Anderson's announcement that he was leaving his post as The Melvin & Bren
Simon Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art for a job with the
Dallas Museum of Art brought a transformative chapter in the history of
Indianapolis' chief arts institution to a close.
a five-year period, Anderson presided over changes at the IMA that would make
it one of America's most respected encyclopedic museums.
Anderson's tenure, the IMA established itself as significant venue for
contemporary art, with the opening of 100 Acres, The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park
and Nature Park. The museum also served as host for the United States Pavilion
at the 2011 Venice Biennale.
oversaw the museum's technological makeover, launching such projects as AMICO,
documenting the collections and activities of art museums, and ArtBabble, which
posts videos from museums around the world.
Anderson's watch, the IMA undertook a major design initiative and opened The Toby
Toby, a multi-purpose performance space. He championed policies and design
fixes that made the museum building one of the greenest facilities of its kind
in the United States, and succeeded in getting his fellow museum administrators
to adopt 1970 as the cut-off date when considering the acquisition of
archaeological material and ancient art.
was outspoken in his opposition to censorship. He joined a lawsuit against
every prosecutor in the State of Indiana to strike down a statute abridging
freedom of expression.
who starts his new job in January, recently met with NUVO in his office at the
IMA for an exit interview.
When you first arrived at the IMA, you revoked a recently levied admission fee,
making museum admission free of charge again. Can you revisit your thought
process at that time?
I do think a lot about how a museum is a resource for its public. Having spent
years looking at how museums operate financially, versus how they're perceived
to operate, I recognized that admission revenue is, for the most part outside
of Manhattan, a virtually negligible sum. The exceptions are spikes around
major, blockbuster shows that come and go. But, year-to-year, it isn't that
important — three-to--four percent of most museum budgets around the
It also seemed to be a statement about wanting the museum to be as publicly
accessible as possible.
That was the overarching goal, but you couldn't make it happen unless the other
ingredients were in the stew because if it were a financially unwise decision
it would have been hard to make. But it wasn't.
having paid parking now we hope that two things happen: one, we drive
membership so that people say, well, that's an aggravation; but I'm going to
finally join. It's kind of like NPR and WFYI, where you say, OK, I'm gonna do
this thing. Otherwise it's still pretty painless. For a carload of four people,
it's a buck-25.
we're trying to live within our means, but at the same time, be as open and
available as possible.
You led the IMA through a technological awakening. Why is technology important
for encyclopedic institutions?
I guess moving [to Indianapolis] was also moving to a place that wasn't the
center of anything other than Indiana. Hoosiers don't arrogate to themselves
the right to be central very much. That's a mindset that doesn't, in many
respects, seem appropriate. Being a good place to live, being a place which is
family-oriented, being a place which is convivial, is a high value set.
what I began to look for, when I arrived, were the ways this museum could
distinguish itself nationally, internationally, as well as serving a local
interest and need. Really making ourselves a place of convening seemed to me to
be in the spirit of this region and in the spirit of our city.
distinctive about what we do with technology is that unlike, say, MOMA [the
Museum of Modern Art] would go out and build a battleship and say, see what we
did? Aren't we great? We took an opposite tack. We said, what can we do with
technology that will benefit our constituents and benefit the field? Then we're
doing something that matters nationally and internationally, we're also
improving the field of art museums and, not coincidentally, we're giving something
to our visitors, whether it's the tap tour to experience exhibitions, whether
it's the Dashboard to learn more about how our museum operates, whether it's
the debut of online scholarly publishing that we've just announced with Chicago
that is going to make reading scholarship from our collections easy and
all been free, open-source, given away, grant-supported. The other magic bean
here was the change with federal grants, that we got very few of, to a lot of
federal grants, millions of dollars of federal grants, with federally
negotiated overhead rates, so when you get a big grant, part of the grant pays
for salaries. It benefits the bottom line.
was not, as some have painted it, a vanity project. It was financially responsible.
Innovation brought lots of new support to offset core expenses of operations,
particularly salary expenses.
You identified design as a major new dimension for the IMA. Yet, apart from a
small gallery and a shop that misfired, it's been hard to see what's happened
in this field since Craig Miller's blockbuster show, European Design Since 1985
Has the design emphasis worked the way you wished it would?
You're right about visibility. But, in point of fact, in 2013 the IMA will open
the largest galleries of design arts in the western hemisphere, showing over
1,000 works that were acquired since the initiative began, with a comprehensive
display of late 20th and early 21st century design
unmatched in New York, San Francisco, Chicago.
Miller has been adroitly and assertively building a collection to the point
where I think it will be not only the largest suite of galleries, but one of
the most thoughtfully installed, accompanied by online educational tools. The
largest suite of galleries on two floors in the museum will be devoted to the
decorative and design arts on two floors in the Hulman pavilion. Eighteenth
Century and 19th Century will be on the second floor.
the third floor will be late 20th Century and early 21st.
It's staggering. The move there has been far greater than I could have hoped
for. It's true it hasn't been in the public eye, but that's part of the drama
that has yet to come. I think we'll be able to tell the story of the 20th
Century through design, picking up where we leave off with Pont-Aven, the
neo-impressionists, segueing into the moment in which modernism comes and
flowers. I think it will be a pilgrimage site for people from around the world.
What does building design into the museum's mission accomplish?
I think it does two things for this museum. One, it fills a gap in our capacity
to tell the story of the Industrial Revolution's legacy. We carry that
narrative of modernism into post modernism.
second challenge is that when our contemporary art department does remarkable,
leading edge projects with artists, there is an audience for that here. It's a
think the design arts will be for those folks who drive to Cincinnati to go to
IKEA, who go to Target. Museums have always collected creativity. We don't make
distinctions between types of creativity here. The fact this office has some
paintings in gold frames is a function of tradition but, as a classicist, I
don't make a distinction between paintings, sculpture, architecture, furniture.
To me, they're expressions of creativity and I think our museum is going to
benefit from having that open door for people who are aren't art lovers but can
say, well, they do have this incredible collection of furniture — and I
have furniture at home.
Contemporary art has flourished during your tenure. What is the role of
contemporary art in an encyclopedic museum?
Look, we're not unique. The Metropolitan Museum has just rented the Breuer
Building for 10 years from the Whitney Museum to have a 100,000 square foot bet
on contemporary art. The Art Institute of Chicago built a modern wing. You go
across the country, this is the new normal. The IMA is part of a much larger
awakening, a reframing of not letting contemporary art museums, in isolation,
define the landscape, but looking, instead, at the creative connections between
past and present that can enliven both. Chuck Close and I used to talk about
this a lot at the Whitney, as an artist and a board member. The weakness of a
museum that's devoted to contemporary art is the lack of oxygen that comes from
seeing great works of art from all time. Contemporary artists stand to learn
the most by working in a context where there is African art and Asian art and
old masters. That's what's exciting about grafting a vital contemporary program
on an encyclopedic mission.
You're talking about conversations that take place between museums and
artists.What about the
conversation contemporary art opens with the public?
Well, 100 Acres was the big bet because, clearly, you can't get a conversion
strategy that works if it's purely hermetic to galleries in your museum and
you're expecting the general public to care. That may happen, but it's a much
more difficult enterprise. Whereas 100 Acres was a bet that, since people like
parks, and we have a finite amount of green space in the city of Indianapolis,
maybe if we blend those two in the right way we can experiment and introduce
thousands of people a month to contemporary art. It's a basketball court. It's
a park within a park by Alfredo Jaar. The pavilion we did with Marlon Blackwell
is probably the most important work of contemporary architecture in the state.
It sits there quietly in the woods.
Speaking of 100 Acres, one of the interesting things during your tenure has
been the way the museum used art and nature, the creations of human beings and
creation. That's also been manifest in an approach to the museum building
We had to knit together a narrative about art and nature and design. It's in
our mission statement and the board understood the necessity of bringing those
You've been an outspoken advocate for the integration of the arts into public
policy. How would you characterize the current status of our situation in
I think on Nov. 9, 2011 the status improved dramatically. I think Mayor
Ballard's team is amenable today in a way that they weren't in their first term
to take a fresh look at how the city supports the arts. And I don't mean
dollars alone. I mean a voice at the senior levels of government, vested with
the responsibility for cultural affairs. This morning [deputy mayor] Michael
Huber said they would be willing to consider that. And, to me, that's the
single most impressive outcome of years of all of us saying, "C'mon."
an arts council, which is a regranting agency, shouldn't be mistaken for having
someone sitting at the table with the mayor everyday, deciding policy. The Arts Council
Councildoes a good job with its mandate, but their mandate is not to
articulate public policy. So we need that and I believe that's going to happen.
I knew Mayor Giuliani and, briefly, Mayor Bloomberg, when I was in New York.
And what happens when you have an official in charge of culture is you take
your chances. In Toronto, there was a center-left government and the museum
there had to be about education, community development. That government was
swept out of power in 1995 and the government became center-right. We pivoted
and became about tourism and urban planning. That's what you do: you pivot, and
look at a different gradient of the same enterprise.
You have envisioned new roles for the museum — as a center for
professional Research and Development and as a paid consultant to other
interests wishing to integrate the arts into their missions. What is the role
of the 21st century art museum?
Artists do R&D, after all, for a living. Their area of research tends to be
the human mind and human heart, and politics and sex and whatever else
interests them. We now have a science department in the museum because I felt
it was essential to undergird our treatment specialists in conservation with
science. Otherwise we lack the full arsenal of information about how to take
care of works of art.
also it was a way of saying we're in a city corridor focused on life sciences
and biotech. If this museum becomes part of that group of professionals which
is driving the city's economy in a real sense, we become more relevant. So our
senior conservation scientist is working with Eli Lilly, he's working with
forensic teams, Purdue's chemistry department. We're making ourselves more
relevant to a big swath of the city and the region and the state's economic and
higher education. I think the IMA will be conferring a PhD in conservation
science within two years — the first museum in the country to do this.
Technology research is also earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year at
the bottom line this year and last year that we did not have. Straight revenue.
Our board is very excited about it.
R&D is lifting the tide for all museums. The Boston Museum of Fine Art is
using our software for their mobile tours. Crystal Bridges is using our
software. It's helping the field, it's earning revenue. R&D is really about
lifting the museum's reputation, making us more integral to the landscape of
Indiana and earning serious revenue.
next arena, which is truly exciting, is visitor studies. We now have four PhDs
in our audience engagement department. One of them, who did her Doctorate at
the Sorbonne — she's an Italian national — is reinventing how the
online survey of visitor usage translates into what we do on-site in the
galleries. Within a couple of years I think this will be a world-renowned
center for visitor studies: understanding the motivation of people to come to
an art museum, intuiting what they need as a consequence of their motivation
and delivering on that. That's research that yields a direct, tangible benefit
to our public and it will bring in grants, which again, support the bottom
This sounds like a far cry from the early 20th century model of the
museum, which was designed for pubic uplift.
You're being an active participant in a local sphere and an international
sphere simultaneously. When a museum opened in 1870, it was there to train the
workingman in how to become civilized. In a sense, that's flipped. We're
learning from the public about their expectations and trying to tease out the
intentions of artists to be of interest to a broad public. Not corrupt or
change any interpretation of those intentions of artists, but recognize that
artspeak is not going to do the job.
tours that are the same, one size fits all, is a model we need to change. We
need to think about conversations with our visitors, not lecturing them.