Community-Building at the Art Center: A Clearinghouse for Creativity

photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Art Center

by Marion Simon Garmel

The Indianapolis Art Center has a lot to celebrate in 2015. It’s the 81st anniversary of its founding as a Works Progress Administration project in 1934. It’s the 46th staging of the Broad Ripple Art Fair. And it’s the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Art Center ARTSPARK.

The Art Center has been a Midtown anchor institution since relocating to Broad Ripple in 1976.

“There is nothing else quite like it in the city,” said Michele Winkelman, who has been director of the Art Center’s outreach department since 2006.

It’s not just a museum. It’s not just an art school. It’s not just a community center. It’s a combination of all three, said Patrick Flaherty, who took over last August as the third director in the Art Center’s history. His plans for the future: “We will continue to build on a track record of community-building through the arts.”

Flaherty started as a picture-hanger fresh out of Ball State University 23 years ago. He has a master’s degree in printmaking and taught printmaking at the Art Center. His previous title, before replacing Carter Wolf as executive director, was director of exhibitions and artists’ services. This included coordinating the Broad Ripple Art Fair, which opens the city’s summer art season the third weekend in May. “I also have a master’s degree in Art Center,” he joked.

Flaherty noted that a museum collects, preserves, and presents art. A gallery displays and sells art. An art school teaches future artists and art teachers. And a community center is open to all comers and serves as a community gathering place. The Art Center does all of these.

It offers classes to anyone who wants to learn, regardless of experience or age. It displays and sells art, both the works of its students and faculty and of regional and national professional artists. Its open hours accommodate all visitors: until 9 p.m. weekdays, 6 p.m. Saturdays, and 5 p.m. Sundays. You can drop in at night and see exhibits in five galleries. You can drop in any time and read a book in the library. No admission fee is charged and there is plenty of free parking for cars or bikes.

The Art League

When the Art Center was established in 1934 it was called the Indianapolis Art League and modeled after the Art League in New York City. It was designed to give Depression-era adults a chance to make art while giving out-of-work artists a chance to make money.

The first class consisted of 10 women who met in the Kirschbaum Community Center, 2314 N. Meridian St., with Indianapolis painter William Kaeser. Students paid the teacher directly. Over the years the number of teachers and classes increased, and participants met in various Midtown locations. After moving to Broad Ripple, it was renamed the Indianapolis Art Center to broaden its appeal and better describe its many activities.

And then, in a masterstroke of vision, executive director Joyce Sommers persuaded her board to raise $8.5 million for a building designed by the Indianapolis-born architect Michael Graves. Already a celebrity architect and teacher at Princeton University, Graves had designed the postmodern Portland Building in Oregon but he had no buildings in his home state. The signature building he designed for the Art Center opened in 1995.

Your Art. Your Way.

Would-be artists and hobbyists flocked to the Art Center’s state-of-the art studios to learn or sharpen their skills. In addition to painting and drawing, the Art Center today offers classes in ceramics, digital arts and photography, glassmaking, jewelry making, mixed media and textile arts, printmaking, sculpture, and woodworking. It has 88 faculty members and offers more than 1,000 classes a year. You can find almost any class for any level.

“I just love that we are working with living artists,” Flaherty said. “These people have a lot more courage than people in art schools. The difference is, they want to be here. And I would put the quality of our students up against anybody. I can’t tell you how many people came here wanting to learn how to make jewelry and ended up opening a business.”

Its instructors always included some of the best artists in the city. Garo Antreasian, a Herron Art Institute instructor who went on to found the Tamarind Institute and revolutionize printmaking in America, taught there. So did Elmer Taflinger, who taught life drawing from his studio in the Carriage House behind the Propylaeum. Prize-winning watercolorists Floyd Hopper and Paul Sweany also were on the faculty.

The tradition continues. Vandra Pentecost, chairman of the painting and drawing department and winner of last year’s Teacher of the Year award, has displayed her work at the Royal College of Art in London. She has directed mural projects all over Indianapolis and was a consultant for the Arts Council of Indianapolis’ Super Bowl XLVI murals project.

“We also are a clearinghouse for people who need help with creative projects,” Flaherty said. “You can call here and tell us what you need and we can find somebody to help you.”

Until recently, classes were divided by session—fall and spring. Now the schedule is more flexible, with two-hour pop-up classes available for those who want to drop in and make a work of art. This reflects the changing culture and the technological age, Flaherty said. “People come here for all reasons. Art is a tool for people to relieve stress, celebrate time with their children, and get better at what they love to do. We offer them a chance to be a part of a community. Anybody can find what they want here.” Hence the Art Center’s current slogan: Your Art. Your Way.

Community Outreach

The Art Center offers summer camps for kids, including the city’s only architecture camp for high school students, led and designed by local architects, said Michele Winkelman, the Art Center’s director of outreach since 2006. The Center’s outreach programs connect with a variety of audiences, including underserved children, adults with disabilities, and the homeless.

The Teen Art Council is a free program for high school students who want to participate in visual art outside the classroom. Teens come to the Art Center twice a month and design their own art projects. A Teen Night is scheduled for May 4. “The purpose is to give youths a voice and teach social and leadership skills through art,” Winkelman said. SMART (Supportive Mentoring through Art) is a yearlong program with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana and the Starfish Initiative for youths ages 12 to 18 and their mentors. They work one-on-one with professional artists in classes at the Art Center.

Beyond Perceptions brings teens together with men and women who have experienced homelessness. Together they create artworks based on their experiences (the homeless) and their perceptions of homelessness (the teens), and then discuss them. At the end there is an exhibition and a community service project that benefit the homeless.

Through ArtReach, the Art Center provides instruction by local artists to youths ages 5 to 18 at 18 community centers, churches, and schools. The 23rd annual ArtReach Exhibition opens April 17.

The Art Center’s yearlong exhibition schedule features six series in five spaces with more than 30 shows each season. These include annual student and faculty shows along with invitational and competitive exhibits for regional and national artists. In 2014, the Art Center was named Best Contemporary Art Gallery by the Indy A-List and The Culture Trip websites.

Art and Nature

ARTSPARK is a nine-acre, open-air, interactive sculpture gallery that spans the entire back expanse of the Graves building and stretches all the way to the White River. Decks and stages host concerts, film festivals, and special events. It is a popular site for outdoor weddings.

The outdoor gallery is designed to house major sculptures and interactive art works that are often constructed while the artists are in residence. The official spring opening is Friday, April 18. Artist Teresa Lind will be installing a new work.

The Art Center abuts the Monon Trail on its east side, and if you walk down the Monon and pick up the Central Canal Towpath, you can walk or bike all the way to the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Virginia B. Fairbanks 100 Acres Art & Nature Park. This is the focus of the Art2Art Trail that connects the Art Center to the IMA with sculptures and other installations along the way.

Broad Ripple Art Fair

The first Broad Ripple Art Fair was held in 1970, when a group of Art League members, led by future board chairman Marge Beale and with the blessing of the Broad Ripple Merchants Association, organized a one-day fair on the parking deck over the canal in Broad Ripple Village. When the League moved to 67th Street, it moved the fair across the street to an empty meadow owned by the North Side Optimists.

Since the 1980s the Art Fair has expanded to ARTSPARK and lawn areas on the grounds, and this year it will even go inside to the Art Center’s classrooms and galleries. This year’s fair, May 16–17, features a juried show with 225 professional artists’ booths and, for the first time, an emerging artists area with 25 to 30 Art Center students. With four entertainment stages, a Kids Stage, gourmet food booths, craft beer, a cultural arts area, and more, it is expected to be the largest fair in the event’s 46-year history. “We are always looking at what the community needs,” Flaherty said, “and we will continue to do just that.”

Long-time Midtown resident Marion Simon Garmel is a retired arts journalist and serves as secretary of the Women’s Press Club of Indiana.

A version of this article appeared the April/May 2015 issue of the magazine.

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