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Indianapolis Retrenches — Deep Cuts

VEnableAs predicted here last week, mostly by my commenters, the Indianapolis Museum of Art announced deep personnel cuts today. According to the press release, this “strategic restructuring” involved “an 11% reduction in personnel” at the museum:

…Eight open positions will not be filled, while 19 full-time positions and two part-time positions were eliminated across all departments of the Museum.

Among those losing their jobs, I understand, are a registrar, an art handler with a 30-year tenure, the chief photographer who’s been there 20 years, one curatorial assistant, and — soon — members of the conservation staff. Savings, once severance is digested, an estimated $1.7 million a year.

The museum also said that it will henceforth place “a greater emphasis on donated and earned revenue” and less on the endowment. In recent years, the museum has depended on it endowment to fund more than 70% of its operating budget.

I agree, 70% from endowment is too much. The museum’s director, Charles Venable says it should not top 50%. That’s not a bad goal. (For more discussion of what’s optimal, see this post on the Peabody Essex Museum.)

The question is always how the museum increases earned income. Mounting “popular” exhibitions purely to draw big crowds rarely works. It cannot be sustained, the museum tends to lose some core visitors, and costs mount to do the big shows.

That’s my early thinking on this.

UPDATE: I’ve reread the press release carefully, and in it, Venable announces a shift in focus to more audience-centered thinking about programming and including two minor moves: the relocation of “the welcome desk to the Efroymson Family Entrance Pavilion and a shift in training for the Gallery Guards to become Gallery Guides are meant to create a more welcoming atmosphere.”  Basically, he is saying “stay tuned.” The museum is using audience research to tell it what to do. I predict rough days ahead. Audiences are fickle. It’s best to pay some attention, perhaps, but to do what you (the expert) know is right.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star 


  1. You may be right about rough days ahead, Judith. But if so, conducting and relying on audience research won’t be the problem — though doing shallow, obvious audience research might. An institution in transition is always wise to try to deepen its understanding of, and empathy with, its audiences and communities. How visual art fits into, and *could* fit into, the lives of Indy-area residents (not just arts patrons, but all kinds of people) is the key question, and deep, exploratory research can help inform thinking and spur creative innovation by Venable and his team. The question is not (as some commercial researchers assume when they work with cultural nonprofits) ‘What do people want?’ It’s more like, ‘Who are they, what do they need, and how can art — how can we as presenters of art — help?’

    • Fair enough — I do not disagree with you. I have simply seen “audience research” that isn’t very useful or specific — and even when it is, I believe that audience research is only one factor in a museum’s deliberations about its strategy and its future.

  2. The original location of the welcome desk, when the expanded/reconstructed facility opened in 2004, was in the Efroymson Family Entrance Pavilion; but the pavilion is small, and large groups would block access to the desk for members. Plus, the entrance pavilion with its wonderful light became a really excellent exhibition space for temporary contemporary art. So they moved the desk to the top of the escalator. Now, with a new director, they want to move it back down. Do they think the problem of crowds is going to go away?

  3. Marty Radecki says:

    I was on staff at the IMA for 37 years and the problem that the museum is in today was caused by the Board mainly not controling the fiscal excesses of Max Anderson. Max ran a 500,000 deficit his first full budget year. He fired the gallery guards replacing them with work study students which is agaInst Federal Regulations and caused major upset with a long term lender. The Venice Exhibition was in the RED 650,000 which is interesting since Max left before he could raise funds to clear the dept. Max also upset some major donors who left the board and the Board let it happened.
    The downgrading of the museums credit by Moody I think was the catalyst for this round of Layoff and I have been told 30 more staff may also be layed off later this year


  1. […] does the Indianapolis Museum of Art have free admission? In her neighboring blog, Judith Dobrzynski describes the fiscal troubles at the IMA, with layoffs to come. She quotes IMA director Charles Venable as […]

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