Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Attractions and Indianapolis Museum of Art and Fundraising

IMA Art & Nature Park outdoor exhibits will change regularly

June 9, 2008

Think of the Indianapolis Museum of Art's Art & Nature Park as a 100-acre canvas. But it's not a blank one.

Already draped in an ever-changing natural backdrop--meadows, a 35-acre lake, river, canal, woods and wetlands--the site will come to life in 2009 through eight pieces of art commissioned specifically for the setting.

But unlike traditional sculpture parks that feature permanent artwork, the IMA's $25 million outdoor gallery will change regularly. Some pieces might remain for one year, others for 10 years, but nothing will stay forever.

"We want it to be dynamic," said Lisa Freiman, director of the park, formally known as the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park.

That wasn't always the case. The original vision for the park was to buy outdoor pieces to add to the museum's collection. IMA officials even commissioned a massive steel bridge and pedestrian walkway that would have been a piece of art itself.

But about 18 months ago, the thinking started to shift.

"We asked ourselves, 'What could we possibly do with a permanent sculpture park that no one else has done before?'" Freiman said. "Not much."

Instead, museum leaders started looking into hybrid models that combined a permanent collection with some space for temporary exhibits. But that was fairly common, too.

The most unique--and liberating--option, they thought, was to commission artists to create large-scale temporary works inspired by the park setting itself.

With that kind of model, leaders could also venture out of the norm and commission works from not just established artists but also those in earlier stages of their careers.

Also, the temporary model is less expensive. With the shift, the IMA cut its fund-raising goal in half to $25 million to buy art and operate the park. Construction is set to begin this fall.

So far, eight pieces have been commissioned for a total of $2.5 million (see box). The artists will sign contracts specifying how long their pieces will be on display. Museum officials are still debating whether to roll out new commissions every year or every two years.

"We wanted to develop it with an entrepreneurial spirit," Freiman said. "What we could do that no one else could is play this role and give [the artists] a chance to do something they've never done before."

National experts say that, while some large art parks have smaller spaces devoted to temporary installations, no park of this scale is 100 percent dedicated to temporary commissions.

"It's fairly unique," said John Beardsley, senior lecturer in landscape architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design.

He said some smaller parks have tried similar projects, but for a different reason.

"It's not unprecedented, but generally it's [venues] that tend to be smaller institutions that have to experiment to survive," he said.

To see a large museum like the IMA commit significant funding to temporary pieces is exciting, Beardsley said, since the nature of the work frees artists to take chances because the piece won't be "some great statement for the ages." Likewise, it gives the museum a chance to be more creative.

"It's a much more interesting model," he said.

Artists selected for the initial round of commissions have visited the site and their pieces will reflect on their experience.

Naturally, museum officials hope the renewal will drive attendance at the park, which won't charge admission. For those working to promote Indianapolis as a cultural tourism destination, it's a dream come true.

"It's definitely an asset to have such a fresh, dynamic offering," said Jenny Guimont, director of the Indianapolis Cultural Development Commission. "Cultural travelers are savvy enough to stay on top of their interests and when they hear of something new, they'll come."

And the energy around the park will be sustained by regular new commissions.

"People will always want to know what's next," said Greg Charleston, president of the Arts Council of Indianapolis.

The temporary model also fuels risk taking. For permanent pieces, the pressure to create something with a potentially unlimited lifetime is high. And the price tag is usually high, too.

But with pieces that will be up for just a year, for example, artists may risk making a controversial political statement or taking a visual risk that may not be popular.

"In a way, we're trying to bypass the marketplace," Freiman said. "We want artists to dream anything, not something that is sellable."

There are a few downsides to the plan. With more flexibility comes a higher risk of failure, Beardsley said. Experimental works can have technical problems with materials or just not live up to the artist's vision.

"But that's part of the excitement," he said.

The temporary model also means coming up with a different pitch when approaching donors. Instead of promising supporters their name on a plaque next to a sculpture forever, the IMA is looking to line up corporate sponsors interested in underwriting ever-rotating exhibits.

So far, so good. It's only $1.7 million shy of raising the initial $25 million for the park.

The shift to a temporary exhibit model also meant some changes to the planned infrastructure for the park, which is on museum-owned land directly west of IMA's existing 52-acre campus.

Freiman said officials tried to create a smaller footprint, cutting two planned buildings down to a single visitor center. They also canceled initial plans to commission the massive steel bridge and pedestrian walkway by artist Mary Miss.

Officials now are studying additional trail routes and entrances for the park. The IMA is in talks with the city about a possible 100-space parking lot and pedestrian trail entrance off 38th Street. Of course, the museum is looking into greener ways to do the parking.

Also, it's planning a pedestrian bridge on the northernmost tip of the park near Michigan Road. The third entry point will be the existing Pony Truss pedestrian bridge near the main museum campus.

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