Banker fits bill at art museum: Ex-Bank One CEO O’Connor leads facility through final stages of $74M expansion

Just over a year after retiring from the top position at central Indiana’s largest bank, former Bank One of Indiana CEO Lawrence A. O’Connor Jr. found himself giving up his newfound freedom to run another big business-the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Making the jump from financial services to arts and culture might seem unlikely, but O’Connor, who’s been serving as IMA’s interim executive director since November, finds himself at home running Indianapolis’ largest arts-related not-for-profit.

“This is a wonderful place,” said O’Connor, a longtime volunteer and supporter at the art museum. “It wasn’t hard [to accept the job] because it’s so important to every aspect of the community and state.”

O’Connor’s leadership could hardly come at a more important time for the museum. IMA is preparing to reopen May 6 after putting the final touches on a three-year, $74 million expansion to its main building. The museum’s space will more than double, adding galleries, restaurants and educational areas to the original 1970 building at 38th Street and Michigan Road.

The construction was well under way when O’Connor took over for CEO and Director Anthony G. Hirschel, who resigned suddenly in November. IMA officials characterize it as a mutually agreeable separation.

The expansion, designed by local architect Jonathan Hess of Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf and led by F.A. Wilhelm Construction Co. Inc., was on time and on budget when Hirschel left, but myriad details of the construction and reopening had yet to be finalized.

Undaunted, O’Connor, 61, began employing the same skills he utilized at Bank One.

“The management pieces are the same,” O’Connor said before ticking off a list of business principles: determine who’s in charge, hold people accountable, get good people around you.

Luring someone with O’Connor’s prominence and reputation in the civic and business communities was a smart decision on IMA’s part, said John Vanausdall, president and CEO of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.

“It wasn’t such a stretch in my mind to have him fill that role,” Vanausdall said.

The effect has been evident among IMA’s 275-person staff, even in the potential chaos of a major construction project and pending reopening, said Myra Selby, an Ice Miller attorney and IMA board member in charge of the committee searching for a permanent director.

“Larry has been an absolute godsend,” Selby said. “Larry is not just this banking guy running the museum. … Larry is an insightful, very sharp, compassionate, quick-to-get-it leader. He established immediate credibility with our staff and the most senior leaders in the museum by drilling down even to the most minute details of what it takes to run and build and support an art museum.”

O’Connor is quick to deflect attention away from his role at IMA and toward the “new IMA” being built on the 152-acre campus. IMA has raised nearly $227 million to retool its campus and offerings. The May 6 reopening is one of several planned changes, including a multimillion-dollar restoration of the historic Oldfields estate and the upcoming 100-acre Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park.

This spring, several new galleries will open, including two high-tech gallery/studio spaces designed to increase interaction with IMA visitors. Chef Wolfgang Puck will bring Puck’s restaurant and the IMA Café to the museum building. The Deer-Zink Events Pavilion, with its views of the Sutphin Fountain and IMA’s landscaped grounds, is already “booking like mad” with no advertising, O’Connor said.

O’Connor is passionate about spreading the word of the new IMA. He envisions IMA becoming a top choice for community and corporate events as well as for Saturday morning coffee among friends. Marketing will focus on drawing as broad an audience as possible, highlighting IMA’s accessibility from all parts of the city.

O’Connor has also become a missionary of sorts, speaking to government and business groups about the economic impact of IMA. The museum has a $20 million operating budget and its 275 employees represent a diverse group, ranging from security guards to doctorates-facts few people realize, O’Connor said.

Marketing may also help offset what could be a challenge for the new IMA-a general admission charge. Although the museum has long charged a fee for special exhibitions, visitors for the first time will pay to view the museum’s general collection. An adult ticket will be $7; students and seniors, $5; children under 12 will get in free.

Admission to the museum grounds will remain free.

To encourage repeat visits as more galleries open and to try to soften the sticker shock, the museum will include a voucher for a free return trip with tickets purchased through the end of 2006.

Museum officials have for the past few years been seeking greater community input about the direction of IMA. The goals of engaging the community and erasing perceptions of IMA as exclusive will continue as the museum expands, said Selby, who also chairs the board’s community relations committee.

“After the parties and all the hubbub [of the reopening], we don’t want the end of that to be dead silence in a gallery,” Selby said.

Promoting the museum and continuing to seek community input about the future of IMA will be one of many tasks assigned to the new museum director, Selby said.

The search committee is preparing to hire a professional consultant to assist with a nationwide search.

The board would like to have someone hired by the time the 2005-2006 arts season kicks off this fall, but is more interested in finding the right person to lead IMA through its upcoming changes.

“The new IMA will be really quite different from what our institution has been and quite different than art museums around the world,” she said.

O’Connor has agreed to stay until a replacement is hired, which gives the committee time to find someone with the perfect mix of art and business skills, Selby said.

Those seemingly disparate skills are something O’Connor said he’s gained new respect for since taking over the IMA helm. Although he was familiar with the museum’s operations as a board member, he said the view from the inside has been an eye-opener.

One of the biggest surprises, he said, has been how many skills are demanded of the director of a major museum. The IMA director is expected to lead operations, of course, but is also the chief development officer, art officer and communications officer, O’Connor pointed out.

“The skill sets and the demands on the director and the staff are pretty intense,” he said.

From the beginning, O’Connor has had IMA Deputy Director Diane De Grazia to help with the arts expertise O’Connor lacks. De Grazia, who’s serving as interim chief art officer, is overseeing the technical aspects-such as conservation, lighting and exhibition details-of the museum’s collection.

O’Connor has also sought professional support from other arts administrators. He immediately became involved with the Indianapolis Consortium of Arts Administrators, an informal group of directors from about 35 of the city’s largest arts and cultural organizations.

“I was very impressed that [O’Connor] wanted to get involved with that group and his concern about how to improve the situation for the arts in Indianapolis,” Vanausdall said.

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