Visual Arts » 2D

Blending Old Spaces and New Ideas



A bright orange vase, by Chinese-American modern designer Bo Jia, brightens an end table in the formal living room of the 1922 Italianate home Indianapolis Museum of Art Director Charles Venable shares with his partner, Martin Webb.

The ceramic piece is theirs, a part of the couple's collections of contemporary and modern art, but the décor of the rest of the room harkens back to another era: the late 1700s, when the neoclassic style was all the rage in England.

The formal living room at Westerly mixes British neoclassical and contemporary decorating styles. - BRITTANY BRODERICK
  • Brittany Broderick
  • The formal living room at Westerly mixes British neoclassical and contemporary decorating styles.

Though Westerley -- the historic 12,000 square-foot home owned by the IMA that comes with the Directorship and its furniture, (traditional-looking pieces donated by Allen Clowes and Melvin and Bren Simon) aren't styles Venable has ever lived with, he says he is honored to be their caretaker. 

"We've always had very contemporary houses," says Venable, whose official title is the Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

So their clean-lined belongings, including game boards designed by Hoosier architect Michael Graves, Webb's collection of deco aluminum and an unusual set of Wedgewood plates from the 1970s are carefully placed, like the orange vase, among the classic pieces they've temporarily inherited.

"We sometimes say it is like living on an opera set," says Venable. "It's very big and has lots of props, and they don't really belong to you."

You could say much the same thing about Venable's job at the museum, a short drive across 38th Street from the manse. He can't see the IMA or its expansive gardens and grounds from his windows, but Venable is always thinking about how to preserve them for future generations. Even when he's just cooking dinner with Webb, one of the couple's favorite pastimes, that mission is never far from his thoughts.

Understandable, because Venable is overseeing 6.6 million square feet of museum property, including structures and gardens, that make the IMA the largest of the top 20 general art museums in the country. He also has a 300-person staff, 54,000 pieces of art and the IMA's $29 million operating budget among his responsibilities, all at a time when massive change must occur, he says.

"We know traditional audiences for museums across the country are getting smaller...So museums are really struggling," he says, then adds, "And we are getting ready to launch ourselves full force into the world of being one of the most innovative places you can come to in a museum."

Such dilemmas, and efforts, aren't unlike those being considered across the country at other museums and arts institutions, including symphonies. The choice is simple in Venable's mind: evolve or be left behind by younger generations of people who have grown up with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and streaming movies and television shows over their computers.

Charles Venable has been Director of the IMA for one year with the charge to create sustainability. - BRITTANY BRODERICK
  • Brittany Broderick
  • Charles Venable has been Director of the IMA for one year with the charge to create sustainability.

Consider the video-store giant Blockbuster's recent demise, he says.

"That's really a total change in the way people are getting music and film, just a total revolution has happened to a large degree," he says, "that is what the museum world is going through now."

But even as Venable ponders how to preserve Indianapolis' 130-year-old museum for another century from a seat in his historic-meets-modern home, he finds himself facing criticism for his first year of efforts.

The First Step is Always the Hardest

Three months after Venable and Webb arrived here in October 2012 came layoffs -- 11 percent of the museum's staff was shown the door.

"I knew there was going to have to be some restructuring...(and) the staff knew. So people knew," he says. "But until it's you or not you, that's the real moment of truth."

Then there's the matter of a less than 140-character message about a nice lunch in Texas that came flying out of Venable's Twitter account at exactly the wrong time on the day of the layoffs. On that Monday in March, his Twitter feed's readers were angered to see the message, complete with a photo, mentioning a meal in a fancy Chinese restaurant he was having in Houston. It read: "Celebrated my birthday @CafeGinger here in Houston. Really is like an opulent Beijing eatery. Very good food."

And even before the layoffs, one of his early ideas for an exhibition, a nontraditional cars-as-art show, collected its share of naysayers.

"Indiana, home of the Indy 500, has its fair share of car shows in every town and city, seeing another one in a museum recast as art is pretentious, and would alienate the already-strong numbers of IMA visitors. Certainly not an inspired future to look forward to," wrote blogger Ben Valentine, a former IMA intern who lives in Brooklyn.

If bloggers bother Venable, he isn't showing it, though he does refer to them as "distracting."

Friend and neighbor June McCormack, who is also the chair of the IMA board that hired him, likely knows more about how Venable handles such complaints than most.

Venable has received much criticism for his changes at the IMA, but he maintains a good attitude. - BRITTANY BRODERICK
  • Brittany Broderick
  • Venable has received much criticism for his changes at the IMA, but he maintains a good attitude.

"I think he's tough-skinned," says McCormack, adding that the Twitter incident was "unfortunate." "He was sorry that it happened, but he moved on. You can't change things that happen in the past, and you have to move forward."

That seems to be Venable's attitude, though he pauses from laying out future plans for the IMA to give his side of his first year's low points.

Discussions about the layoffs were ongoing even as he interviewed for the job, says Venable.

And he views other high-profile staff departures as professional evolutions that create opportunities for newcomers who want to be at the IMA, despite a blog that says "the staff is voting on Venable with their feet."

Lisa Freiman, senior curator and chair of the contemporary art department left this year to become the first director of the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University. Freiman headed the outdoor sculpture park, 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park and served as commissioner for the U.S. pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, a prestigious first for the museum, during her time at the IMA. So she leaves big shoes to fill.

Contemporary curator Sarah Green, lead curator for the museum's groundbreaking 2010 show Andy Warhol Enterprises does, too. She resigned recently to host The Art Assignment, a PBS Digital Studios Web series with her husband, best-selling author John Green.

"Frankly, the really upside for me as a director, it means you get to hire curators who really want to be at the IMA at this moment in time," says Venable.

  • Brittany Broderick

As for the misplaced tweet, it was sent during a birthday celebration that occurred the weekend before the layoffs, but the Twitter message came out of a hacked account several days after it was typed, Venable says.

"People thought, 'well he's not even there,'" remembers Venable. "We clarified when people called...but nobody wanted to believe that."

Despite critics, he isn't giving up on the car show.

"These are not your daddy's cars you park on the lawn. These are the most extraordinary examples of design in the world," says Venable. "It's a perfect extension for us. We are the bastion of the automobile industry. If you know your automobile history, it seems really the great cars of America were made in Indiana."

Planning Step Two

The car design show could fit into a plan that will reorganize the IMA's operations much the same way Venable and Webb integrated their modern art into the pieces that came with their home: adding cutting-edge, new pops to what's already in place.

The goal, Venable says, is to broaden the appeal of the IMA to more audiences, especially young people like his daughter, Alexandra, who is 24 and lives in Seattle.

To do that, more exhibitions similar to the ongoing Henri Matisse exhibition are in order, he says. Matisse's big name is selling tickets and IMA memberships, and the way it is being presented is engaging all audiences, including young ones.

Visitors are invited to photograph or video (no flashes, please) all parts of the show and post their interpretations on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter -- something that used to be unheard of in the art world because of copyright laws. Also, one room in the exhibition is dedicated to student artwork. So after seeing Matisse's master works, guests can browse local children's versions of it. How did Venable accomplish that, considering copyright laws? He asked permission from Baltimore Museum of Art, where the majority of the exhibition comes from, and they agreed.

The back wall of Venable's office showcases his personal collection of modern coffee and tea service sets. - BRITTANY BRODERICK
  • Brittany Broderick
  • The back wall of Venable's office showcases his personal collection of modern coffee and tea service sets.

"A young audience is very interested in touching things, taking video of things and talking back to docents," says Venable. "They want to have a conversation about things and mold and shape their own experiences in an art museum."

This nouveau plan of Venable's will include much more than just the museum's galleries. His hope is to involve all 6.6 million square feet of gardens, buildings, lake and land owned by the IMA -- assets that set the museum apart from others in the country.

 "Our great secret weapon is that there are very few art museums in this country to have those kinds of resources that if you use them correctly they will help you get to a different place rather than just costing you a lot of money," says Venable.

Museum leaders hope he's right because, just now, the IMA's finances need a rainmaker.

When Venable interviewed for his job, he was told the museum's operation had to start relying less on its nearly $330 million endowment than it does now and more on revenue from ticket sales, donations, memberships and more. Sounds like a lot of money, $330 million, but in order to keep the museum's nest egg safe for future generations, its leaders have to curb a disturbing trend of spending, Venable says. Seems the IMA is more reliant on its endowment for revenue than any of the other top 20 general art museums in the country, which have other streams of funding -- more earned income, government support and contributions.

The bottom line is that almost 8 percent of the museum's endowment was spent on operating expenses in fiscal years 2011 and 2012, and that number must come down to about 5.5 percent by 2017, according to projections Venable announced in May when he gave his first State of the Museum address. This year, it was at about 7 percent, which is a step in the right direction, says McCormack.

"I think he has some very exciting visions regarding how to take the totality of our assets and utilize them in a multidimensional way," she says. "I think he is very enthusiastic about the future."

There is more evidence of swings in the right direction -- memberships are up by 21 percent over last year and contributions are up 29 percent, according to the museum.

More is necessary. There are a lot of ideas for future exhibitions under consideration, including one on religious art, says Venable. But what is certain is that anyone who offers a proposal to Venable will be challenged to present it with details on how it can make money.

"One of the things people will get bored listening to me [say] is 'what a fabulous idea, what are the underpinnings that will allow us to do that so we don't have to raise more money out of our endowment than we should?,'" he says. "Those are the kinds of things that will go into our thinking."

  • Brittany Broderick

That includes the mansion where Venable and Webb live with their two 3-year-old Maine Coon cats, Zeus and Atlas. Although they live there, Venable is even thrifty when it comes to the manse. In the library, an old rug was flipped over so it won't show worn spots.

At the same time, he and Webb have had a constant stream of visitors -- nearly 1,000 to date. Museum staff are invited to parties at Westerley, and supporters go there for private dinners.

"The goal is for people to come in and feel very comfortable," says Webb.

Venable and Webb seem comfortable, too, despite the job stress.

They are newlyweds, employing a contemporary idea about marriage in the United States to their 15-year-old relationship. None of the states where they have lived allows same-sex couples to wed. So, a few weeks ago, they traveled to New York, which does, and exchanged vows.

"We always wanted to marry, but that was not possible in Texas, Ohio, Kentucky or Indiana, the states in which we lived," says Venable.

He's resolved to get around obstacles at the Indianapolis Museum of Art much the same way. It will just take nerve and a lot of creativity -- like finishing a neoclassical room with a modern vase.

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