Leader tapped to make the IMA a ‘must see’: New director to focus on art and nature park

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The Indianapolis Museum of Art’s new director isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers. During his five years as director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, he reportedly butted heads with the board over programming and oversaw a staff reorganization that triggered the departure of several curators.

He also resigned after the board rejected a $200 million expansion he pushed.

But Maxwell Anderson, who started at the IMA June 19, dismisses that reputation.

“The Whitney is a very unusual place,” said the 50-year-old New York City native. “It has traditionally been a place of extreme controversy.”

His main lesson from it, he said, was to work at a place where everyone was on the same page about the museum’s mission.

What’s the top priority for the IMA, then? Anderson and leaders seem to agree-to make IMA a “must see” for anyone in town or even in the Midwest. “I want to make [the IMA] an indispensable feature of the city,” he said. “We’ve grown to a point where we could achieve that stature.”

Other museum leaders are of the same mind, saying the 123-year-old institution needs to “grow into” its recently completed $74 million renovation and expansion.

IMA trustee Steve Russell, a fellow New York City transplant, said Anderson has the right vision.

“In New York, art museums are part of the fiber of what the city is,” said Russell, CEO of Indianapolisbased trucking company Celadon Group. He said schoolchildren go to the museums and grow up with an understanding of “other things in life besides computer games and making money.”

Capitalizing on expansion

The IMA expansion started in 2004. Some galleries have yet to reopen, and Anderson said museum officials will need at least a year to set a baseline to judge growth potential.

The museum has 320 employees and a $20 million operating budget. Attendance numbers are hard to compare. In 2004, attendance was 198,640. During that time, several galleries were temporarily closed because of renovations, and entry was free.

In 2005, attendance was 181,472, even though the entire museum was shut from January through early May. When it reopened, the cost of admittance was $7.

Key to boosting the museum’s profile is the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park, Anderson said.

The museum has yet to release many details other than to say the park will be developed on 100 acres the IMA already owns and will include paths that lead visitors through art and nature interacting.

“The art and nature park will be a sea change in how the public will come to experience contemporary art,” Anderson said, adding that it will be both “manicured and freewheeling.”

Anderson will need to raise money to purchase pieces for the park and set up a fund to cover ongoing costs.

A welcoming place

Anderson also has ideas for improving the existing museum. For example, he said IMA should do a better job of making new visitors feel welcome.

“I think art museums in general are intimidating places,” he said, adding that people don’t hesitate about going to a science museum or zoo because they don’t feel they have to already be an expert. He said he hopes for the same feeling at the IMA.

The first steps he sees-change the guard uniforms to something more casual and rewrite some of the educational material to address an audience Anderson said is intelligent but not necessarily highly educated about art.

And he said the IMA must do a better job of highlighting the strengths of the permanent collection, such as a 1629 Rembrandt self-portrait and collection of Edo period Japanese scrolls.

IMA officials have been able to be aggressive about adding to collections and making improvements because the museum has a $350 million endowment, amassed over the years thanks to big gifts from a handful of donors. The endowment generates income to fund about half the operating budget.

“It’s one of the key reasons I came,” Anderson said. “It’s an incredible blessing to have [the endowment] as a bulwark for us.”

Anderson relieved Larry O’Connor, a board member who stepped in when former director Anthony Hirschel abruptly resigned in November 2004. Hirschel made slightly more than $220,000 per year. Anderson declined to disclose his salary, saying he hasn’t finalized his contract.

Career path

Anderson earned his doctorate in fine arts from Harvard University and started his career at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He then ran the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta for eight years, moving on from there to the Art Gallery of Toronto in the mid-1990s. After three years in Toronto, he moved to a five-year stint at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. He resigned from the Whitney in 2003.

While the list of high-profile jobs in bustling cities impressed the IMA’s search committee, it also fueled speculation about how connected Anderson will be with Indianapolis.

For example, one writer on a local arts blog pondered whether Anderson will commit to the community or be off “every week to get his hair cut in Manhattan?”

Anderson said that’s bunk. He cited his eight years in Atlanta-nearly double the average tenure for a large museum director-as proof he can stay in one place.

Being part of the “hiss and crackle of the wars” in the New York art world was exciting, he said, but not what he wants now.

“For me, the ingredients that make life exciting are a great collection, a great staff and a place that cares about what you do,” he said.

Anderson and his family are renting on the north side until they move into the Westerley, a Clowes-family home in the nearby Golden Hill neighborhood that was given to IMA in 2001. The renovations should be complete next spring.

Anderson and his wife, Jacqueline, have a newborn daughter, Devon, and a 10-yearold son, Chase. Jacqueline is an actress and will be traveling to the coasts to audition for parts as well as exploring opportunities with local productions, Anderson said.

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