Arts » Visual Arts

Jeremy Efroymson: philanthropist and grassroots arts activist


Photo by Mark Lee
  • Photo by Mark Lee

It's 5:45 p.m. on a hot Friday evening in August and Jeremy Efroymson is touring the Re-Dome art exhibit at the Keep Indianapolis Beautiful (KIB) headquarters in Fountain Square. After having looked at a number of pieces, a seven-foot-high sculpture named "Yeti" by Keith Hampton catches his eye. Like the other entries, this sculpture of a Himalayan humanoid incorporates salvaged roofing material from the demolished RCA dome. But it does so in a unique way; the sculpture's "fur" is composed of thousands of strips of this fiberglass material. Efroymson, one of the judges of this juried show, likes this sculpture more than anything else that he's seen so far.

Ten minutes later, he's seated in the conference room with his fellow judges — philanthropist Frank Basile and Big Car Collective founder Jim Walker among them — and they start discussing the merits of each entry. KIB President David Forsell stands at the blackboard with a marker in hand, crossing off the works that haven't excited the jurors. One entry, a piece of dome material simply used as a painter's canvas, immediately falls by the wayside.

But the discussion quickly turns in the other direction. With a little nudge from Efroymson, "Yeti" rises to the top of the list of the Professional Art Category. Efroymson likes it, he says, because of its "ambitious scale and use of the dome material as a structural element." The judges seem to agree on this choice; Efroymson sees little point in debating it further; he says so, and this apparently prods the jury into wrapping up the decision-making sooner than they would have otherwise.

After the KIB meeting, Efroymson says of the jury, "Everyone agreed; they just didn't know that they agreed." So, acting on his instincts, he admits he pushed the meeting forward. He's confident in his decision-making process and dislikes, he says, how decisions in organizations have to be justified by 100 pages of research.

This isn't to say, however, that he's not willing to listen to the advice of others. He admires the character of steel magnate Henry Rearden in Ayn Rand's mega-opus Atlas Shrugged — not exactly a primer on philanthropy and/or non-profit management — for his decisiveness and passion for excellence.

"If you let life become a committee, it becomes difficult to trust your instinct," he says.

Efroymson with "Yeti," winner of KIB's Re-Dome contest. Photo by Mark Lee
  • Efroymson with "Yeti," winner of KIB's Re-Dome contest. Photo by Mark Lee

Jeremy Efroymson and the Family Fund

Efroymson, 41, doesn't make a grand entrance when he walks into a room. If he told you what he does you might be surprised because he's so approachable and engaging in conversation. You might not expect someone in his position — the vice chair of the Efroymson Family Fund — to be this way. Even if you aren't familiar with the Efroymson name, you're more than likely familiar with a number of the institutions and organizations that the 127-million-dollar Efroymson Family Fund has endowed. The fund has given away more than 60 million dollars in grants to 950 non-profit organizations since 1998 in activities ranging from environmental protection to historic preservation to the welfare of central Indiana's Jewish community.

The fund has also supported and continues to support the arts in Indy in a major way. The glass-enclosed Efroymson Family Entrance Pavilion that fronts the Indianapolis Museum of Art is the most visible sign.

Efroymson takes a particular interest in promoting the arts in Indianapolis not only as donor to but also as board member of a number of grassroots arts organizations, including Big Car Collective and Earth House. And perhaps most significantly, he's the executive director of the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (iMOCA). You could say that he has feet planted firmly in two worlds: one in the world of small- and big-time philanthropic giving, the other in grassroots non-profits.

"Jeremy is part of the group of people in Indianapolis who knows about the cultural things that are going on and also community things going on that are under the radar," says Jim Walker, "because he invests his time personally in going around and being places and going out and meeting people and isn't afraid that they're going to talk to him. He doesn't try to keep his distance, which is a very, very big difference."

Drawing outside the lines

If you were try to understand why Efroymson chooses to do the things he does in the greater Indianapolis area, or even why he chooses to live in Indy, you might start by reading about his family's history of ownership of Real Silk Hosiery Mills, which was located downtown and had its heyday during WWII. The wealth generated from this family enterprise, which is no longer in existence, would eventually seed the Efroymson Family Fund. But visiting his Westside home — where his three daughters live part-time under a shared custody arrangement — would be a better way to get some sense of why he does what he does.

Efroymson describes his three daughters as artistic and claims credit for encouraging their development in this regard. All three, he says, take piano lessons. He describes an art project by his oldest daughter Rachel in which she used Play-Doh to augment one of her paintings thereby creating three-dimensional art. He says of his daughters, "I hope they draw outside the lines for their whole lives."

The artists Efroymson most admires — artists whose work he collects — are minimalists. Richard Serra and Donald Judd are two of his favorites. Looking through the art in his home, you might also find alongside his minimalist prints some of his own framed photographs. Photography, for him, has developed into something more than just a hobby.

"I would describe myself as not quite a business man and not quite an artist. I'm like somewhere in between," he says. "And maybe now I'm going more towards the artist side. But I think having a creative side helps in problem solving. Actually, I came to it backwards, I came to making art through being an administrator, through being a director, and through being a curator of art.

"I've shown a little bit locally but just because of my position I really actually prefer to not show here. I have a show in Terre Haute in March at the Halcyon Gallery of my photography and other work."

Mixing up the media

The award ceremony at KIB is finished by 6:15 p.m. and Efroymson heads over to iMOCA.

At 6:30 p.m. on this First Friday and there is a already a sizable crowd to see the opening of PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death, and God, a collection of postcards curated by Frank Warren. Efroymson's mother, Lori Efroymson-Aguilera, the chair of the Efroymson Family Fund, is on hand in the sleek, brightly-lit iMOCA space. Efroymson stops and chats with her. Meanwhile the crowd of museum visitors steadily grows; people stream both clockwise and counterclockwise around the room — there is no set order to the pieces — to see the anonymously mailed, handmade postcards with secrets typed or hand-printed on them attached to the walls.

"We really try to mix up the media, the mediums at all times [at iMOCA]," says Efroymson. "We'll do performance art, photography, video... We've done painting, we've done movies, film, whatever. I think it's important to mix up different mediums in order to keep things interesting. And even within a show a lot of times. There were times when you need like... like that Kathryn Refi show where it was really solid painting. That's cool, but a lot of times you like to mix up stuff. But also, the other thing is, shipping a little DVD is much cheaper than shipping a big piece of artwork. That's another thing we're doing. We're trying to build up our technological capabilities. Actually Herron helped us out because they loaned us some of their AV equipment, their monitors, for the last show."

Unlike the previous show in June, Evans Woollen: The Art of Architecture, which was on the calendar before Efroymson came on board as executive director, the PostSecret show was entirely his idea. He made the decision to have this show quickly and instinctually; he figured it might draw in a large number of first-time visitors to iMOCA due to the popularity of Frank Warren's PostSecret books. While the Evans Woolen show, which focused on professionally-shot photographs of the residential and public buildings designed by this Indy-connected architect, drew in a large number of older Indy residents, the crowd on this night seems to be predominantly comprised of young professionals and students.

In fact, attendance would shatter all previous records. And as of Saturday, Aug. 21, the visitor count was 3,723. (A show considered successful at the old space on Senate Avenue might have attracted visitors numbering only in the low hundreds.) But whether the amazing gallery traffic translates into new membership for iMOCA — and a resulting bump for their shoestring budget — remains to be seen.

The learning curve

Efroymson, like many in his generation, spent a long time searching for his calling. He has, it must be said, an extraordinarily varied educational background. After getting a degree in film and video at the University of Michigan, he proceeded to earn a J.D. from I.U. Bloomington and an M.B.A. from Butler. He also has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Columbia College in Chicago. "When I was 33 I finally stopped going to school." And then he adds, jokingly,"Now I'm going back for my Ph.D." (Efroymson may not be heading back to school as a student any time soon, but he does teach several classes in the IUPUI Dept. of Tourism).

Around the time Efroymson was winding down his career as a student, he began making his presence felt in the Indianapolis arts community. In December 1999, he stepped into the role of publisher for Arts Indiana Magazine, where he served until December 2000. The demise of this magazine happened at a time when many regional art magazines were also falling by the wayside, says Efroymson, and there were factors beyond his control such as a serious lack of advertising revenue — a situation that had its roots before he became publisher.

Although the magazine didn't survive, he considers his experience there be a valuable one. As publisher he became familiar with the arts landscape in central Indiana and learned what to do — and not to do — when running an arts organization. "I think the lesson I generally learned at Arts Indiana is to better manage relationships," he says, "to react more calmly, to wait and think before reacting. I have this rule I call the '24-hour rule' Basically, it means even when I'm upset or feel like going on the counter-offensive, I have to wait 24 hours."

In 2000, he bought the struggling Presbyterian Metropolitan Center on North Delaware Street. It was the first in a series of actions that would lead to the creation of the Harrison Center for the Arts on that site. This not-for-profit, which currently houses 32 artists' studios and holds multiple art openings every month, has had a lasting impact on the Indianapolis art scene.

"Jeremy recruited the anchor tenants. He recruited the individual artists. He laid the infrastructure," says Executive Director Joanna Taft. "If he hadn't secured the building, the anchor tenants, and the original rehabilitation, the Harrison Center wouldn't be here today."

After putting all this work into this building and trying to run it as a for-profit art center, during the year and a half that he owned it, he sold it. He had started the ball rolling on the Harrison Center, but had no desire to get involved in the daily functions of this organization on a long-term basis — "Micromanagement doesn't work," he says — and he was ready to move onto something else.

Efroymson is also a photographer. Work like this will be on view at Halcyon Gallery in Terre Haute next March.
  • Efroymson is also a photographer. Work like this will be on view at Halcyon Gallery in Terre Haute next March.

The history of iMOCA

That something else was finding a home for contemporary art in Indianapolis. But in this instance, Efroymson's involvement would be much longer lasting. Back in 1999 he had a number of friends and acquaintances who were eager to change the bland end-of-the-millennium scene in downtown Indy — "as sterile as Stalingrad" in the words of local poet Kit Andis — and make it possible for contemporary art to be shown here.

"Stephen Schaf and Cara Dafforn and some other people kind of started the iMOCA thing," says Efroymson. "A lot of people think I started it but it was already going."

iMOCA was incorporated in 2001 and received its not-for-profit status with the IRS that same year. At the same time, the volunteer staff members of the new museum saw themselves as "the antithesis of the IMA," according to Stephen Schaf, Creative Director of Hotbed Creative, "so we weren't really putting titles on anything." But Efroymson was the unofficial executive director from the start, according to Schaf, and he supplied the necessary funding to get the ball rolling.

Says Efroymson, "I just kind of got them to having their first show which we did at the Stutz. We knew there would be a big group of people already there... So we did an installation there."

After several mobile installations, iMOCA found a permanent home on Senate Avenue in a space donated by Katz & Korin. Christopher West was hired on as curator in 2003. Kathy Nagler became executive director in 2005. At that point Efroymson stepped away from his role as de facto director and went on to do other things, but he still kept in contact with his iMOCA cohorts and continued to offer some support through the Efroymson Family Fund.

In 2008, the bottom fell out of the economy and that affected iMOCA along with everybody else.Kathy Nagler stepped down as executive director. There was $40,000 on the books in iMOCA's coffers but all those funds were already allocated. They were basically broke. A board meeting was convened with one item on the agenda that would be voted on: Should we or should we not disband iMOCA?

Schaf argued against closing during that meeting, and he went to Efroymson with a request for him to become involved at the leadership level. Efroymson agreed to become executive director pro bono in May 2009. Christopher West, the only remaining full-time staff member, was let go, and in December 2009, iMOCA moved into a space in the ground floor of the Murphy Building in Fountain Square.

Two times the space

Until late last year, the Murphy, a former five-and-dime store, had been a struggling art center with a serious lack of commercial tenants on the ground floor and an equally serious lack of upkeep. In the spring of 2009 the future of the Murphy looked bleak, but then architect Craig Von Deylen and his business partner Larry Jones stepped in and bought the building. There were things going on in the building that they liked, particularly what was going on in the anchor Big Car Gallery — partially supported by Efroymson Family funds — and they saw there the crucible for a future arts hub that would financially float the businesses on the crucial ground floor spaces in the Murphy.

In September 2009 they took over management of the premises. They cleaned the place up and let it be known that the Murphy would continue as an art center. A number of new restaurants and shops leapt at the opportunity to locate in an increasingly hip and well-visited urban locale. The Mt. Comfort Gallery relocated to the Murphy and the Herron Student Gallery set up shop caddy corner to the Big Car Gallery.

The move, according to Efroymson, has been an unmitigated positive. "Well, number one is that we have twice the space," he says. "Also, we were out in left field in terms of the art world at the old space. But now we have way more people going through... And we have a mix of people and everybody brings their own group so that really helps us out a lot. And I think we have more visibility because more people go up and down Virginia Avenue and they can see our space. We're kind of slowly working with Big Car and we're taking over other spaces in the building so we're kind of expanding our galleries."

There are synergies at work in the Murphy Building. "Two times the space, five times the people, and half the staff," says Efroymson, by way of comparing the new Murphy space to the old space on Senate. Shauta Marsh, a member of Big Car Collective, is also the Assistant Director for iMOCA, a position that she works part-time. The principals of iMOCA, Big Car and Mt. Comfort all work together and coordinate their activities. In June, for example, when the Evans Woollen show was going on in iMOCA, the second floor Mt. Comfort Gallery was showing Woollen's geometric abstract paintings. According to Jim Walker, the current configuration of the Murphy fits Efroymson's personality perfectly. "It's not buttoned down," he says. "Not stuffy."

Looking forward

You might get a sense of future directions of iMOCA by listening to Efroymson talk about his tastes in art. "I love big work. I love crazy stuff," he says. "I love the Walter De Maria stuff like the Lightning Field in New Mexico... Large and crazy and, you know, kind of insane. That's what I like, so my favorite installations kind of tend towards that. A long time ago we did Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle down at Key Cinemas on the south side. And that was a lot of fun. We showed those films. And we had people coming from Louisville and Cincinnati. I like going out into the community and doing different things. Probably I'm more comfortable being outside the gallery."

This also applies, it seems, to his life in general. You might get the sense that Efroymson doesn't just want to do a single thing for the rest of his life. He's not one, it seems, to define himself by a particular position, such as his executive director role at iMOCA. You might get the sense that he is restless. His crowning achievement to date in terms of arts support, which lies outside his iMOCA Executive Directorship, are the Efroymson Contemporary Art Fellowships—$20,000 apiece granted almost yearly to five artists. (Applications for the 2010 fellowships are due Sept. 24. Visit for more information.)

Notably, the territory in which an artist can live in order to be considered for this fellowship does not fall neatly within Indiana state lines. "Right now we're doing the entire state of Indiana plus metro Louisville and metro Cincinnati," says Efroymson. "One of my things now is that the reason we have the little i in iMOCA other than it looks kind of like an information sign, but also because I think of it as like a dot, we're at the center of a concentric circle, we're the center of a region and I always hated how things ended at the border of Indiana... Cincinnati's closer to us than South Bend is. So why aren't we interacting with them? Same with Louisville. Why aren't we interacting with them more frequently? Why does everything stop at the Indiana state border? So that's one of my favorite things that I do, really; for a lot of artists the Contemporary Arts Fellowships can change their career."

Anila Agha, one of the 2009 fellowship winners, agrees. "The fellowship provided me with the freedom to pursue bigger goals such as acquiring a permanent studio space and traveling to the U.K., boosted my confidence in my ability as an artist, and provided the monetary support that all artists require to survive in a world that doesn't value the arts as much as the sciences," she says.

One of the more significant philanthropic moves that Efroymson's made in the past several years is his support for Earth House Collective, which opened on Sept. 20, 2008. Operations Manager Kate Lamont credits his advisory and financial support as crucial for Earth House's continued existence.

Recently, Efroymson has branched out into other areas of philanthropic giving. He's assisted a number of small startup groups focused on urban gardening, like Global Peace Initiatives (GPI). This non-profit sets up gardens on reclaimed land in urban environments and the produce produced on such plots is used to feed the hungry. But GPI also preserves and promotes the horticultural arts.

Whatever type of art he's promoting, you could definitely say that he's trying to make the world a better place — on a local level. His children, he hopes, will benefit from the seeds that that he is sowing now.

"Jeremy is a peacemaker beyond compare because he brings so many different genres together to create a more peaceful world for his daughters," says Linda Proffitt, executive director of GPI.

Coda at iMOCA

It's 10:30 p.m. and Efroymson has done all the mingling that he will do for the evening. He's content, it seems, to savor the moment. He's sitting outside the iMOCA and watching the record-sized crowd of visitors stream through the hall and out into the night as if they were shoots from seeds that he had so enthusiastically sown.


Current Show at iMOCA:

"PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death, and God," a collection of postcards curated by Frank Warren. Through Sept. 18.

Upcoming shows at iMOCA:

"Neighborhood" (curated by Sam Lee); Oct. 1 – Nov. 20: Mixed media group show featuring drawings, photographs, and paintings by six Los Angeles-based artists; they include Jennifer Celio, Jennifer Lanski, Alia Malley, Nikko Mueller, Shelby Roberts, and Devon Tsuno

"Informal Relations" (curated by Scott Grow); Dec 3-Jan. 15, 2011: Recent abstract works on paper by a diverse group of current artists, focusing on the diversity of styles and practices within abstraction today. Each artist presented here confronts, investigates, and presents a definition of abstract painting true to his or her materials, motifs, and sensibilities.

Christos Koutsouras: Feb. 4 - March 18, 2011

Boards Efroymson serves on:

Big Car; Earth House; The Advisory Board at Herron; The Advisory Board for the School of Tourism, Convention, and Event Management (TCEM) at IUPUI; iMOCA; The Namaste Center in LaPorte, Indiana (an alternative healing center); The Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan.

Organizations and events Efroymson supports through the Efroymson Family Fund:

African University, Big Car Gallery, Building Tomorrow, Butler MBA Program, Cultural Tourism Conference and Award, Earth House, Global Peace Initiatives, Harrison Center for the Arts, Herron School of Art, Indianapolis Art Center, IUPUI TCEM Department, Journey's Fire, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, Namaste Center, Primary Colours, Spirit & Place, Writers' Center of Indiana.

Efroymson's Terre Haute show:

March 2-27, 2011, at Halcyon Gallery:

Opening is March 4 from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.


This Week's Flyers

Around the Web