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Indy Decides to Outsource Exhibition Decisions

For the last few years, the Indianapolis Museum of Art has, it seems to me, been on a crazy trajectory. As soon as it does something smart, it turns around and undermines itself. Now it seems to be hitting a new low.  Not content to anger its local constituency in 2014-15 by attempting to charge $18 in admissions to enter its grounds and restricting entry to one point (leading to charges that the museum was becoming “a fortress”), the IMA is now attempting to assuage–and presumably please–the crowds in a way that should anger the museum profession.

The museum is using a public web-based survey to decide what exhibitions to present, thus turning over its curatorial expertise and prerogative to the public. And what is likely to be a random, perhaps even misleading, public at that. This museum, with an excellent and encyclopedic collection of more than 54,000 works of art, is now taking the low road to high attendance.

The proximate cause of my distress was posted on Facebook several days ago by none other than its director, Charles Venable. “Those of you in the Indy area please take this survey about what exhibitions you would like to see at the IMA. Thanks, Charles,” he wrote.

robotWell, though I don’t live anywhere near Indianapolis, I quickly clicked on the link–and there’s no way to see what’s in the survey without taking it. So I did. And that’s the first fault with this online survey. Are all answers valid? How do they know if I was honest or not? How do they know if I live in the Indy area?

But the survey itself was offensive. It listed and described, in three or four sentences and with a few illustrations, six exhibitions and asked “Based on the description above, how likely would you be to visit the IMA to view this exhibition? Exhibition is included with general admission to the IMA ($18 adults, $10 ages 6-17, free children 5 and under, free IMA members).”

And what were the exhibitions? Here are excerpts from the descriptions.

The Art of Forgery, with examples from Roman days through “more recent” ones. “The fake artwork will be displayed alongside an original piece so guests can examine the differences.  Learn about some of the most common techniques employed to create these forgeries, as well as methods used to unmask forgeries in museum collections including pigment analysis, carbon dating, X-rays and more!”

Japanese Paintings, “signature paintings by notable Japanese artists from this [Edo] period. The stunning works in this exhibition have been on display in Japan and will not be on display again in the U.S. until after 2021.”

Joris Laarman Designs, “an overview of the work of Dutch designer Joris Laarman. He is best known for his innovative, experimental designs inspired by emerging technologies like 3D printing and robotics.”

Rise of Robotics ” is comprised of a multitude of objects such as robots from the domestic sphere, industry and medicine, as well as media installations, video games and examples from films and literature. It will also address some of the moral, ethical, and political questions intertwined with robotics today.” (See one object to be shown above.)

Hot Cars, High Fashion, Cool Stuff  “is a history of our times as embodied in the art of design objects, fashion and cars, …[with pairings] representing each decade’s unique style, from turn-of-the-century art nouveau to postmodernism. These vignettes will be accompanied by videos to provide context about the time period when these objects were created.

Orchids “will showcase a range of orchids of different colors, shapes and patterns…highlight the history of orchids and …ways in which they have traditionally been used (e.g., medicinally, in food). Orchids of all shapes and sizes will also be available for purchase in the Greenhouse and a dedicated shop.”

IMA also asked if adults would attend a Murder Mystery interactive experience at its Lilly house, but that’s another topic altogether.

Now which do you think will appeal to the general public? Hot cars and robots, probably. Will that mean no more real art at Indy?

I am equally concerned with the ethics and the implications of this outsourcing its curatorial duties. Why would a curator want to work at IMA? Shouldn’t curators believe that they can, with their specialized knowledge and research, make their subject compelling to the public? Shouldn’t the director make choices among curatorial options? Isn’t that what he or she is paid for? Should that pay drop if such decisions are outsourced? Are three or four sentences, plus a few pictures, enough for the public to weigh in on whether they would attend?

Maybe a robot could be tasked with these decisions,

Venable didn’t say what the IMA would do with the results of this unrepresentative survey. It also asked questions about ethnicity, income, ages of children in the respondent household, whether the respondent would take their to the museum for each exhibit, etc.  Maybe it’s a foil to ask those questions (but I doubt it.)

Whatever happens, no copycats, please! This is a bad idea, even if the results are ignored.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art (top)




  1. Harold Walker says

    This is an awfully blustery response about a potentially legitimate concern. Cultural institutions of all kinds often do marketing surveys to gauge public interest in potential offerings their curatorial and artistic staff are considering. Despite Venable’s poorly worded FB post, the public is not going to “determine” what the IMA exhibits, any more than you or I get to determine what any cultural institution or corporation offers us.

    I’m currently on an informal national review panel for a national magazine that monthly sends an email with potential titles for the same articles and ask me to indicate which one I fin most appealing. I highly doubt the top vote getter determines what appears in the magazine, but I am sure that the responses are considered by the editorial team in drafting their final language or perhaps changing an article title that they thought was the sure winner, but respondents overwhelmingly said they would ignore.

    A more thoughtful response from you given your past experience might have looked at what is the appropriate calibration in the social media era between public input and feedback and artistic decision-making, a program topic at conventions of many arts programmers and producers. How can communications staff leverage curatorial expertise about a planned exhibition with audience insight into their potential interest in a way that crafts the most compelling marketing campaign? I am no fan of the IMA’s change in admission philosophy and the change to its campus, but your harsh reaction to a simple marketing outreach effort might suggest a bit of unconscious bias on your own part.

    • Thanks for your comment–but I take issue with your equating of a panel, presumably of chosen people, reviewing potential headlines with an unnamed, uncontrolled (even for location) public online survey reviewing 3 to 4-sentence descriptions of an exhibition. As for “bias,” I have both praised and panned both IMA and Venable in the past–so I don’t think I can be accused of bias, except against ill-conceived “outreach” efforts that imho damage the credibility of a wonderful museum.

  2. connoisseurship?

  3. Cori Faklaris says

    The Venable era hasn’t been marked by masterful communication. However, I was intrigued by some of the proposals in the survey, and I disagree that robotics and cars can’t be “real art.” I’ve seen some clever, beautiful and even breathtaking examples of digital, 3D-printed and even, yes, mechanical pieces of sculpture, imagery and environmental art. I’m going to have to agree with Harold’s comments as well about the necessity for a more nuanced dialogue. There’s got to be a way that cultural organizations can balance the views of traditionalists who are the backbone of their support with the more social-savvy and crowdsourcing-friendly younger demos. Note: I’ve criticized the IMA for its tone-deafness to general public perception, so I’m not unhappy that they’re trying a survey to drive more audience engagement in non traditional ways.

    • What an elitist thing to say about “the more social-savvy and crowdsourcing-friendly younger demos.” I reject the idea that this group is less interested in tradition art or methods. In fact, a survey a few years back of teens engaged with museums showed the opposite. I am sorry I do not still have the citation.

  4. Catherine Hughes says

    I agree with Mr. Walker’s assessment of your blustery response to the IMA’s survey, but think your bias lies not against the IMA but with the notion of gathering input from outside the curatorial center of the museum. Museums are moving forward from this old model, realizing that strict adherence to the top-down approach has left many visitors with a big question mark over their heads and not in a way that drives them to find out more about what they experience in a museum. Carrying on in the same way they always have is going to leave museums with only a few aged white visitors, promenading in proper curator-approved fashion from label to label.

    • With this post, I in no way implied that museums should carry on in the same way they always have. But there are smart and meaningful ways to change and, I think, useless and (yes) dumb ways to do it–as at IMA. See my post today on the Royal Academy, which is using the web and public opinion in a much smarter way.

  5. Dear Judith:
    I am grateful to everyone who has shared their passion for museums and the IMA and who, like I do, care so deeply about excellence in museum practice.

    I wanted to take a moment to clarify a few points related to your recent blog post on the IMA’s exhibition survey. We agree that curators are a central part of the exhibition development process—their expertise and talent is invaluable. The exhibitions in the survey have all been proposed by our curators or curators at other institutions.

    I also agree that attendance should not be the only metric used to determine exhibitions, and it is not in this case. Surveys like this provide additional data and context to the curators to inform their work and the work of our talented interpretation team. For instance, our recent exhibition, Gustave Baumann, German Craftsman – American Artist, scored low on this survey several years ago, but we still executed it since our curator, Marty Krause, is a leading Baumann expert and we have an extraordinary collection of the artist’s prints and woodcuts. We learned from the survey the types of guests this exhibition would attract and the interests of those guests. Specifically, we learned that guests expected to learn a great deal about the artist’s life and his process. This information informed our interpretation materials, such as the inclusion of a full-scale printmaking workshop inside the exhibition where guests could participate in making woodblock prints. In the end, our Baumann exhibition was a great success.

    This type of survey is something we have done for several years and–as others have noted– is part of a growing trend industry wide to increase our understanding of visitors. At this year’s American Association of Museums Annual Meeting there is an entire track devoted to Audience Research and Evaluation. We are members of the professional network dedicated to enhancing learning experiences through research and evaluation, the Visitor Studies Association.

    For even greater context, I invite you to look at the work we published with the Museums and the Web conference here:

    Charles L. Venable, Ph.D.
    The Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO
    The Indianapolis Museum of Art

    • Dear Charles, many thanks for taking time to respond to my post. We certainly agree on some things. However, I still disagree on this Survey Monkey effort, for reasons already explained in my post. Your mention of “this type of survey” as something IMA has done for years does not excuse the short descriptions and lack of control, or knowledge, about respondents. Mention of the AAM session does not clarify or justify that point either.

      While of course I expected that curators would still curate these exhibitions, according to a story in the Indianapolis Business Journal that followed my post, “only two or three of the specific exhibits polled in the survey.” Thus the point of the survey seems to be not just tinkering with the marketing or interpretation, but rather the choice of what exhibitions are funded and scheduled.

      The fact that audience research is a growing trend is a bit of a red herring–I don’t oppose audience research, but rather sometimes the way it is done and the use to which it is put.

  6. The notion that Charles Venable values the “expertise and talent” of curators is laughable. You asked why a curator would want to work at the IMA? Well, they don’t. Many have fled to other institutions and their curatorial responsibilities have either been spread among the few who remain (regardless of their expertise) or “outsourced” along with exhibition decision-making.

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