Arts backer Efroymson returns to contemporary museum he helped start

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Jeremy Efroymson considers himself a venture philanthropist.

The 40-year-old arts enthusiast and adviser to the $127 million Efroymson Fund has backed a number of startup projects.

One of his boldest moves was to help launch the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, or IMOCA, which has exhibited nationally known artists since 2003.

He also started the Harrison Center for the Arts on the grounds of First Presbyterian Church, which provides studios and galleries for local art. And he has aided the arts-happening organization Primary Colors, which stages an art competition that ends with losing works going to the Wheel of Death.

Efroymson said he prefers to help someone launch an idea, then move on.

"The community either buys into it, or they don't," he said.

When it comes to IMOCA, however, Efroymson isn't taking the Johnny Appleseed approach. He recently agreed to return to the financially flailing museum as its executive director—and work for free.

Efroymson has a strategy for seeing IMOCA through a financial rough spot, but what remains unclear is how the museum will wean itself off his support. He brushed off questions about how IMOCA will be viable in the long term.

"So what if we're not around next year-then we're not," he said. "If we want to have this creative culture we talk about, we need to take chances."

Efroymson was instrumental in IMOCA's beginning. He was part of the team that in 2003 helped bring far-out filmmaker Matthew Barney's "Cremaster Cycle" to Indianapolis' Key Cinemas. The films gave IMOCA credibility. The next year, the law firm Katz & Korin donated a 1,000-square-foot gallery space and offices at 340 N. Senate Ave., where the museum still resides.

The Efroymson Fund has steadily pumped money in since. Efroymson grants accounted for 62 percent of the museum's $280,333 in revenue in the fiscal year that ended in June 2006. As recently as the 2008 fiscal year, the fund gave $100,000, or 46 percent of the museum's $216,000 in revenue, according to a federal tax filing.

Michael Braun, director of the arts administration program at the University of Kentucky, said it's not unusual to find arts patrons with personal ties to a museum, but the arrangement can be tricky.

"You do end up with problems, especially when they step into a management role," he said.

If an administrator and board come into conflict, Braun said, "That person can walk away and take their money with them."

Often, a founding patron will gradually move out of the picture. The organization either thrives, or collapses, Braun said. "Any of the above could happen."

Provocative art

IMOCA has a strong track record of bringing nationally known and provocative artists to Indianapolis. In 2005, the museum helped finance the making of Guy Richards Smit's satirical film about the pornography world, "Nausea II." The film debuted at the Museum of Modern Art in New York before coming to Indianapolis.

The museum's current show features photographer Jen Davis, whose self-portraits explore her role in society as an obese woman.

Efroymson takes the helm at a topsy-turvy time. The museum's first professional executive director, Kathy Nagler, departed in May for a high-level fundraising job at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Soon after, IMOCA's board laid off the only remaining full-time staff member, curator Christopher West.

Board member and co-founder Stephen Schaf said the museum doesn't have money to pay full-time salaries going forward.

"There's been some challenges—some nearly insurmountable challenges," he said.

Efroymson served as IMOCA's first executive director until stepping aside in 2006 to make way for an outsider. The Efroymson Fund supported Nagler's salary for two years.

"We will always be part of the funding for this," Efroymson said of the family fund. "We won't be all of the funding for this."

The Efroymson Fund was established in 1998 with a $90 million gift from Jeremy Efroymson's parents, Lori and the late Dan Efroymson. The family business, Real Silk, started as a manufacturer of women's hosiery but later converted into an investment firm. Dan Efroymson sold the business in the late 1990s.

Jeremy Efroymson said he would be surprised if the family fund's current support for IMOCA amounted to more than 15 percent of the museum's revenue.

He also said he doesn't want to donate his time for long.

"In a year or two, I would hope we would be at the point where we could hire an executive director," he said.

Nagler diversified IMOCA's board membership, as well as sources of donations and grants. But the museum ran into the same difficult fund-raising environment that has caused cutbacks across the not-profit sector, newly elected board President Brandon Judkins said.

The budget was revised downward throughout the year, Judkins said. Revenue through May totaled $287,566, and was ahead of expenses by about $41,000.

West, the former curator, said his salary of $44,000 was cut 40 percent midway through the fiscal year, which closes June 30. Nagler also took a pay cut, he said.

"I thought if we could get through '09, we could get through anything," West said.

Nagler could not be reached for comment.

Controlling costs

Efroymson said he plans to keep expenses low by using freelance curators, and focusing on talent from the Midwest for the next year.

Grants and contributions are the museum's main source of revenue.

"You can do a lot with a little if you need to," he said. "If we get the grants that we got last year, we'll be fine."

At the same time, IMOCA hopes to hammer out a deal with developer Craig Von Deylen for space in Fletcher Place Arts, a $9 million mixed-use project proposed along Virginia Avenue.

Efroymson said the museum needs more space if it's going to broaden its offerings, because contemporary artists tend to create sprawling installations.

"That will really help us out quite a bit in terms of what we're able to show," he said.

Efroymson doesn't have typical museum-administrator qualifications. He has a host of academic degrees and he's traveled widely in the art world. In 2007, he agreed to serve as executive director of a proposed contemporary art museum in Carmel. The Midwest Museum of Contemporary Art never secured a space in Carmel's downtown arts district.

Efroymson said he didn't think the two contemporary art museums would compete. In fact, he said he prefers to think of arts organizations sharing in a "large pool of resources."

Judkins said Efroymson has the right background to steer IMOCA toward a successful future.

"We need to think anew about how we run this museum," he said. "This is the time to bring back somebody who has that entrepreneurial mindset."

Efroymson said he'd like to have six exhibits a year, including shows held outside IMOCA's gallery in conjunction with other arts groups.

Efroymson also intends to use guest curators, who will be paid with grants for specific shows. Using free-lancers is a way to cope with the lack of financial support available for ongoing operating expenses, such as salaries. Guest curators also can provide special expertise.

Efroymson said he hasn't had a chance yet to start contacting potential partners and curators.

"I know every single person who does anything with arts in the city," he said. "It won't take me more than a couple of months to get this all together."•


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