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Hoosier Salon paints its role in broad strokes: 81-year-old organization hangs on to popularity

September 12, 2005

In the art world, the Hoosier Salon is a true Indiana original.

Founded in 1925 by a group called the Daughters of Indiana, the Hoosier Salon blazed the trail for countless modern-day galleries and arts organizations seeking to spread the gospel of Indiana artists.

Today, the organization finds itself in friendly competition with younger organizations for artists and patrons. It remains relevant, its leaders say, by constantly evolving while keeping the ideals that have given it prestige among generations of Indiana artists and patrons.

Still, the Salon sometimes struggles to draw crowds to its main gallery in Broad Ripple, about eight miles north of the growing arts scene in downtown Indianapolis, Executive Director Ginger Bievenour said. And this year, attendance was down for the usually brisk purchase event preceding the Salon's trademark annual exhibition, which ended its run Sept. 5 at the Indiana State Museum.

"Even 10 years ago, we truly were one of the only opportunities for Indiana artists to show their work," Bievenour said. "Now, that's not the case. There are legions of exhibits. Our artists exhibit nationally and internationally."

It's not that the Salon is exactly hurting for patrons or artists. This year, 585 artists submitted works to be considered for the annual exhibition; 188 were selected by independent outside judges. Several of the city's most prominent business and civic leaders support the Salon as patrons, as do the Psi Iota Xi and Kappa Kappa Kappa sorority chapters across the state.

And attendance for the exhibition, which moved to Indianapolis from Chicago in 1941 and to the Indiana State Museum in 1990, has held steady for years at around 9,000 people. Those who buy the works range from the most sophisticated collectors to those who happen by the exhibition and make a purchase on a whim, Bievenour said.

The Salon continues to draw collectors looking for a good investment, said Douglas L. Tilllman, president of the Salon's board of directors. Works in this year's exhibition were priced from $125 to $35,000. That doesn't mean Salon patrons are necessarily banking on a good return, however.

"Most people buy because they think it's of value," Tillman said. "They like it, they're willing to pay for it, but it's hard to part with it once they have it."

The annual exhibition puts artists' creations in front of some of the state's most active collectors, including the Indiana State Museum.

To be chosen for the annual Hoosier Salon exhibition also gives artists the notable distinction of being in the same company as Hoosier icon T.C. Steele and his contemporaries.

Those artists provided the impetus for the first Hoosier Salon exhibition, held at the Marshall Field and Co. galleries in Chicago. Tens of thousands of people turned out for the exhibition, proving the Daughters' contention that Indiana was producing quality art that was going unnoticed by the larger world.

Drawing attention to Indiana artists by promoting their work and cultivating patrons is still the guiding mission of the Salon, which is why its leaders think of the Salon as a collaborator with, not a competitor to, other, newer organizations.

Through its Web site and newsletter, the Salon promotes not only its own exhibitions, but also other in- and out-of-state opportunities for Hoosier artists.

"Part of what we need to do is embrace [other opportunities] and know about it," Bievenour said. "Even if we don't get the money [from sales], we make sure our members know about it."

To become a member of the Salon, artists need only have been a resident of Indiana for at least one year at some time during their lives. Those liberal guidelines have resulted in a diverse mix of native and adoptive Hoosiers, including artists born in foreign countries and those living in states across the country, Bievenour said.

Guidelines for works submitted for the annual exhibition are similarly broad, including nearly every medium and style. Each year, about 25 percent of the artists in the exhibition are those who've never before had works selected for the exhibition.

Still, though, works in the annual exhibition tend toward the traditional, with few contemporary and abstract pieces. Those that are contemporary are generally so in the mid-20th century sense, Bievenour said.

This year, many of the 35 works that sold before the exhibition's last weekend and subsequent tour across the state leaned to the contemporary side, she said.

"That maybe indicates our audiences are broadening a little bit," she said.

Its mostly traditional focus makes the Salon somewhat of a niche organization, but not restrictively so, said John J. Domont, a Salon member and owner of downtown's Domont Studio Gallery.

"It's a niche art organization with a broad set of arms, with very welcoming arms," he said. "Other organizations and venues are there for other art appreciations and students."

Even among artists whose work doesn't fall into the traditional or early-contemporary genre, the Salon remains a respected organization, said Jennifer Kaye, owner of LAMP Fine Art Gallery on Massachusetts Avenue. But it doesn't encompass every Indiana artist, she said.

"When I was coming up as an artist, there weren't any venues for me and my friends to show contemporary art," said Kaye, who rotates works from about 50 artists at LAMP, which stands for Local Artists Making Progress. "That's part of why I did this."

The Salon recognizes it can't be all things to all people, Bievenour and Tillman said, but still believes it can be an important organization for new generations of artists and patrons.

"The Daughters of Indiana had a goal to put a book or a work of art in every home in Indiana," Bievenour said. "That's a huge goal-and a very populist one. I think we still try to achieve it today."
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