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IMA unveils 100 Acres of Art

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The Indianapolis Museum of Art may be hesitant to claim it has the largest campus among urban museums in this country, but you'd be hard pressed to find one larger. That poses both a challenge and opportunity: to continue the growth of its encyclopedic collection of fine art, which already includes several world-class collections, while maximizing the potential of its green space.

With the unveiling of the IMA's 100 Acres: Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park, on Father's Day weekend, that potential finally is being realized. The fact that the 100-acre park, donated to the museum in 1972, is on a flood plain offers an even greater opportunity for an institution that has continually expanded its reach with an increasingly interdisciplinary, hands-on approach to its visual art programming.

As the IMA's director and CEO Maxwell Anderson put it in a fundraising document, this swath of land will be "a place of respite, a source of challenging ideas, and a free-wheeling tangle of urban ideas."

In contrast to the relatively wild 100 Acres, the IMA's main campus, which comprises a tangle-free 52 acres, including the lavishly restored Oldfields Estate and other structures, is a world unto itself. A stroll around the grounds has the feel of a Merchant and Ivory film: the scenery is at once spectacular and subtle, with lush green lawns to rival the grandest British estate and sculpted gardens that still reflect the original vision of Percival Gallagher of the famous Olmstead Brothers landscape architecture firm. It is a civilized paradise -- all within a mile or two of one of the city's most unsightly stretches of commercial property along the 38th Street corridor to the west. The beauty of the IMA's extensive grounds is far more than just a backdrop for the art and activities going on within the building itself, as evolved as those collections and programs have become.

The Art and Nature Park, 100 acres of untamed woodlands, wetlands, a lake and meadows, promises to stretch the notions underlying those original 52 acres, which represent the ideal of a beautiful but controlled landscape, along with the imaginations of visitors. At its June 19 and 20 opening [see sidebar], the park will officially unveil eight inaugural commissions of original art, only a few of which may end up being permanent. Conceived instead for their relevance to questions about the relationship between art, nature and culture, these projects are part of a living experiment rather than a static display of public art.

If the IMA's chief visionary for the project, Lisa Freiman (pronounced FRY-man), has her way, 100 Acres will not be just another enhancement to the institution, but rather a harbinger of what museums have the potential to become. As 100 Acres illustrates, Freiman's view of things has even greater implications for contemporary art as a vital presence in the city of Indianapolis.

Freiman's vision

Lisa Freiman, chair of the museum's contemporary art department, joined the IMA's curatorial staff in September of 2002, just in time to close the contemporary galleries for renovation. "I had time to do a few shows," Freiman recalls, "but most of my time would be used to plan for the opening in 2005." This fallow period for exhibitions was a fertile one for Freiman and the department; Freiman had the opportunity to re-envision the entire contemporary program and help develop the exhibition spaces to match. While the indoor spaces more than doubled at 25,000 square feet, those 100 acres tucked away between the Central Canal and the White River presented a different sort of curatorial opportunity.

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With a decided intellectual bent, Freiman has a talent for finding art that is challenging but accessible, while revealing how art can, and does, ask relevant questions. Her choice to exhibit a retrospective of the work of Afro-Cuban artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, in 2007, was both relevant and tough; Everything is Separated by Water dealt with issues of identity and culture in a global society. It was technically innovative with its use of room-sized video displays as well as smaller sculptural work, and it was breathtakingly beautiful.

Prior to joining the IMA, Freiman had been teaching as an assistant professor of contemporary art history, criticism, and theory at the University of Georgia after completing her doctorate in art history at Emory University in Atlanta. "I was very fortunate; I got a number of offers for tenure track positions, and I kept turning them down. At the same time, I knew in my heart I wanted to do curatorial work," Freiman recalls. Freiman's art historical background gave her a solid framework through which she could reflect on "what artists today are doing compared to what artists were doing in the past," she says.

A curator with a Ph.D. is not the norm; most end their schooling with a master's degree. For Freiman, the decision to go on and get her doctorate reflected "the pursuit of knowledge for its own purpose. In American society that is considered a real luxury, and by many people as foolish," she says. But Freiman considers it a "higher calling. You do something because you know it's important to the society that we live in, and you're the one that's there to do it at a certain moment. You can help people change the way they see the world and their own place in it."

Freiman's travels to places such as Italy, London, Paris, Greece, Japan and Puerto Rico gave her a greater understanding of how societies engage with people through art. "In Europe the arts are so central to every day life. In the United States we have sports. We're not trying to say that sports are bad; they're just one form of entertainment... The ancient Greeks understood that very well, the relation between sports and art in a democratic society."

While at the University of Georgia, Freiman finally accepted a job offer for a tenure-track position, but the secretary of the department neglected to send a contract; it was at that moment that the IMA called her to come out and interview. The rest, of course, is history.

"It was a great opportunity; it was a beautiful place; there were tremendous resources here," Freiman recalls. At the same time, she admits, "I can come clean and say in a million years I never thought I would move to Indiana; but I can say the same thing about Atlanta and Georgia (where she lived for nine years). Each of these places has given me a tremendous richness of experience that I couldn't have gotten in one place."

A hunger for contemporary art

Despite its promise, coming to Indianapolis was not without its challenges. Freiman faced a general attitude in the art world that looked down upon geographic regions such as the Midwest as provincial. "There's certainly a way of looking at art from the main hubs of the art world that really looks down at things that are happening elsewhere; if it's not looking down, it doesn't even consider them, doesn't even acknowledge that those practices exist. So I came out here and I thought it would be interesting to see what I could do here. How much I would be able to push it... how much of the audience would care about it."

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Indianapolis was hungry for contemporary art, which offered unprecedented opportunity for a curator with a generous budget. "I really thought that if we built a program that was energetic, exciting and interesting that people would get excited and participate in it," Freiman says. On the evening of a Vik Muniz lecture several years ago, Freiman recalls, the city was hit with a blizzard. Still, 250 people came out to the museum. "It was this moment of clarity for me. I saw that there was such a dearth of opportunities that people were hungry for it, that they would come in spite of bad weather."

Both the challenges and the resources Freiman found here have brought out the best in her abilities. They put her vision into relief, placing her on the forefront of a movement in the art world that is far more cognizant of global concerns and issues of environmental sustainability and, at least in some circles, less concerned about the marketplace. "What we keep hearing from artists when they come from other places is the IMA is amazing," Freiman says. "It's so unusual to have a museum give artists the opportunity to create new work outside the marketplace."

There's no denying that the museum has struggled with its identity when it comes to contemporary art; former curator Holliday Day's long tenure resulted in a modest contemporary collection with relatively few significant holdings and a small endowment for contemporary art. The institution's culture at that time was more geared towards other collections that had more money and curatorial muscle behind them: Asian, African and European art among them. Since Freiman's tenure, the contemporary collection has been catching up.

Freiman's approach, which is to engage artists with the museum rather than simply invite them to show work here, reflects a more progressive approach to presenting art, one that is far more community-engaged and forward looking when it comes to the larger issues of the day. It's as if Freiman understands, like a good artist, that the only way to make a difference is to take a risk.

"One of my goals for the program was to make it a community jewel but also to put it on the national and international maps for contemporary art," Freiman says. "I wanted it to become the best contemporary art program in a general art museum in the United States. And I started pushing that. We've had three directors over the course of the time I've been here, and each of them really allowed me to continue pursuing my vision for the program."

That vision has included having "dedicated, ample gallery space for temporary exhibitions," a video gallery space, and the endowed Efroymson Family Entrance Pavilion where contemporary projects are commissioned on an ongoing basis. "To have an endowed fund for commissioned projects means that regardless of the economy... you always have something you can do because the [income from the] principal is there."

In this space alone, the IMA has commissioned Indianapolis-based as well as internationally known artists to install works. And this approach seems to have paved the way for Freiman securing an international roster of talent for the art and nature park: Atelier Van Lieshout, Kendall Buster, Alfredo Jaar, Jeppe Hein, Los Carpinteros, Tea Mäkipää, Type A and Andrea Zittel, have been working with Freiman and the IMA staff to develop the inaugural works for 100 Acres.

Many of these artists are younger and lesser known, but all have passed the test of being willing to come out to Indianapolis, spend some time here and collaborate to make work that makes sense, rather than offer pieces that will end up being part of a "zoo for sculpture."

There was an additional draw to bringing in such a diverse group of artists: "There's this huge international art world audience who will come if there is something to see. I wanted them to come here; I wanted them to come to the IMA. Really, the primary premise underlying the park is it is based on constant change and renewal, just like the landscape is."

She adds, "We're trying to build a collection that's tied to the relationships we have with artists, that are tied to the integrity and rigor of their work. And that doesn't always match up with the artists that are showing in LA or Berlin."

Freiman credits much of her success to the leadership and vision of IMA director and CEO Max Anderson. "He is an incredibly open, creative visionary; a flexible and trusting director. And when he believes in you he gives you an incredible amount of creative license to pursue your dreams. It's an extraordinary thing. It's the reason I'm still here, why I'm in Indianapolis and Indiana and the IMA. Without the liberty that he gives me to pursue creative possibilities, I'd be bored, and I wouldn't be able to give artists opportunities."

Park mentality

Over the course of three visits, I was able to witness the transformation of 100 Acres -- from Alfredo Jarr's "Park of the Laments," a place where visitors can "lament and purge the global atrocities of the 20th and 21st centuries" to the Visitors' Pavilion nestled within the woods like a modern version of a fairytale cottage.

Teä Makipää's "Eden 2," a ship anchored in the middle of the lake, includes a guardhouse on shore, within which television monitors, showing footage of the ship's supposed passengers, give the impression that something sinister is happening within the ship itself. The artist imagines the inhabitants as refugees, displaced by the ecological impact of climate change.

Other works, such as Andrea Zittel's "Indianapolis Island," which will be inhabited initially by two Herron School of Art and Design students, Jessica Dunn and Michael Runge, will serve as temporary art works that will give the park the feel of a revolving gallery space -- or an outdoor art lab.

"So there are three major entry points to the park," Freiman points out on our first tour in mid-April. The park is coming into the fullness of its blooming; trees are already flush with leaves and the air is thick with birdsong. Freiman is wearing high heels, but she doesn't shy away from the gravel and mud.

"People will be able to come through the pony truss bridge, which is not a main entrance, but it is one way through the formal gardens -- the way we just came through. The other way will be off of the canal towpath down there towards Michigan [Road], and that is the closest spur to the Visitors' Center. And the other way is the 38th Street loop. And that will be the only ADA compliant access to the park.

"Right now the park is in full construction mode. And it's pretty exciting. I was just here with my kids and my husband this weekend and they sort of were testing things out so I was getting to see how kids reacted to some of the installations. And it was really fun."

When Ken Burns' latest blockbuster documentary series The National Parks: America's Best Idea came out last year, there was a renewed interest in the connection between our national heritage and issues of environmental sustainability and natural beauty. A single question drove Burns to produce the parks series: "Who are we? That is to say, who are those strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans?"

If we were to ask the same question on a local scale, the Art and Nature Park is poised to address it: What do we value as a community? Are we willing to maintain green spaces not only for their inherent value to the consciousness of the people here, but can they also serve as examples of leveling the playing field of the arts and culture where everyone has a place at the table?

Indianapolis may not have sweeping vistas or lush forests, but it does have a natural heritage that, like so many other urban places, has been blighted. The parcel of land that is now 100 Acres was first farmed for its sand gravel when 1-65 was being built more than 40 years ago. The abandoned gravel pit is now the lake tucked at the back of the park; locals have been fishing there for years in relative obscurity.

Now, the lake is home to Great Blue Herons and other flora and fauna; it abuts meadows, grasslands and a forested area behind the IMA's main grounds. Like other parks, 100 Acres will be open daily from dawn to dusk; admission is free. Plans are in the works for a cell phone application that will guide visitors through the park and its offerings.

"I think the premise for the park was to create a 21st century park that was a new model for what an institutional park could be," Freiman tells me as we walk towards the Visitors' Pavilion. "Looking back at the birth of public art in the early '70s with the NEA and the art in public places program, there were mostly works that were getting installed regardless of the context and the site. And you know there are exceptions to that, but for the most part that was true throughout the '70s and '80s, installing sort of abstract sculpture that had no connection to the place and so were sort of decorative on some level. And if you think about the existing art sculpture parks in the United States, a lot of them fall along those models. It's sort of consistent with what was going on historically in the public realm."

Freiman cites Storm King Art Center, in New York's Hudson Valley, as "probably the closest parallel" to 100 Acres in terms of acreage, although Storm King is "even more expansive and they're dedicated solely to having a sculpture park as opposed to having a major museum with it." Like the IMA's park, Storm King places its art in a nature setting -- in their case, it's a 500-acre landscape of rolling hills, fields and woodlands. Storm King's focus has been on permanent works dating from 1945 to the present, which includes some of the bigger names in modern and contemporary art: David Smith, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Louise Nevelson, Mark di Suvero, Nam June Paik, Magdalena Abakanowicz and Ursula von Rydingsvard. The IMA has works by many of these artists in its own permanent collection, but these are largely inside the museum.

While Freiman says Storm King has been commissioning projects lately, "if you look at a lot of the places like the Hirschorn or the National Gallery or the Walker in Minneapolis or the Meyer Sculpture Gardens in Grand Rapids, there's a real emphasis on permanence and collecting, collecting pieces that are going to remain at the institution. And it makes a lot of sense for collecting institutions, but what it does is it sort of ties your hands in terms of how much you can do in those places and how innovative you can be."

Indianapolis has been doing its share of "buy and drop" public art: the Massachusetts Ave. sculpture initiative is one example; and Herron School of Art and Design, the University of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis Art Center have also developed outdoor sculpture programs -- but these works, for the most part, are not commissioned to suit the space, at least not on the same scale and at the same philosophical level as the IMA. They do serve an important role, though, when it comes to building an increased awareness and appreciation for public art.

At home in the woods

The 100 Acres Visitors Pavilion is intended to mimic the delicate geometry of a fallen, folded leaf. Because the park is on a floodplain, the building is also cognizant of that fact: The steel structure, while enclosed, does not impose on the landscape -- instead, it bows down to it: as if to ask permission for its presence. When it rains, the building will allow rainwater, and even flooding, to flow around the structure without impediment. Sunlight will be given equal status through a slatted ceiling and glass walls.

The IMA has made much of the fact that the structure is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified -- a designation bestowed by the U.S. Green Building Council that, via third party verification, confirms the building is energy efficient and environmentally sensitive. In this instance, it means the building utilizes water saving fixtures fed by on-site well water, energy efficient lighting, and a geothermal heating and cooling system.

As architect Marlon Blackwell puts it in a YouTube video posted on the IMA's www.artbabble.org, "It's a beautiful intersection between engineering and art. It's absolutely what it needs for the structure to hold it up, no more no less, but it is also very conscious about having a relationship with these other patterns and textures that are surrounding us here in nature."

Among the eight inaugural installations, Lisa Freiman's collaboration with the artist duo Type A, Adam Ames and Andrew Bordwin, is most evocative of her curatorial stance, which is both inviting and collaborative. This isn't to say that Freiman's choices aren't tough at times: when she curated the show "Boys" a few years ago, I found the exhibition to be difficult to look at but also revelatory in its treatment of masculinity.

I had the opportunity to observe Ames and Bordwin on their final visit to Indianapolis for the unveiling of their work "Align," a collaborative artwork that resulted from a series of team building exercises with a cross-section of IMA staff. The resulting sculpture is testament to the evolution of Type A's practice beyond issues of gender and power to explore notions of connectedness. The piece's two 30-foot-wide metal rings, suspended from telephone poles and trees in a small clearing, are oriented so the shadows cast by the rings will become one at the Summer Solstice, which also happens to coincide with the opening of 100 Acres. In order to figure out the mathematics and construction, the team worked with Butler University's Brian Murphy and local sculptor and fabricator Brian McCutcheon, as well as others on and off the IMA staff.

Just before the rings are raised, the group of IMA staff that participated in the team-building exercises leading to the sculpture's development forms a circle around its perimeter.

Bordwin says, "This is the up and away moment." Ames responds, "We're going to invite everyone to put their hands on it."

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It suddenly becomes apparent that this project is a metaphor for the entire park: the community that participated in building this single installation reflects the larger community that came together to create the larger park in which it seemingly floats.

Bordwin and Ames both admit to being altered by this collaborative process. Bordwin comments, "The whole process has been a process of release... trusting people around you, trusting decision making... letting go. It's taught us flexibility. It's the most ambitious thing we've done. It's a big confidence builder for us. We really feel good about it." Ames tells the entire group, "Thank you for challenging us in a way that we hadn't expected."

As Freiman tells me later, "In so many ways for me as a curator, this was a [perfect way to] experience what community engagement means... wondering if there was a sincere way to incorporate people of all backgrounds and experiences. And people have doubted the sincerity. The art world is a small, elite group."

What she came away with instead is "something important that would matter, that had aesthetic integrity, and that would involve community. We can still think outside the parameters of what a museum of art usually does."

INFOBOX:

The grand opening of 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park

Saturday and Sunday, June 19 and 20

Indianapolis Museum of Art

4000 Michigan Road; 317-923-1331

Sunday's opening is free and open to the public; Saturday is a ticketed gala.

For a complete list of events, including prices, see: www.imamuseum.org or call 317-923-1331.

The IMA's additional website, www.artbabble.org, includes YouTube videos and other in-depth content related to 100 Acres.

The event will feature tours, live music, art workshops and a Summer Solstice program. Eight commissioned works by an international roster of artists include a fanciful basketball court, imaginary ship, benches resembling the parts of a skeleton, a floating island, serpentine benches that seemingly spring from the ground, a brightly colored pier, suspended metal rings to cast matching shadows on the Summer Solstice and a park within the park that is only accessed by first descending underground and coming up into the light. The park's new environmentally sensitive Visitors Center will also be unveiled.

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