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What's up with the IMA: A preliminary report

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Newly appointed Indianapolis Museum of Art CEO Charles Venable.
  • Newly appointed Indianapolis Museum of Art CEO Charles Venable.

Ai Weiwei: According to What? opens this week during a period of significant restructuring and unrest at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The museum's board and new CEO Charles Venable are endeavoring to rebuild the museum to increase its revenue stream and decrease its endowment draw. And to accomplish this, the museum eliminated 11 percent of its workforce in early March and began making changes to day-to-day operations, including making the museum's library open to the public only by appointment. Further job cuts in the museum's conservation department are being delayed until after the museum hosts an annual conference for conservators this summer.

Venable, who spoke to NUVO Friday, declined to detail the exact nature of staff cuts or reductions in programming and operations. But he did further nuance his plans to increase revenues and restructure the museum to increase its profitability and efficiency and broaden its local and regional appeal. Venable, who acknowledges that he was likely hired by the board from among a range of candidates because of his willingness to make budget cuts, has only been on the job six months. But for the time being, I'll make a few points:

* It would be very difficult to argue that the board isn't justified in implementing cost-cutting measures, even if the museum does have access to a substantial endowment that is recovering from the economic downturn. The IMA's annual budget is approximately $22 million. Its endowment totaled $326 million as of last June, approximately $203 million of which is available for annual operating expenses. The museum spent 8 percent of its endowment in 2012, and drew down a similar percentage in prior years. The museum has a policy of spending 5.5 percent of its endowment in any given year.

The IMA is not without resources. Some watchdogs suggest that the board and CEO could have made less drastic changes to retain essential programming and staff and avoid compromising gains made during Maxwell Anderson's tenure. But any argument that the museum is failing to abide by its mission "to serve the creative interests of the community by fostering exploration of art, design and the natural environment" may be doomed to failure, simply because that mission is so broad as to make it impossible to say that downsizing one department and expanding another represents a dereliction of duty.

* Will Higgins's profile of Venable in The Indianapolis Star painted Venable as something of a technocrat with dollar signs for eyes. After spending an hour and a half with him, I'd have to say that's not the whole story. Venable isn't trying to bring in a car show just because cars are cool, as he seemed to say in the Star story (although he wouldn't mind drawing crowds coming to town in May for the race). The show would be in line with the museum's push toward presenting the best in industrial design, initially led by Maxwell Anderson. Moreover, he loved the IMA's recent exhibition of Islamic art, Beauty and Belief, but he brought up the attendance totals for the show to Higgins because he's concerned with getting people into the building using all appropriate tools. Could the show have been better titled? Better marketed? Better priced? Venable is a oft-published author on furniture design, a veteran of the industry and by no means someone whose sole interest is in the bottom line - but he's fully aware that the cultural mission of an art museum can only be realized if the resources are in place to keep the doors open.

* The IMA isn't going back to Venice any time soon, and programming may be pitched toward a lower common denominator (without, perhaps, any watering down of a given show's intellectual heft). Here's Venable's take on the IMA's trip to the Venice Biennale: "The board and Max Anderson made what they thought was a great decision, and the goal was to go off and not only represent the United States but to really put the IMA on the international map. And I would say they hit a home run in every way you can. Could we do that right now? No. Could we ever do that again? Probably. But we need to be in a different financial position."

Both Venable and board chair June McCormack say they're interested in reaching new audiences that are unlikely to come to the museum just to see the old masters or cutting-edge contemporary art. But Venable bristled when I asked him if that meant shows would be dumbed down. Critics have charged that the IMA's upcoming Matisse show lacks a thesis and scholarly apparatus. But Venable notes that a curator is hard at work at putting together materials for the show, and that it's well nigh impossible to claim a show has been dumbed down before it has even opened.

* The board kept a looser hold on its pursestrings during a more lucrative era when the IMA may have expanded beyond the needs of the community. Venable: "We have a facility that is supposed to be operating with a million people in terms of scale, revenue, parking, the cafe, and when you're only at 400 to 450 thousand constantly, that's really tough, because you can't take the building away." Venable says he wouldn't describe the IMA's building as a burden - more an opportunity - and he notes that it was par for the course for arts institutions to launch major building projects during the '90s and bring them to fruition in the early '00s.

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