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What A Surprise

There are two types of books in the world—those that writers choose to write for themselves (and with the hope, of course, that someone will publish them) and those that writers are commissioned to write. I was commissioned to write Every Way Possible, the first published history of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Or rather, to help write it, since it was far too big a job for a single writer to tackle, at least in the time allotted to do it—which was less than two years.

Okay, two years probably seems like plenty of time if you’ve never written an institutional history before. But the truth is, two years is barely enough time if what you’re trying to do is provide a reasonably comprehensive look at 125 years in the life of a major museum, which is what those of us involved in the Every Way Possible project were charged with doing. And by two years, what I mean is that at the end of that time, there would be printed and bound books in hand—which meant, working backwards from that point, we actually had about 16 months (one year + four months, for those of you keeping score at home) in which to research, write and edit a 300-page book (as well as find, identify and write captions for more than 100 photographs). The rest of the time was dedicated to designing the book (no easy task in itself), then getting it printed, bound and delivered.

The fact that we accomplished it is a matter of pride for all of us involved. Furthermore, the fact that, in reading it through before it went to press, I discovered that what we had done was exactly what we’d set out to do—create a lively, readable history of the IMA—heightened that pride. It was no easy task, combing through 125 years of board minutes, letters, annual reports, and other documents, as well as talking with a variety of people who’ve been part of the IMA’s more recent history, with the intention of culling from all that material the type of information and anecdotes that would make an institutional history come alive.

However, what sometimes happens in the process of writing a book is that you lose track of your original intention, having become enamored of some new concept you arrive at—often as result of spending too much time mired in minutia that you’re convinced will be as fascinating to your readers as it is to you. Usually you’re wrong. And that’s when a book veers off course and becomes ever more difficult to steer in the right direction. Much to my relief, we managed to stay on course (after losing our way a couple of times), and in the end we did what we intended to do. (Quite an admission once you realize that authors are always the last to acknowledge that their books have any value other than as compost material.)

Here’s hoping you’ll agree when Every Way Possible, a history of the IMA, arrives at The IMA Store in December.

Filed under: Local, Musings

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