The Indianapolis Museum of Art recently undertook a rebranding where it look the elements of its campus and rebranded them as “Newfields”, which is now the primary brand of the institution. The name IMA has been retained for the museum itself but has been downgraded. The new name is apparently a riff on “Oldfields”, a historic home and 26 acre estate formerly owned by one of the Lilly family, but now part of the museum complex.
The Newfields move in effect repositions the museum as a theme park instead of a cultural institution. I believe you now have to pay admission to even visit the grounds. Programming includes a fancy Christmas light show, a beer garden, etc. And there’s been a significant reduction in the size of the actual museum’s curatorial staff.
Newfields is one of a series of moves by IMA director Charles Venable that have been panned in art world circles. One of the latest critiques kicked off a bit of controversy locally. It was by Kriston Capps in the Atlantic’s CityLab, who labeled the Newfields move “the greatest tragedy in the art world in 2017.” (Capps is also an art critic for the Washington City Paper.)
Every step in the museum’s recent evolution has been a cynical one, reflecting a condescending view of the local Indianapolis viewers and international museum-goers the institution once drew by the hundreds of thousands with its diverse collections. So why not pull out all the stops? Why not make it a Minions Museum? Why not set up banks of theaters for whichever Avengers or Star Wars film is selling? Why not raze the building and put up an enormous trampoline in its place? I wouldn’t put that last one past Venable.
I want to take a different look at this move, looking at it from a community strategic perspective.
Indianapolis is at a small end of major cities, with a regional population of two million. The community is prosperous today, but with the exception of the gigantic Lilly Endowment has less legacy wealth and fewer high net worth individuals than a lot of other places. This means that the city is fiscally constrained in the quantity of non-profit cultural institutions it can support, and in the level at which it can afford to support them. Unlike say Chicago or New York, which can fund many things at high levels across the board, Indianapolis has to pick its battles.
Is the art museum the place where Indianapolis wants to place one of the few big cultural bets it is going to be able to make?
Because it boomed later than many other northern cities, Indianapolis has solid cultural institutions but not elite ones. In Cleveland, for example, both the Cleveland Orchestra and Cleveland Museum of Art are internationally renowned. The Cleveland museum also has a $750 million endowment that gives it a warchest to work with. In a place like Cleveland, which reaps significant global branding benefits from these truly top rank institutions, it makes sense to defend them.
By contrast the IMA was a very solid, respectable museum but not one of the top handful in the United States in an era where superstar economic logic – disproportionate benefits to the very top of the pyramid – reigns. Playing the museum game costs a lot of money, and Indianapolis has less of it than other cities. It’s also pretty clear that the moneyed elite of Indianapolis are not willing to put the wealth they do have into the IMA. The fact that they had to turn to debt rather than relying on a successful capital campaign for their 2005 expansion was already evidence of this.
Esquire magazine used to have a recurring feature called “the indefensible position”, in which they tried to make the case for some unpopular or contrarian type idea. Along with that same theme, I would say that in the absence of say a multi-billionaire willing to be a huge patron of the IMA, downgrading the artistic ambitions and repositioning the institution as a popular entertainment venue with a museum component is rational and defensible from a purely business strategy point of view.
Now, does that appeal to me personally? No. But they’re not doing it for me. Nor are they doing it for Kriston Capps or many of the other critics who don’t live there. In a sense, this move is about saying goodbye to that serious art world crowd and moving in a different direction that is more populist.
Sometimes you just have to make tough decisions. Indianapolis did that with its downtown tennis complex. They had established a professional tennis tournament in 1988 as part of the city’s sports strategy. By the late 2000s the city, faced with a series of 1980s era sports venues like their tennis complex that were aging and in need of expensive updates, and recognizing that their tournament was not one of the elite events on the ATP Tour, made the decision to get out of the tennis business. The tournament ended and complex was demolished. In retrospect it looks like the right move to have made.
History will be the judge of whether the Newfields move was a good one or not. Will it ultimately succeed in changing the financial structure of the museum and find resonance with the public? Or will it alienate the cultural elite, hurt the city’s image, and become a barrier to recruitment? Only time will tell. Keep in mind, the museum’s actual art collections are still there.
But bringing in Venable to cut back the museum’s ambition level and take it in a different, and in a sense innovative, direction is not a per se ridiculous decision. I’ve long argued that cities need to be willing to chart their own path and not just dance to the tune other places demand – particularly when those other places (like Capps’ DC) are very different. That’s what’s happening here, for good or ill.
Where the museum and its board do deserve criticism is for their frequent changes in strategic direction. First they borrow $100 million for an architecturally subpar building expansion. Then they bring in a new director to try to raise their ambition level. Then they bring in a guy to reduce it. Will they stay the course with this one? History would suggest not to bet on it.
But as for the Newfields move itself, it is plausible strategic response to the city’s situation in terms of the institutional assets they had, the level of community wealth, the willingness of community leaders to invest that wealth in the museum, and the tastes of the broad cultural middle in the city. It’s another example of how Indianapolis, despite its generally Midwestern middle of the road culture, has often gone off-script to do things very differently from other cities, things like the Cultural Trail and the sports strategy. This is a very different kind of move to be sure. But that willingness to buck the trend is one of the things that helped put Indianapolis on the map in the first place.