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Power to the People

Photo Courtesy of Lisa French

Photo Courtesy of Lisa French

After writing or co-writing histories of the IMA, the Herron School of Art & Design, and the Indianapolis Art Center, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that the most important resource an organization needs to succeed is people. I know that’s stating the obvious, but it’s worth acknowledging. Without people committed to developing, sustaining and improving an organization (whether a multinational corporation or small not-for-profit) nothing of value will ever get done.

In my former capacity as the visual arts writer for The Indianapolis Star, I covered the IMA extensively, from articles on exhibitions and events to a large, multi-faceted package of articles on the Museum’s most recent facilities expansion. But the ones I enjoyed writing the most were the profiles I did of various IMA staff members—I can attest to the fact that the Museum attracts some of the city’s most talented, skilled and interesting people. What I discovered while researching and writing Every Way Possible, an upcoming book celebrating 125 years of IMA history, was that fact has always been true.

The Museum got its start in 1883 when a small group of people led by nationally known suffragette May Wright Sewall formed the Art Association of Indianapolis. Without Sewall’s tenacity and drive, the group might never have done more than meet occasionally to talk about art; instead, it became the driving force behind the development of the John Herron Art Institute. And that Institute was the result of a $225,000 bequest from local landlord and businessman John Herron, another interesting character in the IMA story. Not known for having a particular interest in art, he nonetheless left the bulk of his estate to the Art Association, with the stipulation that the money be used to build a museum and art school bearing his name. (His niece also became the Herron Museum’s first curator.) The Herron Museum was the precursor to today’s Indianapolis Museum of Art.

So, from the beginning, the institution that would become the IMA was a product of out-of-the-ordinary people with out-of-the-ordinary dreams. Some of the others included:

  • Mary Quinn Sullivan (pictured above): An Indianapolis native who went on to study art in London and teach it in New York, Sullivan was the driving force behind the creation of The Gamboliers, a group that helped introduce modern art to the city by purchasing drawings and prints by the likes of Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani. Sullivan went on to become one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
  • Caroline Marmon Fesler: The daughter of local industrialist and automobile manufacturer Daniel Marmon (Ray Harroun drove a Marmon car to victory in the first Indianapolis 500 race in 1911), she studied painting in Europe. Later, she became a well-known art collector, especially of 20th-century modernist works, many of which she later gave to the Herron Museum—including Grey Hills by her friend, Georgia O’Keeffe. Along with Sullivan, Fesler propelled the Herron Museum into the era of modern art.
  • Herbert Krannert: Founder and president of Inland Container Corporation, Krannert agreed to take charge of the Art Association in 1960, at a point when the organization was struggling to stay afloat. Krannert insisted the group reorganize its board and its way of doing business, including creating the position of board chairman—he became the first person to have that title and he held it for 12 years. His tenure culminated in the relocation of the Museum from the Herron campus at 16th and Pennsylvania streets to its current 38th St. and Michigan Road site, and the Art Association’s name change to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Krannert and his wife Ellnora also gave $3 million to help build the IMA’s first building at the present location—Krannert Pavilion, which opened in 1970.

That’s just a sample of the sorts of people you’ll find in the pages of Every Way Possible when it hits The IMA Store in December. I think you’ll find that spending some time in their company (and that of many others who were—or are—associated with the Museum) is inspiring.

Filed under: Local, Musings

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