While researching an upcoming art exhibit here at the Indiana State Museum, I came across an old newspaper article by former Indianapolis Star art critic Steve Mannheimer. In the article, he raised a question I've often wondered about. Does Indianapolis have recognizable visual art aesthetic?
In his 1989 article, Mannheimer provided a brief history of some of the better known art movements and schools that over time have secured their place in the art history books and countless museum wall labels. Regionally, we have the Hoosier Group: a gang of five turn-of-the-century painters that should need no further explanation. Fast forward about a hundred years, the closest comparable thing we have in this neck of the woods is "The Hairy Who", a 1980's collection of Chicago artists that made a name for themselves on the national scene.
You can certainly make the case that over the past three decades, Indianapolis and the region have experienced nothing short of an explosion in visual arts. Public Art, Efroymson Fellowships, ACI, Herron School of Art and Design, Carmel Arts District, IDADA First Friday, 100 Acres and the list goes on and on. We're in the big leagues of big dollar art, controversy and cultural tourism. With all this firepower, you have to wonder if there's anything, beyond geography, that ties all this art making together.
I've managed to keep my fingers on the pulse of the regional art world over the past 30 years. Curating gallery shows, representing artists, talking with collectors and I'm probably on every mailing list imaginable. We have the Stutz, Murphy and Wheeler buildings chocked full of artists. There's Herron, UIndy, Art Institute of Indianapolis and others which have turned out thousands of artists. There are plenty of venues to show, and no lack of opportunities for artists to congregate and share ideas.
So how do we stack up?
Despite all of it, I can't say that I've found that common aesthetic thread that you could conveniently hang an "ism" or "school" label on. That I can see, we have nothing comparable to an Ash Can or Hudson River School, or the Imagists or Bay Area Figurative Movement. Why not? Is it because local artists have always been an independent lot, or they didn't see the need or value in promoting themselves as a group? Maybe the art critics didn't see the evidence to make the claim, or local dealers weren't willing to invest the time and money to make the case. Maybe the idea of labeling an art movement is just old school and no longer relevant - who cares?
Does it really matter if the Indy art scene has a recognizable look? Honestly, probably not. But still, it's an intriguing question. It may take some time, maybe years, to gain the proper perspective and find the answer. Labels tend to wrap things up in a tidy bundle, making it easy to generalize. From my perspective, the Indy arts scene is anything but tidy. It's slippery, hard to get a hold of and always changing - just the right environment for the best work to be made.