TOPICS > Arts

Indianapolis Art Museum Looks Outdoors for a Dose of Whimsy

August 24, 2010 at 6:15 PM EDT
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The Indianapolis Museum of Art has turned its attention to a park filled with exhibits -- big and small -- in an attempt to lure more visitors both inside and outside. Jeffrey Brown has more.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight: A Midwestern museum presents a new face of art and nature. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: Basketball and Indiana, there’s nothing more natural than that, but it’s not quite the same when you play on a court like this one — a sculpture titled Free Basket that marks the entrance to a grand experiment in contemporary art that’s quickly gaining rave reviews from critics and locals.

MAN: To an extent, I always felt like, you know, Indianapolis is kind of boring sometimes, but stuff like this just brings in like a whole new fresh face and something bright and colorful and fun.

JEFFREY BROWN: A number of museums around the country have turned to bold architecture in recent years to raise their profiles. Here in Indianapolis, the Museum of Art has looked to the green expanse right outside its own doors to create an inviting new art park.

On the day of our visit, young children took up the invitation to jump all over a piece called Funky Bones, a sculpture best seen from space, but best enjoyed here on Earth.

In fact, a number of the sculptures commissioned by the museum to inaugurate the new park it calls 100 Acres seemed to find their art in whimsical takes on the everyday, the 15 pieces of bench around the lake, for example, or the Eden II, the ship as artwork that Finnish sculptor Tea Makipaa conceived as a kind of modern-day Ark, hearing the voices of victims of global warming and rising seas, an anomaly in the otherwise idyllic setting. Why a ship, and why is that art? Curator Lisa Freiman is just happy to have people enjoy it all and come up with their own answers.

LISA FREIMAN, curator, Indianapolis Museum of Art: This city is a city that has public spaces that are built around the past. But there hasn’t been a place like this where people could come and have engaging encounters with artwork in a meaningful way that would raise questions and cause people to ask, what is this? Why is this here? And the thing that’s been so interesting is seeing people who are clearly not of the art world who are walking around and pretty diligently doing the trek and talking about the work and experiencing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Whether or not the world thinks of Indianapolis as an art capital, the IMA, as it’s known, is justifiably proud of its offerings. One of the nation’s largest museums, it is encyclopedic of art from many times and places, European and American painting, a particularly strong Asian collection, and much else. And it’s all free. Museum director Max Anderson.

MAX ANDERSON, director, Indianapolis Museum of Art: It’s a museum in Indianapolis and it’s a museum in the world. We’re one of the 10 oldest general art museums in the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are there particular challenges for a city like Indianapolis?

MAX ANDERSON: Well, we’re a sports town. I don’t think that’s a surprise to your viewers. I think we’re a town that’s known for being aspirational in certain ways around competition. And, so, certainly, the museum has a degree of spirited competition in the way we collect and put on exhibitions and other things.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, so, outside some competition, as the IMA sought to stand out among other art parks — one way, only contemporary artists and not the tried-and-true, but fresh names and works, and, key to the concept, keep the work coming, changing the exhibitions as much as possible to give visitors something new.

LISA FREIMAN: When I came here initially, eight years ago, people said to me, how are you ever going to make contemporary art relevant in a place like Indianapolis? You know, it’s the middle of the country. It’s extremely conservative. You’re — you’re making a big mistake. And I said, I don’t look at it as a mistake. I look at it as an interesting challenge.

JEFFREY BROWN: One challenge to the artists: Use the specific space. So, this is a nice spot by the lake, huh? Artist Kendall Buster’s multilayered Stratum Pier, made of fiberglass and steel, serves as a platform to fish or just gaze at the lake.

LISA FREIMAN: Kendall came out here and studied — studied the park for a long time and the way that people were using it. She was interested with the way that people were engaging with the lake and the landscape.

JEFFREY BROWN: Engaging means they were fishing, they were…

LISA FREIMAN: Fishing. They were sometimes floating on floatees, picnicking on the edge of the lake, you know, just enjoying it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Park of the Laments by Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar is a kind of park within the park, a contemplative space of Indiana limestone, grass and trees entered through an underground tunnel. A piece of art or just a nice space? It didn’t matter to these two brothers who just visited.

MAN: I like how it was constructed. It wasn’t the original brick. It was very nice.

MAN: I just really thought it was a peaceful, quiet place. And there was no steady noises or anything. It was just quiet. It’s great for weddings and stuff.

JEFFREY BROWN: An interesting commute.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: And then there’s Indianapolis Island by Andrea Zittel, a fiberglass enclosure that floats in the middle of the lake, part performance art, part sociological experiment, as two art students, Jessica Dunn and Michael Runge, live on the island.

MICHAEL RUNGE, artist: People talk about it like we’re zoo animals. And so people are — it’s really fun when you walk out on to the porch to like brush your teeth or something and then there are people like on the pier just like, oh, I see them. I see…

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: There go the monkeys or, in this case, the artists.

MICHAEL RUNGE: Right. Right. Yes. Yes. And they get all excited when we wave. And I don’t know. It’s just fun to see. But it’s also interesting, you know, that happening every day, all day.

JESSICA DUNN, artist: The first time, yes, I walked outside on the porch, and there was a group of kids or something on the Kendall Buster pier, and they yelled out in unison, “Hi, Jessica,” I just — that was the first time I was like, whoa, people are watching.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: The two use new technology to blog about their experience and old technology to generate their electricity.

When a flag is raised, would-be visitors on shore can asked to be picked up — the only requirement, a trade, bring something in and take something out. For the new park as a whole, so far among first visitors, so good.

So, an homage to basketball through art?

LOU HARRY, “The Indianapolis Business Journal”: Yes, I think it’s great that the IMA has found artists from Cuba actually who could come to Indianapolis and create a work that is I think the best evocation of the state game of basketball since — well, probably since “Hoosiers.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Lou Harry writes on the arts for “The Indianapolis Business Journal.”

LOU HARRY: I think now there’s more of a reason that you need to go to the IMA. And I think we’re going to see more people who are interested in the arts traveling from outside the area, specifically to anchor a trip in this spot.

JEFFREY BROWN: For museum director Max Anderson, there’s already been an added benefit. Rather than just an addition, the park is serving as a doorway into the museum proper, especially for those who might not otherwise make that trip.

MAX ANDERSON: Yes, I think the park is, for us, a means to attract audiences who may be intimidated by art museums. It’s a wonderful accompaniment to their experience of the park itself, to come here, either to cool off or learn about what’s going on in this big building.

JEFFREY BROWN: The trick now for the IMA is to make sure the synergy between inside and out continues.