it didn't exactly come as a shock, the news that Maxwell Anderson decided to leave the Indianapolis Museum of Art
leave the Indianapolis Museum of Artto head a museum in Dallas, Texas, was,
nevertheless, the kind of bulletin that makes you stop and acknowledge a
milestone of sorts.
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.
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?
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
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.
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."
Anderson's tenure, the IMA opened the majestic 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park
Fairbanks Art and Nature Park. It created a conservation science program and
laboratory to help preserve antiquities. Memorable exhibitions included
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.
and Anderson made going to the IMA free again — a move as nervy as it was
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.