Maxwell Anderson's IMA

 

While

it didn't exactly come as a shock, the news that Maxwell Anderson decided to

leave the Indianapolis Museum of Art

to head a museum in Dallas, Texas, was,

nevertheless, the kind of bulletin that makes you stop and acknowledge a

milestone of sorts.

I

think it's fair to say that over the course of his five-plus years in

Indianapolis, Anderson became a polarizing figure. It seemed, increasingly,

that you were either a fan or a detractor. While some saw this as a sign of

dynamism, an inevitable byproduct of ambition, it had to be a hard position to

sustain in a town that places maximum value on being a team player.

Indianapolis

takes great pride in its volunteerism, peoples' willingness to step up to help

make things happen — from food pantries to the Super Bowl. The problem

with this approach — apart from the fact that it masks an unwillingness

to come to grips with what civic improvements really cost — is that it

inhibits strong personalities and makes serious criticism almost impossible.

How can you knock the efforts or demand more from people who are donating their

time for free?

Indianapolis

favors people who get along, who laugh at each other's jokes, root for the home

team and keep an even keel. This makes us nice to be around, but it also means

that change comes so slowly as to be almost imperceptible. That way no one gets

the vapors.

This

was not Max Anderson's way. He behaved like a man in a hurry, someone willing

to use a sharp elbow to move you out of his road if he thought that was

necessary. The result was that in little more time than it takes a kid to enter

and graduate from high school, Anderson oversaw the transformation of the IMA

from a well-intentioned community resource into a go-to destination, where

locals, who had previously relied on visits to other cities for information

about what was happening in the cosmopolitan worlds of art and design, could

plug-in for the latest news and inspiration.

It's

remarkable, when you think about it, how quickly we've come to take Anderson's

IMA for granted. This reflects the pent-up appetite for world-class arts

experience that continues to grow here. But it also speaks to the size and

scope of Anderson's ambition, his understanding of Chicago architect Daniel

Burnham's maxim: "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood

and probably will not themselves be realized."

During

Anderson's tenure, the IMA opened the majestic 100 Acres: The Virginia B.

Fairbanks Art and Nature Park

. It created a conservation science program and

laboratory to help preserve antiquities. Memorable exhibitions included

significant shows on Thornton Dial and Andy Warhol, not to mention the dazzling

compendium of European Design since 1985. The Toby Theater opened, offering

avant-garde performance and film programming. And the museum commissioned the

U.S. Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, the Olympics of the art world.

Oh,

and Anderson made going to the IMA free again — a move as nervy as it was

enlightened.

Anderson

understood that, in a constantly morphing cultural landscape, where dollars are

harder and harder to come by, it is not enough to ask people for support, you

have to make news. This is particularly true in the arts, where the playing

field isn't local but, in fact, international. In this setting, big picture

thinking isn't an indulgence — it's a life preserver.

Anderson's

process made some people uncomfortable, others downright angry. He alienated

some local donors, enraged some local artists and exasperated some members of

his staff. His effort to make design a major wing of the museum's identity has,

apart from the blockbuster European Design show, seemingly fizzled. The

acquisition of the Miller House and Garden in Columbus, while historically

important, has yet to jell as part of the museum's overall identity. And while

Venice was an international coup, it also diverted financial resources during a

time when the IMA was scrambling to recover from losses incurred by the 2008-09

stock market crash.

Finally,

Anderson's entrepreneurial attempt to create an additional revenue stream

through an art consulting service backfired when the museum found itself in the

eye of a self-inflicted storm over what to do about works of art, most notably

a piece by local artist James Wille Faust, that had previously been

commissioned and installed at the new Indianapolis International Airport.

But,

like they say, to make a soufflé, you have to crack some eggs. If Anderson, at

times, overreached, it was because he was trying not just to put the IMA on the

map, but alter the very geography the museum inhabits. Anderson acted on ideas

most cultural administrators only contemplate, most notably, the recognition

that if museums are to remain relevant in a multi-mediated 21st

century, our definition and experience of these institutions must change.

In

too many cases, this perception has led museum directors to turn their institutions

into faux theme parks. Anderson, on the contrary, turned the IMA into a living

laboratory for the research and development of contemporary cultural practice.

This has made the IMA — right here in Indianapolis! — not just

vibrant, but indispensable. We can only hope the museum's board, in their

search for Anderson's successor, will build upon this vision.

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