Painting By Numbers: The State of the IMA

Drastic layoffs. Key departures. Bungled public relations. Charles Venable hasn’t made a lot of friends at the IMA. But the director’s new strategy may solve a decades-old problem and transform the museum’s reputation in the process.

When Charles Venable became the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art in October 2012, Ai Weiwei: According to What? was already on the books. Secured during the tenure of Venable’s predecessor, Max Anderson, the exhibition embodied everything Anderson championed at the museum: contemporary, socially charged art that challenged rather than coddled its audience. The show, which ran from last April through July, featured an Ai Weiwei quote on the wall of the Allen Whitehill Clowes Special Exhibition Gallery: “The world is changing. This is a fact.”

Having arrived at the IMA at the height of the artist’s fame in America, the exhibit seemed like a surefire hit. Still, in the months leading up to the opening, Venable worried it would struggle to attract an audience in Indianapolis. “It seemed to me it was kind of a hard sell,” he says. “Most people don’t know his name, and even in Roman iteration, most people don’t know what ‘Ai Weiwei’ is. ‘Is that a name? Is that a restaurant?’”

So Venable turned to old-fashioned marketing techniques. “We mocked up several versions of an advertising campaign, and we went out and got responses to them,” he says. “And we found that a large number of people responded to the fact that Ai Weiwei is somewhat controversial.” Soon afterward, the museum launched an ad campaign anchored by a slogan with all the subtlety of a Thomas Kinkade painting: “Ai Weiwei: The most controversial artist in the world.”

The tagline may not have been artful. It may not even have been empirically true. But it worked. Curators and executives expected about 10,000 people at the exhibit. More than 20,000 showed up. As it turns out, that strategy was just a preview of a dramatic shift in philosophy at the museum. To attract an audience, Venable says, you have to find out what they want. Why not just ask them? He plans to use focus groups, visitor surveys, and other audience-research tactics liberally to inform not only the IMA’s advertising campaigns, but also its programming.

Some would argue that an encyclopedic art museum—one that collects objects from around the globe—shouldn’t be crowdsourcing exhibition ideas; that the IMA is a serious cultural institution whose raison d’etre is to educate the public,
conserve visual culture, and produce meaningful scholarship. To these purists, promoting with a pandering sales pitch is bad enough. Letting the whims of the public dictate programming? That’s sacrilege.  

Venable is more concerned about the sustainability than the sanctity of the IMA, and he has his reasons. Nearly 20 years ago, the museum began planning a $74 million expansion project in the hopes of attracting 1 million visitors annually. That gambit failed, as the visitor count has consistently fallen below 500,000, even during Anderson’s critically acclaimed run. In trying to solve the institution’s financial and marketing problems, though, Venable has been less than elegant. Last year’s layoffs cut deeper than many thought was necessary, and his media blunders are now infamous. One might suppose that the pressure is getting to the director. But according to Venable, a simple question keeps him up at night: How do you make art relevant to a much broader audience?

THEY SAY THAT sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and that’s what the IMA was in 1996—lucky. At the time, director Bret Waller and the board had been kicking around ideas to improve the untamed 100 acres of woods and wetlands surrounding its 52-acre campus. But with an endowment that hadn’t moved much in recent years, the IMA couldn’t afford to pull the trigger on any big projects. Then, Enid Goodrich died.

The widow of Pierre Goodrich, a local businessman who helped bankroll The Indianapolis Star, Enid stunned more than a few people in Indy by leaving $40 million to the IMA—the largest gift in the museum’s 130-year history. Shortly after the Goodrich bequest, Waller submitted a confidential report to the IMA board entitled “An Approach to Making the Indianapolis Museum of Art One of the Top Ten General Art Museums in the United States.” It proposed a laundry list of improvements, including a 164,000-square-foot expansion of the museum’s building. In a 1999 press release, Waller said, “Our aim is to more than double our current number of visitors and to serve one million people a year by the time this vision is fully realized.”

Waller retired in 2001, but plans for his “new vision” moved swiftly forward, including the addition of a splashy new entrance pavilion. Designed by Jonathan Hess of local firm Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf, the five-story, glass-enclosed oval entryway was clearly intended to get people’s attention, but when it was completed in 2005, not everyone was impressed. Architecture critic Lawrence Cheek wrote in The Indianapolis Star at the time that though it was “beautifully crafted,” the pavilion “doesn’t make the knees tremble … and it won’t win international acclaim or notoriety.”

“What didn’t happen is enough people showing up to populate the structure we had built,” Venable says.

Undeterred by the reviews, the IMA launched a search for a director to help the newly renovated museum get the world’s attention. The following year, it hired Anderson, who had most recently been the director of the Whitney Museum in New York. From 2006 to 2011, Anderson injected life into the IMA’s contemporary-art programming, launched the 100 Acres sculpture park, acquired the historic Miller House, and led the museum to host the American Pavilion at the prestigious 2011 Biennale in Venice. By all accounts, he achieved what the board hired him to do. But Anderson never came close to attracting the 1 million annual visitors envisioned by Waller. From 2007 until Anderson’s departure in 2011, attendance hovered between 400,000 and 500,000 each year. Chairperson June McCormack acknowledges that the board she joined in 2003—a group of philanthropists and businesspeople, nominated from within—miscalculated when planning the expansion. “Obviously, the operating costs increased significantly as a result,” she says. “But the biggest issue was the economic environment. We were rolling along, and then everything tanked.”  

One could easily blame a trend among cultural institutions at that time for the miscalculation. In the final chapter of Every Way Possible: 125 Years of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, authors S.L. Berry and Anne P. Robinson wrote that in the 21st century, “the board had started thinking and acting like entrepreneurs.” The book, published by the IMA, presents this as a good thing. Christopher Knight, an art critic with the Los Angeles Times and something of a historian on these matters, doesn’t agree.  “Museum boards became dominated by corporate leaders with a mindset that said, ‘Grow or die,’” he explains. “They began applying commercial thinking to noncommercial situations, and now they’re shocked to discover that they have a problem.”

As chairperson McCormack notes, the IMA’s problem was exacerbated by the economic recession of 2008, when its endowment lost about $100 million. That reserve has regained ground since, but the museum still holds $122 million in construction-bond debt that was used to fund the expansion. Add to that the hike in operating expenses that comes with the addition of new space—energy, staffing, programming costs—and you begin to get a sense of the full weight of the financial issues.

IMA officials are quick to point out that the museum isn’t alone in having created such big obstacles for itself. Venable mentions a recent study called “Set in Stone,” published last year by the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago. It describes how a building boom at American cultural institutions between 1994 and 2008 left a number of museums in financial trouble. “What didn’t happen is enough people showing up to populate the structure we had built,” Venable says. “So museums like us are now wondering ‘How do you build demand for these very large institutions that are very expensive to run?’”

Charles Venable hopes he can fill the void with populist exhibits like this fall's Matisse: Life in Color.CHARLES VENABLE—a smart dresser, with short, closely cropped brown hair—was born in Houston, Texas, where, he says, he “would be more likely to be shooting birds on my cousin’s ranch than doing anything even remotely cultural.” Venable never stepped foot inside an art museum until he was 18 years old, as a freshman at Houston’s Rice University. “I had planned, with my dad’s complete encouragement, to become a doctor,” he says. “But I had the good fortune to enroll in Art History 101, and it literally transformed my life.”

After finishing undergraduate school at Rice, Venable moved on to the University of Delaware, where he studied design and decorative arts. Then he went to Boston University to earn a Ph.D. in American Studies before accepting an assistant curator position at the Dallas Museum of Art. Venable put in 16 years at the DMA, rising through the ranks to become a deputy director. After Dallas and a stint at the Cleveland Museum of Art, he was offered his first directorship at Louisville’s Speed Art Museum in 2007. In five years at the Speed Museum, which was growing like many of its peers at the time, Venable raised $45 million to fund a 200,000-square-foot expansion, no small feat given the moderate size of both the museum and the city. When Max Anderson left for the Dallas Museum of Art in late 2011, the IMA board took notice of Venable’s fundraising talent and offered him the job.  

Larger than the Speed Museum in every way, the IMA represents a huge opportunity for Venable. But with a bigger stage comes added scrutiny, a lesson he has learned the hard way. His first task, slashing the operating budget, required axing 11 percent of the staff. On the day the firings were announced, Venable’s personal Twitter account posted an update about a fabulous lunch he’d just had in Houston at a restaurant that was, he said, “like an opulent Beijing eatery.” The director claims the ill-timed tweet was the result of a technical malfunction, but that didn’t stop critics from savaging him. And no one has been more outspoken in his criticism than blogger Tyler Green.

Green writes Modern Art Notes at Blouin Artinfo (, an international online arts magazine that’s required reading for museum professionals. An unapologetic supporter of Anderson’s progressive policies, Green says that by firing staff instead of taking a more modest approach to budget cuts, Venable and the IMA’s board were compromising the museum’s ability to fulfill its mission of educating and conserving. He also called out Venable’s plans to popularize programming, saying he’s “more interested in fairgrounds-style attractions and less interested in collections.”

While the board saw the need for staff cuts, Venable chose which jobs to eliminate. Some of his decisions raised eyebrows, particularly the cuts made in the conservation, technology, and publications departments. Defections quickly ensued. Lisa Freiman, the former chair of the contemporary-art department, left to direct the Virginia Commonwealth University Institute of Contemporary Art not long after Venable’s arrival. Other key departures followed: Ronda Kasl, senior curator, and R. Craig Miller, curator of design arts, both left the IMA this year.

The talent gap that resulted is considerable, but McCormack says the board isn’t worried. “We thought that this might happen, and it creates opportunities to bring in new, talented staff,” she says. The question, though, is whether the talent that Venable can attract will equal that which he seemed to drive away. Communication and diplomacy are keys to a welcoming work environment, and neither appears to be his strong suit. Earlier this year, in an interview with The Indianapolis Star, Venable cited the attendance numbers of Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture as an example of an exhibition whose middling performance didn’t justify its relatively high cost. Max Anderson, who oversaw the show, quickly took to Facebook to correct Venable’s math and criticize the underpinnings of his successor’s argument: “It is not realistic to assume that every area of a museum should be self-supporting, let alone a profit center. We are educational institutions that support our missions with philanthropy. Art museums are about more than cost per visitor. And the value of exposing Indiana residents to Islamic art is incalculable.”

Lisa FreimanThe art-museum world is a small one, where such dust-ups don’t go unnoticed. And it’s clear that Anderson isn’t the only person who disagrees with Venable’s direction. “The budget gap was no surprise to anyone,” Freiman says. “But with an increasingly healthy endowment, it was certainly not a red-alert emergency. A few major gifts by key Indianapolis philanthropists could have minimized the drastic cuts and ensured that the upward trajectory and experimental initiatives could have continued.”

McCormack believes that argument isn’t grounded in reality. “The big storyline out there is, ‘You have a $300 million endowment, so you ought to be able to do everything,’” she says. “But if you talk to anybody who runs any endowment, you know you should have a draw that’s about 5.5 percent, and anything higher than that to support operations is not a good place to be.”

The IMA is spending 7 percent of its operating endowment on costs such as salaries and utilities, and even Freiman acknowledges that’s a problem. But she says it’s unrealistic to expect attendance to have a big effect on the budget. Admission fees typically account for less than 2 percent of the operating revenue, so that line item will never make a big difference. While it would be impolitic for her to criticize her former employer outright, her concern is evident.

“The question now is, ‘What exactly is the museum’s vision?’” Freiman says. “What kind of institution can the IMA be under Charles Venable’s and the current board’s leadership?”


A CORKBOARD IN Venable’s spacious office at the IMA provides a window into the mind of the man. Among various magazine ads and clippings pinned there, one item stands out: a promotional card for The Big Dog Show, a traveling public art exhibition featuring giant steel sculptures of dogs. “I saw this show at a park, and they had an enormous number of members and nonmembers there,” he says. “People had their dogs there looking at the exhibition. What a great way of getting families involved, by doing things with pets.”

Venable thinks that something similar—though, he adds pointedly, “not that exact thing”—could be a hit at the IMA. “I’m sure it would work,” he says. “I’m also sure there would be bloggers who would say, ‘There, you see!’ Even if 50,000 people showed up, it would be a failure in some way.”

“Art is not for everybody,” says one critic of the IMA’s current strategy. “Art is for anybody, which is very different.”

Venable’s frustration is understandable, to a degree. The IMA’s board has tasked him with bringing in more visitors with more broadly appealing shows. But in doing that, he opens himself up to criticism from those who believe an encyclopedic art museum shouldn’t necessarily appeal to every last person. Among those critics is Knight, of the Los Angeles Times. “Art is not for everybody,” he says. “Art is for anybody, which is very different. The mission of the museum is to make art available to anybody, not everybody, because everybody is not interested in art, and that is perfectly fine.”

The board of directors of the IMA sees things differently, and their view might be influenced by the disappointing attendance that often accompanied Max Anderson’s high-minded programming. “Except for Roman Art from the Louvre, most of the exhibitions under Anderson didn’t have a big audience draw,” McCormack says. She believes the museum needs to offer a mix of crowd-pleasing and esoteric shows, with revenue generated by the former helping to fund the latter. She believes this approach can help build attendance and membership numbers, which, she says, is “Charles’s vision and the board’s.”

“Vision” is a word that has dogged Venable since his arrival in Indy. Observers have accused him of having a conspicuous lack of it. But if you listen carefully, it’s clear that Venable’s vision is, essentially, to run the museum like a business—even if he’s skittish about that particular phrasing. “The thing that gets misinterpreted about that approach is, ‘Oh, that means the IMA and Charles don’t care about the art,’ when it’s exactly the opposite,” he says. “I feel passionately about the art. I would be living in a different world if I didn’t.” But Venable’s passion is tempered with pragmatism, which is why he believes the best way to increase revenue is to employ methods that have been put to successful use in the corporate world for decades. He calls the hiring of a deputy director of business development, a position he created, “completely key” to the museum’s future. The right candidate will be someone “who has worked in the museum world, but has probably made a name for themselves in the commercial world as well.

“The person in that role will push the old model of the museum to be more innovative,” he continues. “If you don’t have enough customers, what do you do?”

Matisse: Life in ColorVenable also restructured the museum’s organizational chart so that curators now report to Preston Bautista, deputy director for public programs and audience engagement. Under Bautista, visitors will have a bigger say in museum programming moving forward. Matisse: Life in Color, which opens October 13, is the first exhibition for which intensive audience-research strategies have been put to full use to determine how the show will be presented to the public. This approach is part of a larger museum initiative called “The Visitor Centered Approach: Re-imagining the IMA,” which was funded by a $1 million Eli Lilly and Company Foundation grant. According to the museum, the money will help the institution “target specific audiences for specific types of programs.”

In planning the Matisse show, the IMA held formal focus groups full of people with children who had been to the IMA only once in the past two years. By showing the participants images of Matisse’s work along with a three-paragraph description of the exhibition, the museum got a clearer idea of how to present the show to the public. “We are not going to ignore the large group of people who could choose to come here if they were motivated,” Venable says. “We want to answer the questions they have about Matisse, not just assume we know what everyone who walks in the door needs to know about the artist.”

Although audience research is nothing new, the IMA will use it for details as specific as the titles of exhibitions. Museum purists might shudder at the thought of suburban moms having a say in how art is presented, but Venable insists that this kind of audience research is the wave of the future. He also believes the IMA could learn a thing or two from its neighbor a couple of miles south, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

“I know I’ve been criticized for comparing the two,” he says. “But they were just like us: free at the front door, nice attendance, if not great attendance.” The Children’s Museum now draws more than a million visitors annually and, unlike the IMA, has consistently charged a steep price for admission since 1990. “There seems to be a model there,” Venable says, “even though we have different products.”

At this stage of his tenure, it’s too early to know what Venable’s legacy will be. His critics claim to worry that he’ll fail, diminishing the museum’s reputation and undoing the progress made by Anderson. But their real concern is that he’ll succeed. If the populist manages to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors with focus group–driven programming, might that be a model for art museums nationwide? What will become of the quirky, cerebral exhibits that on several occasions landed our local museum in the pages of The New York Times? And most importantly, will the IMA continue to lead the city forward?

Ai Weiwei was right. The world is changing. At 4000 Michigan Road, this is a fact.  

Illustration by Heads of State; construction and Matisse photos courtesy IMA; Charles Venable portrait by Tony Valainis

This article appeared in the September 2013 issue.