The world's largest museum meeting convenes in Indianapolis next month, and organizers say the gathering could do more than showcase the city's ever-growing cultural cache.
Hosting an estimated 5,000 museum professionals and patrons also will give cultural tourism efforts a boost and dump more than $4 million into the local economy.
The stakes are so high that more than 500 volunteers have been rallied to keep activities running smoothly day and night during the May 1-5 event.
Evening events are planned at a variety of venues throughout the city to make sure attendees see more than the inside of the Indiana Convention Center. That's particularly important for a group that turns out for its annual meeting as much for the extracurricular activities as for the sessions themselves.
Attracting the American Association of Museums should go a long way toward enhancing the city's cultural personality, said John Herbst, president of the Indiana State Museum and chairman of evening events for the convention.
"These people are cultural and civic leaders and are coming from all 50 states and international locations," he said. "They're going to go back and promote our city within their own cities. We couldn't have a better group of ambassadors."
To ensure the curators, docents, exhibit designers and other staffers go back thrilled with their visit here, volunteers have orchestrated an array of activities and will bus conventioneers to and from assorted attractions.
Visitors will be able to experience everything from duck-pin bowling in Fountain Square to playing the role of a fugitive slave traveling the Underground Railroad at Conner Prairie.
Other evening activities include crafting a dinosaur head at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis; walking the historic White River Canal to the 3-year-old Indiana State Museum; and visiting the seven different war memorials.
Other stopping points include a country doctor's office at the Indiana Medical History Museum; the Indianapolis Propylaeum, home to the state's oldest private club for women; and the National Art Museum of Sport.
A progressive dinner at six historic homes has already sold out.
The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art is scrambling to finish a $41 million expansion in time for the gala event scheduled there May 4.
Museum President John Vanausdall, chairman of the AAM meeting's local host committee, expects about 500 visitors to come eat, tap their feet to American Indian music and preview the new wing. The wing isn't expected to open to the public until June.
"The social events are a chance for the professionals to see not only what the public sees, but to see behind the scenes as well," Vanausdall said.
He expects ladders and tarps to be put away in time for his guests, but thinks visitors will see museum construction in a positive light.
"The museum community recognizes that there's been a lot of growth in the Indianapolis area," Vanausdall said. "It's ... a remarkable convergence of happenings in our city and another way for Indy to show off."
And the Eiteljorg isn't alone.
The Indianapolis Museum of Art is working on a $220 million construction project. And the Children's Museum is still basking in the glory of its $25 million Dinosphere exhibit that opened last summer.
"Frankly, our colleagues love to see things in process," Vanausdall said.
In fact, the city's burst in museum activity over the past few years is the main reason the city was chosen for the convention, said Ed Able, AAM's president and CEO. Indianapolis has not hosted the convention in 25 years.
"What I find fascinating, for a city its size, Indianapolis has a much larger museum base than any comparably sized city," Able said.
With international visitors coming as well, many expect the city to be touted as a cultural destination not only outside the state, but also beyond the country's borders.
And organizers say the prestigious convention can only help the city's 10-year, $10 million cultural awareness initiative launched four years ago. The convention may well boost the city's efforts to establish itself as something other than home of the Indianapolis 500, Able said.
"I've often noted that Indianapolis seems to be known nationally totally about the race, which I think is an unfair characterization," Able said. "There's a need to brand this city as something other than a race-car city."
The Indianapolis Branding Initiative, in fact, aims to enhance the city's reputation by developing a descriptive slogan that will be used in promotions. Cultural awareness is part of that effort.
Hosting the AAM meeting will go a long way toward helping both efforts, said Keira Amstutz, director of cultural development for the city and a member of the branding brain trust.
"It's a very prestigious convention to have landed for our city," she said.
And it has helped other cities in similar endeavors, Able said.
AAM's visit to Los Angeles in 1998, coupled with several other cultural events held there that year, aided in efforts to add depth to that city's glamorous reputation, said Chris Heywood with LA Inc., its convention and visitors bureau.
"We wanted to let people know that L.A. is not just about Hollywood," Heywood said. And hosting the AAM convention while the city was pushing its own branding efforts, "was a turning point in many respects in terms of elevating our status in terms of our cultural tourism drive."
Next month's meeting in Indianapolis is also well-timed, coming as the city is about midway through an 18-month explosion of local arts and culture that began when Dinosphere opened.
And then there's the money. AAM attendees are expected to spend nearly $4.3 million as they eat, sleep and shop during the five days they will be in town. The Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association estimates the AAM will be its 19th-largest convention this year in terms of direct visitor spending.
If direct spending figures from the Los Angeles convention are any indication, those numbers are probably not far off. About 5,000 people visited Los Angeles for AAM in 1998 and spent just under $5 million, Heywood said.
And as the city improves its reputation as a cultural destination for travelers, the dollars will keep coming, Able said.
While those traveling to a sporting event tend to stay for the day of the event only, the habits of arts-centric travelers are different.
"Cultural travelers stay longer and spend more per day," Able said.
That seems to be true. The Travel Industry of America reports that cultural tourism generates $220 billion in direct expenditures each year.
Still, Able said the dollar impact from the AAM convention is minimal compared with the cultural-branding footprint it can leave on a city it chooses to visit.
"We make it clear that we don't go to a city that is culturally starved," Able said.