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Trouble In Indianapolis: Does The Job Change The Man?

When Charles Venable got the job as director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art last August, I thought it would be a good thing. Now I am not so sure.

VEnableVenable came from the Speed Museum, where he had done several things of which I approved — mounting a series of one-painting (masterpiece) exhibitions, for example, and launching a comprehensive review of the Speed’s permanent collection.

But a recent article in The Indianpolis Star has me rethinking; was I fooled, has Venable changed his spots, or is he obeying a board that has its priorities in the wrong order?

The Star article shows Venable to be more concerned about money than about art and quality. It begins this way:

Charles Venable, the new director at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, envisions a giant car show — right there in the museum — an automobiles-as-art thing. Picture super high-end rides like Bugattis. Maybe it’s timed to coincide with an Indianapolis 500.

People would come, Venable is certain of that. They would come in the hundreds of thousands.

Customers. Dollars. Please exit-through-gift-shop. Cha-ching.

An art museum may be a place of beauty and truth and inspiration and epiphanies.

But it’s also about money.

Later it says:

In an interview with The Star, he voiced his displeasure at a recent exhibit of Islamic art because it drew 7,000 people but cost $500,000 to stage. He talked about the importance of packing the house.

After mentioning a coming Matisse exhibition, the article continues:

He sees the Matisse exhibit as the first of many blockbuster shows.

He plans to meet soon with Ken Gross, curator of last summer’s “Speed: The Art of the Performance Automobile” at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. A highlight of the exhibit was a public chat between Gross and talk-show host Jay Leno, a noted car collector; museum patrons ponied up $200 to see that.

Ken Gross, a guest curator, is described on his Amazon page as the former “Executive Director of the Petersen Automotive Museum, in Los Angeles, California, for five years following a career in advertising and marketing. His car, travel, and motorcycle writing has appeared in Robb Report, The Rodder’s Journal, Automobile Magazine, and Road & Track.” No mention of concerns about the design of cars.

The article continues:

[Venable] rearranged the [IMA’s] organization chart so that all curators now report to Preston Bautista, who joined the staff in 2011. Bautista has a Ph.D. in art history but also studied advertising and knows statistics.

Ok, there’s nothing wrong with concern about the audience for art. It’s when audience considerations drive the art choices that things are out of whack.

The Star reveals Venable as a prodigious fundraiser and that’s good — the IMA, it says, overspent and drew down too much from its endowment during the tenure of former director Max Anderson.

I agree with Venable that the way back to balance is through programming. He should not cut back on programming; but it’s possible, even in a sports-crazy town like Indianapolis, to organize exhibitions that will be big draws. I’ve seen other museums do it; why not Indy?

Here’s another sad comment, though: The Star article — which should have had an impact on the city’s art lovers — was published on Feb. 21. Five days later, not a single comment was left beneath it, whether refuting, agreeing, showing concern, or applauding.

Is Indianapolis really that apathetic about its art museum?

Photo Credit: Matt Kryger, Courtesy of The Star 



  1. Judith,

    I wish to continue being connected to your commentaries. Please note that my website is currently being updated and will appear in the coming days in a new form. At another time I will comment on the Indianapolis Museum.

  2. Emily Hellmuth says:

    While I can see why some would be squeamish (as noted in the Indy Star article) about the current direction/vision, it also seems like a bit of a case of Venable being stuck between a rock and a hard place. In a city where the ISO is still recovering from a serious financial crisis – in part due to a large endowment draw – it’s understandable that the IMA would be careful not to follow their footsteps. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the long run.

  3. Jack Hornaday says:

    First thing, I wonder is if he thought about this Preston Bautista person. The PhD behind his name is nothing but letters. He knows nothing of his job and is completely clueless about education. Secondly, should Venerable’s Facebook presence on the Westerley page really be gloating in the opportunity to eat his lucious French cuisine at a dinner party from “his” Clowes china in a house owned and operated by the IMA, while he’s laying people off left and right. Of those employees he is keeping, they are on near minimum wage with very few hours a week. After all, if you keep most of your employees as part-time, you don’t have to pay benefits. It’s tacky and really shows his true character. MONEY! This is the Walmart principle. Is the IMA nothing more than a cultural Walmart? Sure seems like he’s not worried about spending money on himself while everyone else suffers.

    • Jack – I am afraid you are mistaken. The layoffs at the Indianapolis Museum of Art occurred under the previous director, Maxwell Anderson.

      • Jack Hornaday says:

        Yes, he did his fair share of those, but there is another round coming, as I hear. Be prepared!

        • Do you not think that it is disingenuous to rail on someone for actions that have not yet occurred (especially since no firing have been announced)?

          • Thanks for your comment, but let me answer — not if it’s done properly. It’s a time-honored way of getting people to consider their actions carefully.

          • Ms Dobrzynski, I can see where you are coming, but I must say that Mr. Hornaday’s tone is unnecessarily scathing especially when I have not seen any actions that deserve it. While I am not connected to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, it seems rather petty to be angry at a director for living in a house (especially since it is a perk of the position) – if he was not inhabiting it, according to reports, the home would be empty. Dr. Venable has been in the position for only a few months and the only news I have heard recently was the announcement for the Matisse show and a reconfiguration of the departments. I have worked for not-for-profits in the past and most new directors do reorganize departments to better reflect their strategic plans. And while it is nice to think that righteous indignation might change the course of actions, what evidence do we have that any of these actions are even taking place? Maybe there is a report somewhere else (I have checked the local Indianapolis newspapers) but have so far seen no reports that suggest a round of firings are going to occur.

          • Tina Hannah says:

            check the news next week.

          • Jack Hornaday says:


            Now is it ok to rail ArtsyGirl? Clearly, employees are the casualty in Venerable’s plan to attract visitors and increase revenue. I can’t wait for the even more poor customer service in an attempt to raise money.

    • Just wondering, what is the name of the Westerly facebook page? I’m not able to find it…

  4. Barbara Chalsma says:

    The Pearson Car Museum in Los Angeles is a delightful museum with several floors filled with cars from many countries and eras. They are not only technical works of wonder but also gorgeous to behold. Which reminds me, didn’t the Guggenheim have a similar, very well attended exhibit of motorcycles perhaps 30 years ago? I have no interest in such vehicles (I don’t even own a car– in L.A.!) but I certainly recognize those that are of outstanding beauty. Finally, if women’s fashion can be in respected museums, why not cars–especially in Indianapolis? In addition to making money, such an exhibit will introduce a new crowd to the museum.

    • Well, for one, the Guggenheim did motorcycles, but I doubt anyone would argue that it increased the museum’s audience. I once asked Tom Krens, the then-director, if those that motorcycles attracted ever came back, and he replied: I don’t know; we don’t tag them.

  5. Max Anderson writes in with this clarification:

    It was the IMA board’s decision to increase the draw on the endowment above 5% as a way to cover increased costs of the 164,000 sf expansion that was built before my arrival. The recession hit shortly thereafter, reducing the endowment’s corpus to $265,764,518 in April 2009. Fortunately, the endowment grew back significantly, in part due to commitments secured on my watch totaling $30 million, some of which are being paid in over time. Published data on the IMA Dashboard showed it to be valued at $326,327,451 in November 2012; I left the Museum the following month.

  6. Andrew in Indy says:

    Thank you for writing this article. A couple of notes here…(1) The only way to leave a comment / reply to an online article at Indy Star is via a facebook account. (2) This article is coming from the same paper that has never written a bad review of any restaurant in this heavily chain saturated town…my point here being that the ‘Life/Things to Do’ sections have a serious lack of creativity and critical approach when it comes to their rhetoric (good or bad). (3) Certainly, Max Anderson left the IMA in a much stronger position and I believe the Star overlooked Anderson’s integral efforts pursuing institutional transparency. The Star states ‘the IMA built a conservation lab and developed the 100 Acres park. It acquired the Miller House in Columbus, a Mid-Century Modern masterpiece, and represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale, a noteworthy art-world achievement, and a flashy one.’ Thats all?! Yes it may be a bit flashy, but what institutional art party post-Warhol isn’t? Anderson achieved these developments all while not charging admission at the IMA…which may change soon too. (4) While I do believe that it is too soon to realistically critique Venable…I think we should wait until next week, then see what kind of direction the museum is headed. Indianapolis has a great art community and we are growing, maybe not at the desired rate, but we most certainly feel empathy not apathy when it comes to Indy’s strongest and most adorned museum!

  7. Mr. Venable deserves our respect and some time to transition into his leadership. An institution of the size and stature of the IMA is considering it’s future many months in advance of big decisions. Mr. Hornaday’s comments above are tritefully stale and premature at best.

    His predecessor Mr. Anderson took the IMA from a sleepy mid-sized museum in a conservative city to one of the most progressive institutions of the established American Art Museums. Amazing things (in the context of art institutions) are happening in Indianapolis – Online discussions regarding deaccession, patron-based conversations regarding accession, free admission, 100 acres, Lisa Freiman’s Allora & Calzadilla biennale, and, in my opinion, the curatorial partnership with the Alexander Hotel in Indianapolis. This progressive dissolution of the art museum as institution is one of the most welcoming and community-embracing gestures that such an American institution has undergone in recent years.

    My hope is that Mr. Venable continues and expands this progressive change. Any business or institution in this post-recession economy must entertain challenging ideas to grow. We Indianapolis natives might be challenged by the combination of our automotive culture combining with our art culture. But growing and cross-pollinating the most amazing aspects of our city seems to me to be a brilliant idea.

  8. The cultural landscape of Indianapolis is risk-adverse, this is a reflection of our funders. They generally want PG arts entertainment and for institutions to be self-sufficient, which has never made sense to me, because we are non-profit for a reason.
    While Max Anderson wasn’t liked by everyone, I love what happened to our museum on his watch. He wasn’t afraid, he took well calculated, perhaps expensive risks and made the IMA a world-class museum.
    I can tell at least one thing Mr. Venable has in common with Anderson, it’s that he didn’t come here to die (what you call it when people get into a power position, do whatever it takes to keep the job at the cost of the quality in programming and then never leave, till they die).
    What Mr. Venable does here will be different than Anderson. But I’ve been to the institutions that were in his charge and I have faith in his vision.I may not like everything they do but that is not a bad thing.
    All museums struggle with attendance and worry about their future. For example, in this city of over 800,000 only around 22,000 people come through iMOCA’s door annually and those are not all unique visits.
    It’s not because the people who live here don’t appreciate art. It’s because directors of museums and non-profits all over the United States live in fear of their funders and donors. We don’t have the support we need. Many funders want immediate results and hard statistics, not the long term nurturing (repeat high quality programming) it takes to build a larger arts audience.
    At the end of the day I am certain we can all feel confident Venable will do what it takes to keep the IMA a world class museum.
    Venable has to be able to experiment, and I encourage you to have faith in him.

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