Memories of a Genius

photo courtesy of Joyce Summers.

By Thomas P. Healy

News of Michael Graves’ death March 12, 2015 in his New Jersey home at the age of 80 generated international commentary on the Indianapolis native’s influence on architecture and design.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of his Midtown monument, the Indianapolis Art Center, on 67th Street adjacent to the White River and the Monon Trail.

Joyce Sommers worked 33 years at the Indianapolis Art League, where she served as volunteer, president, and eventually executive director of the renamed Art Center. She raised the necessary funds to hire Graves. “I’ve known Michael for more than 50 years,” Sommers recalled recently. “My first memory of him was seeing him in the corridor at Broad Ripple High School swooning over Gail Devine—the girl who would eventually become his wife. She and I have stayed close. Gail called me with the news.”

“There are few people other than my family who have affected my life and my life’s work more than Michael,” she continued. “He was a genius. Artists are vital, funny, eccentric people, and he was all those things. I celebrate and embrace eccentric people. I thought he was perfect.”

Sommers was part of the Art League team that changed the organization’s name, uprooted the center from its location at 31st and Pennsylvania streets, and relocated to Broad Ripple in 1976. “We called it the art shack,” she said. She laughs now at the thought of the Center’s Broad Ripple landing pad then. But the increased capacity attracted more pupils, who soon overwhelmed the space. “We had trailers all over the place,” Sommers said.

Looking to expand, the board rejected renovation in favor of demolition and a blank canvas. Then came the task of selecting an architect. “One of the architects on our board said, ‘You know Michael, why not ask him?’ But I felt shy,” she said. “I thought of him as a higher reach than we could probably do.”

Fortunately, around that time a former board member was traveling to New York to meet with the head of the Whitney Museum, which was considering Graves for a project. Graves attended the meeting and afterward met with the Art Center emissary who mentioned the expansion plans. “A few days later I got a postcard saying, ‘Go for it!’” Sommers said. In 1991, the board voted to contract with Graves.

“Michael was very enthusiastic about doing it,” Sommers said. “He helped us raise money all the time—that was wonderful. He felt that architecture is an art form and that we needed a building that reflects that. Michael never liked the term postmodern. He wanted his buildings to be lyrical.”

The first phase of the building was completed in 1995; phase two debuted in 1996. In 2005, although paralyzed, Graves attended the grand opening of his creativity and sculpture garden, dubbed ARTSPARK.

“Michael’s work totally transformed the Art Center,” Sommers said. “When we moved from the art shack we quadrupled the space and quadrupled the impact in the community. He changed the whole face of the Art Center and what art can do for a community.”

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