The IMA’s Big Plan: New Fee and Access Plans will Drive Membership

photo courtesy of IMA

by Marion Garmel

This is not your grandfather’s Indianapolis Museum of Art. It’s not even your father’s IMA.

Once it was a three-pavilions-in-one building on a bluff overlooking the White River, with some adjacent houses including Oldfields, the home of the late Josiah K. Lilly, who donated his estate as a home for the former Herron Museum of Art.

Now it is a 150-acre campus with an expanded museum building plus a greenhouse, formal gardens, outdoor sculpture, an apple orchard, landscaped walking trails, a horticulture library, and an art and nature park.

And it no longer is feasible to operate all these amenities without public support. The IMA announced it will begin charging an $18 admission fee in April.

The announcement has caused an uproar among museum supporters and art lovers and caused many to threaten to stop supporting the IMA, which is one of Midtown’s most famous cultural landmarks. What will this change mean to Midtown’s neighborhoods?

First, the bad news. It is not only the Krannert, Clowes, and Showalter pavilions that will require an admission fee but also the gardens and greenhouse, previously free to visit as you liked. All areas of what is now called the “upper campus” will have to be accessed via 38th Street through the Efroymson Family Entry Pavilion, with either a one-day admission fee of $18 per person/$10 students/under 5 free or an annual membership of $55 per person/$75 per family.

This means you no longer will be able to drive directly to the greenhouse to buy plants or walk behind the Lilly Pavilion along the wooded paths without being a member or paying an admission fee. A tram offering a guided tour of the grounds will connect the various parts of the upper campus with the entry pavilion.

The good news is the IMA Gift Shop and IMA Café and everything on the other side of the Central Canal will be free to visit, including the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: 100 Acres. The bridge across the Central Canal to the upper campus will stay open because not many people use it, according to the IMA’s Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO Charles Venable. But that is subject to change.

“We will have to wait and see how it works,” Venable said. “Because we don’t track people we have no idea how many use it.”

The walking and biking entrance at 42nd Street will be closed completely. “This is to prevent bicyclists from racing through the campus to avoid the corner at Michigan Road and 38th streets,” Venable said. “It’s a safety issue.” The museum will keep its bicycle racks for people who want to arrive by bicycle at the Michigan Road entrance further south, which will remain open. “I guess people could still use that as a shortcut,” he said.

College students with identification from public and private colleges in Marion County will be admitted free. And there no longer will be additional fees for special exhibitions or parking. “People told us they did not like the separate pricing,” Venable said. The Sutphin Fountain Mall, with its iconic LOVE and Five Paintbrushes sculptures, and the Newfields horticulture library will also be in the free zone.

Admission will be free on the first Thursday of the month from 4 to 9 p.m. The museum will still participate in the statewide Access Pass program that admits qualifying families for $1. And there will still be free admission for scheduled field trips from public and charter schools in the county. So why were general admission fees necessary?

“Something had to done,” said Thomas Hiatt, chairman of the IMA board. “We cannot continue drawing down our endowment by eight percent a year or eventually we will go bankrupt.” Among other activities, Hiatt spent five years at the Ford Foundation before becoming a founding partner in a private equity firm that specializes in helping nonprofits improve their management.

He chaired the search committee that brought Venable to the IMA to replace Maxwell Anderson, who went to the Dallas Museum of Art. Since arriving in October 2012, Venable has reduced the museum’s debt by $2 million.

Because the IMA is not a municipally owned facility, it gets less than one percent of its operating budget from the City of Indianapolis. Ninety-nine percent has to come from membership, fundraising, and the endowment. The museum’s operating budget for 2014–2015 is $28.1 million.

Some opponents of the new admission fee have argued that it is the job of the board to raise needed funds from wealthy donors and so that the museum is not unaffordable to ordinary people, but both Hiatt and Venable point out that the annual membership fee is more modest than the cost of a single ticket to many professional sporting events.

The real purpose of the new fee, they say, is to encourage people to become members. An increase in membership is important to the museum, not only as a revenue source but also as a way to connect with people who use the museum and now have a stake in what the museum does, Venable added. “We will now have a way to communicate with you. We will have your e-mail and can contact you directly. We need to find ways to connect to people,” he said.

Venable, who came to the IMA from the Louisville Art Institute after stints at other prominent institutions, said, “There is a big plan. At the end of our 10-year plan we hope the IMA is seen in this community and the nation as a destination campus. And that what is outside is just as important as what is inside. There are very few museums that have both a horticulture garden and an art museum. Indianapolis does not have a horticultural center, and we plan to be it. A dynamic duo,” he added.

Venable is the director who brought the popular Matisse and O’Keeffe exhibits to the IMA. “Dream Cars: Innovative Design, Visionary Ideas,” featuring a collection of rare concept cars from the 1930s to today, opens May 3 to coincide with the Indy 500.

“We desperately need to bring people to 38th Street,” Venable said. His hope is that the increased traffic will encourage restaurants and shops to open up north and south of 38th Street on Michigan Road to serve neighborhood residents as well as museum visitors and employees. “Right now, if we want to shop or eat out, the closest place to go is Lafayette Square,” he said.

The IMA will continue to participate in the Art2Art Trail that will connect the IMA’s 100 Acres Art and Nature Park with the Indianapolis Art Center’s ArtsPark via the Monon Trail and the Central Canal Towpath. Venable is not sure it will work because, he says, there are few natural places for art and nature along the towpath. Recently, however, Christian Theological Seminary received a $25,000 grant from The Indianapolis Foundation to create a “Spiritual Trail” that will lead from the CTS campus to the Central Canal Towpath as a spur of the Art2Art Trail. Hiatt also mentioned the possibility of putting little boats in the canal along the IMA portion of the towpath.

The IMA is collaborating with the Midtown Anchor Coalition in its plans to establish the area surrounding the Butler University campus as one of the best places to live, work, and visit in Indianapolis. The Coalition includes the IMA, Butler, CTS, Crown Hill Cemetery, the Butler Tarkington Neighborhood Association, Midtown Indianapolis, Inc., and Citizens Energy Group.

“We hope to work closely together with the other key institutional and individual stakeholders to develop a plan for the northwest quadrant of Midtown and what is important for increasing livability, and then work collaboratively with the other parties to implement it,” Hiatt said.

He pointed as an example to the west side of Michigan Road between the 29th/30th streets exit off I-65 and the Museum. “Until you get to Golden Hill, it is not very attractive. But it is a gateway to the museum.”

Although served by a bus line, the museum is not exactly a drop-in-off-the-street type of place. “We need to get people from neighborhoods around the museum and, if they need assistance, help them to come,” Hiatt said. “A key element is transportation. We have thought a lot about that.”

Something else they are “seriously exploring,” said Hiatt, is a preschool for economically disadvantaged children in the neighborhood in tandem with St. Mary’s Child Center, which already operates several preschools around the city.

Since arriving at the IMA, Venable has caused a stir by eliminating positions and firing employees. Some curators left for other places. He created the position of Curator of Audience Experiences and Performances and hired Scott Stulen away from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to fill the post. Stulen is best known for holding a successful Cat Video Festival in an open field at the Walker and repeating it at the Minnesota State Fair.

Stulen, an artist himself, is charged with creating interactive art and programs that give visitors unexpected and pleasant experiences that will keep them coming to the museum. “The job of an art museum is as a community hub—a gathering place for dialogue, discussion, and debate,” he said.

Stulen’s project is called ArtX, and you can already catch some of it. A portion of the IMA Café has been turned into a pop-up park complete with lush turf, turntables, a deck, Adirondack chairs, picnic tables, and places to lounge on cozy couches. “The goal is to find new ways of getting into and understanding the art,” he said. “There will be a balance between rigor and play.” It debuted New Year’s Eve and will be the site for many future programs, including an acoustic campfire concert series, ART x FIT classes, trivia nights, and drawing clubs. Popular programs like Winter Nights and Spring Equinox will remain, but with some added interactive programming.

“And we will continue to do what is great,” said Hiatt. “The IMA is among the top 15 museums in the country in terms of number of objects and endowment. We will increase the art acquisition fund, woo collectors, and seek bequests. With income to help cover the operating expenses, we can use the endowment for other purposes,” he said.

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

EDITOR’s NOTE: In November, 2015 IMA announced a record high number of memberships: more than 15,000 households.

A version of this article appeared in the February/March 2015 issue of the magazine.