able to make a living and if the art world wants to survive, it's going to need to open up a little. And that's what I'm trying to do with iMOCA, where it's not going to be about who you know or how much you can afford to buy. We just want to share art with people in the city. And they're not stupid if they don't like it. The artist obviously has her intention many times of she they made something. But each person has an experience with art that's equally valid. If we really want there to be an economy revolving around art in Indianapolis, we just can't be exclusive."
Marsh, 36, says her "guiding light in terms of programming" is Dave Hickey, a brash, iconoclastic art critic and MacArthur genius best known for his 1997 collection Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy. She first encountered his work through an interview he did with arts journal The Believer in 2007. Here's a key quote from it: "I think you want to learn about art because you had an experience of some sort—a totally nonredemptive but vaguely exciting experience, like brushing up against a girl with big boobs in the subway. It's about that level of intensity. So you want to find out more about it since its sources are so mysterious, and these sources reside in you as well as in the object."
What has she learned from Hickey, the kind of guy who says he despises art appreciation? "I realized that what you really have to do to know what art is good is pay attention to the world. I read a lot. I watch The Soup to know what's going on in popular culture. It's important to pay attention to what people are enjoying and why. I look at all those things, and it's almost like tapping into the collective unconscious. It's not like an exact science where I'm checking off this and this. A lot of times I just know. When you see good artwork and things come together, there's a universality to it. And you know that the audience is going to connect with it."
Marsh looks back on the Slava Mogutin show, when one of the museum's funders asked her if she was "trying to shock people." Her response: "'No, I'm not trying to shock people, but I do think it's important to make people think.' There's nothing wrong with controversy, and I think there's a big difference between controversy and shocking people. When you're shocking people, there's no meaning or intention behind the work. But I think it's good to take risks. It's a very conservative city, and I don't know that we would have made it if we we hadn't received the national publicity that we did, which led to getting the Warhol grant. Otherwise, they wouldn't have taken us seriously. We wouldn't have survived."
But Marsh is careful to add that iMOCA isn't "out of the woods by any means." "We don't have an endowment," she says. "Other organizations make money off of fundraisers or have time to build personal relationships with individual funders. I'm putting on shows and filling out paperwork and painting and updating the website. All the other stuff. It's always a chicken or egg thing for us. We're going to continue to invest heavily in exhibits and artists. We want to serve artists and the audience, so that we're offering something unique that they're not going to see other places. And you're not going to see the same shows at iMOCA that you'll see in the contemporary gallery at the IMA. We can take more risks because we don't have to answer to so many funders."
An extra hand
Marsh will get a little help starting this fall when Paula Katz, formerly Herron School of Art and Design's gallery director, starts a two-year contract as iMOCA's director of partnerships, a catch-all job title that's intentionally vague, according to Katz. She'll have three tasks to begin with: developing a new membership program that offers a way for supporters to directly engaged with the museum (she's still looking for a term she likes better than "membership"); curating a few shows (a James Wille Faust exhibition in 2016, an Alex Da Corte show in both iMOCA spaces in 2015); and leading the charge on "entrepreneurial" activities that might bring in income beyond traditional fundraising.
Katz says she was a long-time admirer of iMOCA before she took the job: "I was so invested in iMOCA as an organization that I really pursued helping them." She thinks the museum is exception for the way it brings "emerging or mid-career artists to the city in a different way than other organizations are able to." And she praises the museum's balance of "shows that challenge people in a conceptual way" and those that "are aesthetically beautiful."
Fresh out of an MBA program, Katz is convinced that non-profits need to "diversify" their funding sources in order to survive. "Government support has been shrinking over the years and non-profits have been growing and growing, so there are more organizations trying to capture the same dollars from donors," she says. "We're moving toward where we'll see a lot of hybridity where non-profits look to see what they already do well and where they can generate some of their operational revenue. Ultimately, non-profits have to shift their way of thinking."
In a follow-up email to our interview at Plat 99, Marsh is careful to say she's gotten plenty of support from iMOCA's board, which she says is just as responsible for iMOCA's success as she is. (She also adds: "When I say we could fail, I'm not saying we could go out business. We won't. I am saying that there are many unknowns, we are not out of the woods and it would be wrong to go into this over-confident. But the odds are in our favor.")
Board president Mike Halstead, an architect based in Fountain Square near iMOCA's current location, may be even more of a risk-taker than Marsh: "We would look at or discuss a third or fourth site. We don't have to limit ourselves to two." Fellow board member Jennifer Boehm, who's been with iMOCA from the beginning, notes that the board had considered other locations in the past, but that the CityWay site proved to be the most compelling: "Pretty much every move we've made has been a gamble. When we got our first space on Indiana Avenue, we wondered, are we going to be able to pay the bills here? Then there was a bit of downturn, so we moved to Fountain Square because we always felt like our audience was there."
Boehm notes that iMOCA has never been in the red, and has "adjusted programming based on the kind of income" that the organization had at the time. She'll allow that the non-profit may have over-expanded at a time when it was running budgets near to $500,000 with several full-time staff members.
Halstead takes a long view of things and praises the iMOCA's commitment at present to incremental growth: "Shauta and the board have done a great job of picking out the right shows. It takes ten to twelve years to establish yourself, the same as any business."
Were there any roadblocks during negotiations between iMOCA and CityWay? One concern was whether iMOCA would be able to do the same kind of programming it had done at the Murphy. The board found the answer satisfactory: "We couldn't move to the Alexander if we were going to be censored. Once we got past that, it was kind of a no-brainer," Halstead says. Discussing the same topic, Marsh notes that while CityWay hasn't imposed any restrictions on the content of shows, she's aware that the space will be used for events and is open to the public and may decide on programming accordingly. But does that mean she'll ask CityWay ahead of time if a show would be appropriate for the space? That's a "no," in keeping with her contention that she's not a "look before you leap person." And besides, the next two years are "pretty much programmed out," according to Marsh, and Buckingham knows what to expect. (It's worth noting that Buckingham's Scott Travis joined the iMOCA board this year, which complicates the notion of a cut-and-dried partnership between the two institutions.)
The early years
Marsh took over in 2011 as executive director from Jeremy Efroymson, who held the job when iMOCA moved into both its Emelie Building location and its current Fountain Square home. As he puts it, he's been executive director during "two three-year periods, separated by two years."
He's also helped to fund iMOCA through its history via the Efroymson Family Fund. Calling from New Harmony, where he recently purchased a cottage, he looks back to the early years, when he was part of a loosely-knit group that founded the museum: "You'd go to all these other places and they'd have a really cool contemporary museum, and at that time in Indianapolis, there was nothing like that going on. And and what all of us thought together was why couldn't we do that here? Why can't we have a high-end contemporary art space that's on the same level as Chicago or New York, L.A. or San Francisco?
Efroymson says his involvement with iMOCA is now limited to being a funder and someone for Marsh to "bounce ideas off of," but he'd argue that he laid the groundwork for the organization's current financial and creative success. "What really helped iMOCA recently — and it started when I was there — was getting support from a wide variety of foundations and people, kind of diversifying the base and support," he says. "I think they're continually getting into better and better shape financially."
The move to the Alexander is consistent with iMOCA's original vision of itself as a "museum without walls," he says. "We've always been in multiple spaces, always looking for opportunities to move around and go where the audience is." And he's continued to fund the museum because he'll maintain that all audiences are important, even if the upscale clientele that frequents CityWay isn't in dire need of social services: "It's really easy to support social causes and education. To me, it's much more difficult to find support for fine art in a place like Indianapolis. I understand that people need beds and food and clothes, but you can't let culture die every time there's a recession. Once you get your basics met, what do you do? You want to go to a movie, go to dinner, see a band, see some art.
Marsh thinks that, ultimately, iMOCA needs to have a permanent location with tens of thousands of square footage and a permanent collection. Efroymson is a little more hesitant: "There are a couple of factors: The IMA and other places kind of caught on to contemporary art, and for them, not only can you talk to the artists because they're aren't dead, but it's also a lot cheaper to buy emerging artists' work than to buy a Picasso or a Monet. So they started to compete in the sector, though I think the IMA is backing a little bit away from that. I look at Cincinnati, which built a really large and architecturally significant building and I think they have a hard time supporting it. So while I would love to have a gigantic contemporary museum, I don't think that's something the community can support right now — and it may never be able to support it."
But like a compact car dodging between the SUVs of the art world, iMOCA has made a virtue of speed and flexibility, he argues: "We're really nimble. Some major museums are planning stuff five years out, while we can adapt to something really interesting that comes our way and put on a show in a really short period of time. We've always been more agile than larger museums. I really like the idea of operating in multiple spaces — even temporary spaces — and really getting out into the community as much as possible. I think it would be fun for them to do a show in Greenwood or Carmel or Brownsburg, just to break the boundaries a little bit."
Shauta Marsh describes Mosse as “further along in his career than any artist I've worked with.” She cites his accomplishments: Representing Ireland during the 2011 Venice Biennale. Winning this year's Deutsch Borse Photography Prize, awarded annually to a European photographer and described as the “most prestigious prize of its kind” by The Telegraph. “We probably won't get national coverage from this because everyone's covered him already,” Marsh adds.
Mosse used Kodak Aerochrome, a discontinued reconnaissance infrared film that registers chlorophyll in reds and pinks, to shoot his photos of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mosse talked about his decision to use Aerochrome this April in The Telegraph: “I would never normally have touched the stuff with a bargepole ... [But] I thought it might put me in an uncomfortable place where I didn't know what I was doing, and that's a good place to be as an artist. Originally it had been used to reveal enemy camouflage, so I asked myself, where is an unseen narrative? Where is the most unlikely place you would use this film?”
He hesitated to develop the results. “I almost ignored it because it was a pretty picture, then I realised what had been staring me in the face the whole time. The pink pushed the viewer into this extraordinary space, way past the threshold of the imagination and into science fiction, something pulsating, nauseous. We don't see in pink, but we don't see in black and white either – whichever way you look at it, documentary photography is a constructed way of seeing the world.”