What is it with art museums rebranding themselves and turning away from art? The Berkshire Museum’s planned sale of art to fund its re-imagining is still drawing protests from professional associations and the public, and now the Indianapolis Museum of Art has unveiled its version.
Newfields, a Place for Nature and the Arts is the name to be given to this agglomeration of the IMA and its diverse array of components: Lilly House (a historic estate), The Garden, The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: 100 Acres, and performance spaces. These spaces are not new acquisitions, they are merely being put together under one name. But branding is not change: the unified name, and preferential placing of Nature over Art, show a turn from art-focussed planning. Previously, and even in the press release announcing Newfields, reads “The IMA’s mission is to enrich lives through exceptional experiences with art and nature.” Most of the improvements announced to date have to do with the gardens and performance spaces. Art exhibits will continue, but it is clear that Dr. Charles L. Venable, The Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO, and the Board of Trustees are putting art in the back seat.
Venable has not had an admirable tenure as Director. Staff upheavals and budget issues have plagued his administration. The Museum’s 2005-06 renovation left them with $100M in debt, which has been gradually payed down; which – 11 years later! – is down to $81M. The Museum’s turn away from art as its primary focus has been gradually ongoing: In 2010 the IMA acquired Miller House and Garden in Columbus, Indiana, a mid-Century Modernist home and National Historic Landmark. Newfields – the name is a play on Oldfields, the original name of the Lilly estate – will unite a disparate group of venues under one name, but how does that create added incentive for people to visit?
If anything demonstrates the paucity of ideas coming forth from the Newfields team, which, like the Berkshire Museum, drew its conclusions based on market research, it is Winterlights, an “expanded holiday experience and new annual tradition” which is nothing more than a holiday light show, running November to early January. It’s going to take more than that to cut down an $81M shortfall. Of all the improvements listed, all concerned the gardens, entertainment venues, and parking lots.
So why do this? There’s nothing wrong with uniting all properties under one name, however bland and uninformative Newfields is. It allows for a seeming change without much effort or money involved. But the emphasis on the gardens, when the cornerstone and raison d’être of the whole enterprise is the art museum, shows an abandoment of the founding principles of the museum itself. It has seemed for some time as though Charles Venable didn’t really want to run an art museum; now he can pretend he doesn’t. The added value for the people of Indianapolis…small to none.