The arts building boomDavid Hoppe

Here's a prediction: In 10 years Indianapolis is going to be known as a major contemporary art destination.

Say what? Movements from cubism to futurism, abstract expressionism to pop upset expectations, bucked trends and, in the process, introduced new ideas, images and orders of visual experience into peoples' lives. These movements not only had an art world impact, they informed everything from the design of skyscrapers to kitchen utensils.

This town of corn dogs and carburetors looks for all the world to be poised on the verge of something like a breakthrough in the realm of cutting-edge visual arts. Of course the mission has yet to be truly accomplished. But when you look around at the pieces being put in place, it is hard not to conclude that something's happening here.

This development is so remarkable, it may be easy for a lot of us to overlook it. This is Indianapolis, after all. Until very recently, when folks talked about the visual arts here, they generally talked about the Hoosier Group, those mustachioed gents (mostly) who learned their painting in Europe and did a creditable job of creating their own school of impressionism along the back roads of rural Indiana.

A lot of wonderful work was made during that period, but it was antique as soon as it was created. That was actually part of its point. Art, for the Hoosier Group and their followers, seemed less about the future than the past. These artists were interested in hanging on to a world - and an aesthetic - that was disappearing. At their best, they captured something essential about the character of this place. Too often, though, their work was merely nostalgic or, worse, sentimental. Today it is easily dismissed as quaint.

For decades, the Hoosier Group cast a shadow over the Indianapolis community that was disproportionate to its actual accomplishments. Their backward looking, rather genteel approach encouraged people here to pigeonhole art as a kind of decorative pastime, useful, perhaps, for taming the bumpkin beast within, but not much else.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the wide world, movements from cubism to futurism, abstract expressionism to pop upset expectations, bucked trends and, in the process, introduced new ideas, images and orders of visual experience into peoples' lives. These movements not only had an art world impact, they informed everything from the design of skyscrapers to kitchen utensils.

So my prediction of Indianapolis' rather sudden, if belated, entry into the contemporary art scene has significance for more than fans and aficionados. On what is this prediction based?

The Eiteljorg has carved an extraordinary niche for itself as a leading collector of contemporary art by Native Americans. Although too many in the arts establishment lazily place this work in an anthropological ghetto, the eloquence, sophistication and downright beauty of this collection cannot be denied. With expanded gallery space as well as a sculpture garden, the true power of the Eiteljorg's collection can finally become a prominently visible part of the institution's identity.

A stone's throw away from the Eiteljorg, the relocated and renamed Herron School of Art and Design is taking shape. Word has it that uber designer Frank Gehry's office recently called architect Jonathan Hess saying they'd heard his building was turning out to be a model arts education facility. Students and faculty will both benefit from the expanded space. But the city will benefit from a dramatically enlarged Herron Gallery. For years the gallery has served as Indy's primary port for contemporary art exhibitions. Now it has the space to really make a statement. And the proximity of both the Eiteljorg and Herron to the new IMOCA gallery a few blocks east promises to provide the city with a thrumming contemporary arts triangle.

Over at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, work proceeds apace on their expansion - another Hess design. Here, the upper story will have as many square feet for contemporary work as is found in some freestanding contemporary art centers in other cities. Curator Lisa Freiman's efforts, combined with those of Linda Duke, the museum's chief of education, have already suggested a level of ambition unlike anything we've seen before. And if this weren't enough, the IMA is also at work on its art and nature park. The addition of this extensive parkland will allow the museum to become a leader in the emerging fields of earth, landscape and environmentally informed arts.

In Broad Ripple, the Indianapolis Art Center has its own Artspark in the works. This project will realize the vision Michael Graves had for the Art Center when he was originally commissioned to design its new building. The IAC's Artspark project makes connections between aesthetics, art and nature. It's an obvious, if often ignored, combination of elements that hearkens back to the best impulses of the Hoosier Group, albeit in a decidedly forward-looking way.

Making predictions can be risky. And all the table-setting in the world doesn't make a meal. But if investment is any measure, the signs for the contemporary arts in Indianapolis are more promising than they've been in generations.

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