Just about everything is left to chance at Big Car Collaborative's 10th anniversary show, through Sept. 26 at UIndy's Christel DeHaan Fine Arts Center Gallery, with a reception Sept. 10. Within certain parameters, that is. You can draw what you think Bigfoot looks like. Play the Surrealist writing game Exquisite Corpse. Make your own "drift dice" (where the idea is to carry the dice with you on a walk and follow the results of each roll, from "talk" to "stop" to "draw"). Like just about everything Big Car does these days, the show is about collaboration and interactivity, with enough prompts and help along the way to encourage the hesitant to get over their anxieties. And like in an alternate reality Jimmy John's, there's a road sign on the gallery wall that reads, "It's OK to try new things."
But labels and wall text won't suffice to initiate the newcomer to this show, so it's no accident that a Big Car rep is on site when I show up to look around. Working the floor is Tom Streit, Big Car's staff artist and one of the key people behind the organization's transition from Fountain Square-based art space to city-wide, social practice non-profit. "Most people have the same reaction when they walk in," he says to me as I freeze, a bit overwhelmed, and decide on a plan of attack. But before I take him up on his offer of a tour, I'd better get this four-paragraph primer out of the way, because we couldn't make it any shorter and because Big Car has done a ton of work in the last decade. Feel free to skip if you're a Big Car expert:
A Big Car primer
Big Car was founded in 2004 by a collective of artists, led by now-executive director Jim Walker, who wanted to establish, as copy for the 10th anniversary show has it, "a venue for experimental and surrealist art and performances." (Collective members helped to start Masterpiece in a Day in 2002 and were doing projects in Fountain Square from 2000, but for "simplicity's sake," says Walker, Big Car dates its founding from 2004.) The name comes from the Robert Creeley poem "I Know a Man": "As I said to my friend ... the darkness surrounds us, what can we do against it, or else, shall we & why not, buy a goddamn big car." Big Car hosted its first show in what would become its Murphy Arts Center headquarters in spring 2005. It wasn't hugely attended, but it did find Russian visitors dancing to Prince songs — and calling that a success, Big Car secured the space on a permanent basis. Over the next seven years, the Big Car Gallery hosted a variety of programming, including art openings on First Fridays, concerts, readings, film screenings and performance art. It helped to establish the Murphy as a hive of creative activity and encouraged growth in Fountain Square.
Big Car began to head in a different direction in 2008, when it received a $50,000 grant to fund Made for Each Other, a series of eight social practice projects designed to address needs in different Indianapolis neighborhoods. ("Social practice" is a nebulous term: A slightly flustered New York Times has defined it as "a deeply participatory art that often flourishes outside the gallery and museum system," but for our purposes, one of Big Car's taglines will suffice, "We bring art to people and people to art.") And when Portland, Oregon-based social practice professor Harrell Fletcher suggested during a stop in Indy that artists ought to work in underserved communities such as Lafayette Square, Big Car took him up on his challenge, moving into an abandoned Firestone tire garage on the outskirts of Lafayette Square Mall in 2011. Called the Service Center, it included an urban garden (out front in the parking lot), a flexible workspace (the un-renovated garage area) and a semi-renovated "showroom" space that hosted all manner of cultural programming. Big Car was forced to move across 38th Street into a smaller strip mall space after its lease ran out on the Service Center earlier this year; its new Lafayette Square (or International Marketplace) locations, a multi-purpose gathering space (Show Room) and a sound art laboratory (Listen Hear), will officially open Oct. 1.
Beyond maintaining those event spaces, Big Car has also launched or partnered on an almost bewildering variety of projects and events, from Better Blocks (which finds neighborhood members "rebuilding" a city block for a day by putting up temporary businesses, bike lanes, lighting and so on) to the Lilly Global Day of Service (involving employees in creating sometimes complicated murals), from the 48 Hour Film Project to an adult soccer league — plus even more spaces it can call its own, such as recently opened Galeria Magnifica, an art gallery located inside Superior Market and Taqueria on the Far Eastside. And what's next? There's the aforementioned Show Room opening, followed by the first-ever Art in Odd Places, Oct. 17-18, which will find music, dance, performance art, installations and other site-specific fun occupying Market Street, starting from Monument Circle.
Big Car was operating off $30,000-50,000 a year when it received its first substantial grant of $50,000 in 2008. Since then, growth has been swift. Its budget last year was $800,000 and it currently employs five people on a full-time basis (contrast that with an entirely volunteer staff in 2008), three more full-timers through AmeriCorps who will start this fall, plus three part-timers. In 2011, it established a fee-for-service model for design work that has given the organization more financial stability. Walker says Big Car's volunteer base numbers "several hundred," and its board includes both recent appointees and founding members. And to close out Big Car 101, we should head to the mission statement: "As an adaptive and flexible cultural organization, Big Car draws together people of all backgrounds to promote and perpetuate creativity, invigorate public places, and support better neighborhoods. Big Car is a creative community builder working to boost urban livability from an engagement-based arts and design perspective."