It helped launch Mass Ave as a "cultural district," at a time before anyone would dream of using such a vaunted moniker for a strip then down on its luck. It was an incubator for 70-plus artists, who had the crazy idea back in the '80s that they could do the work they wanted to do in Indianapolis, of all places. And it's coming back to life — well, for about three months.
It was 431 Gallery, a non-profit, cooperative art gallery open on the 400 block of Mass Ave from 1984 through 1993. And the Indiana State Museum is rebuilding it for its upcoming show 431 Gallery: Art and Impact — right down to 431's storefront and narrow, intimate interior.
It's a perhaps unprecedented way to tell the story of an unprecedented venture. We're more than accustomed to historical re-enactments and recreated environments, but such time-traveling adventures usually involve setting the clock back 50 years or more (setting time machine for 1923: neighborhood apothecary).
Much rarer is the experiential, immersive exhibition that tries to chronicle a more recent period in history. Sure, it's been done before: For instance, Francis Bacon's studio can be seen in a Dublin museum as he left it on the day of his death, with every discarded paint tube accounted for. And the new 9/11 Memorial Museum tries to viscerally capture the feeling of being at Ground Zero.
But Mark Ruschman, the chief fine arts curator at the State Museum, thinks this is a first for Indianapolis. "Many people associate us with historical work — T.C. Steele, the Hoosier Group — and that's a wonderful thing because it's an important story and a big part of our history," he says. "But the State Museum is also here to display and interpret recent history. To the best of my knowledge, while so much has happened over the past 30 years, I think we're the first to stand back and take a hard look at where we've been and where we are today."
So in the spirit of the show, let's take a quick trip back to 1984. There was an art scene here back then, Ruschman says, "but it was just a lot more spread out," with outposts in Broad Ripple, a few commercial galleries here and there, and the stalwart (and still-going) Hoosier Salon. But the prospects weren't promising for a young up-and-comer: "Given the climate of the city at that time as far as selling your work, the perception was that you had to leave to make it; you had to go to Chicago or New York, or a student would come out of Herron and immediately go to graduate school."
A number of Herron School of Art + Design students decided they would buck that trend, inspired, in part, by professors who challenged them to make their own scene. Seventeen artists founded 431 Gallery, "driven by the desire to have a place to exhibit, experiment and have a place to create what they wanted to," Ruschman says. "And it was the beginning of the revitalization of Mass Avenue, and that's been well documented by the people who were involved in it."
The "vast majority" of 431's initial members were painters, according to Ruschman, although 3-D and installation works were also part of the gallery's offerings and will be represented in the museum's exhibition. "I wouldn't say there was a common aesthetic, but there was a sense that everybody there was pushing the envelope," he adds. Performance art and poetry readings weren't uncommon.
Seventy-plus members were part of 431 Gallery during its nine-year run, with 15 to 20 members involved at any one time. Ruschman describes a two-part vetting process for prospective members: First an applicant would send slides of his or her work to be reviewed by members. If he or she passed that initial test, next would come an invitation to present his or her work, in person, at a meeting of the gallery.
Ruschman thinks such a procedure helped the co-op to stay intact for as long as it did: "Going through that process of not only reviewing the work, but meeting that person, talking to them, listening to what they had to say about the work and making sure they were committed — because it required a commitment, not only financial, but time-wise — they insulated themselves from situations that might not be good for the organization."
That commitment involved a whole lot of fundraising. Cy McQuigg, a member in the final years of the gallery, fondly recalls accessible, themed exhibitions — one devoted to Elvis, the other eroticism — intended to bring in a wider swath of potential supporters. Founding member Carla Knopp says bluntly that "fundraising was the main issue" in the early years, and recalls one slightly misguided early event, a spaghetti dinner/croquet game "with artist-made wickets to be auctioned at the end of then night....bidding to start after the croquet game. Of course the wickets were destroyed by then. We didn't think that one through."
But once in the door — and once the rent was paid — the benefits of membership could be significant. McQuigg says the key element for her was being "part of a community. And being a part of a community meant that you had to have something to contribute so that it could carry out its mission — that could be volunteerism, enthusiasm, educating others about the importance of art in our community, learning from one another."