To my great surprise, I frequently meet people in Indianapolis who ask where the Indianapolis Museum of Art is. I have always been a museophile, so it shocks me when people say they haven’t been to the art museum in their own home town. Wait, what else do you do on weekends?
One of the most frequent comments I hear is about how we are located in a “strange place,” way up on 38th street. It’s true, we do not sit on “museum row” in downtown Indianapolis, but I think the current location gives us many different opportunities that the museum would never be able to explore if it remained downtown. There are many benefits from being slightly off the beaten path: the latest is a current project everyone is very excited about- 100 Acres, the Virginia B Fairbanks Art and Nature Park.
The local arts and culture community in Indianapolis is vibrant and thriving, in spite of the economy and our community’s singular sports focus (No judgment, I’m a huge Colts fan, 14 days ’til preseason starts, etc. I just don’t think sports need to come at the high price of culture) The Indianapolis Museum of Art’s current location has the potential to give us the feeling of a destination, a calm refuge in the heart of a bustlng downtown.
But why does it matter where we are located? Is the difference between downtown and 38th St. such a great one?
Other museums have explored different options for their unique needs of “place,” for different reasons. Several museums have opened up satellite locations: the Guggenheim spread to multiple countries, including Spain and Germany, (and Las Vegas!) increasing the international audiences the museum is accessable to. The Getty has the Villa, which specifically houses their Roman and Etruscan art collection, so that location can focus on that one subsection of their collection. Other museums operate without physical locations, such as The International Museum of Women. It doesn’t yet have a physical site, but builds community through exhibitions online, lectures and events as they work toward a physical building.
All of these museums are reacting to their visitors and what they need from each institution. The most important aspect of location for museums and cultural centers is visitors and community. Physical space is a large part of what defines communal identity, and concepts like nationalism and even the sports team you favor arise from where you were born. We as humans like what we know, and we know what’s around. Shouldn’t our closest neighbors love us and visit the most? Yes, but often, they don’t.
Museums are defined by who comes to visit them and who they are reaching, something all museums should have a firm grasp on. We want to know who comes, and more importantly, know who doesn’t. This is where it gets tricky. I feel that ultimately, the current model of visitor-to-institution relationship comes down to the same patterns. Museums seek out new and different audiences, but they don’t come, regardless of the effort. Generally, the same people who care about the museum keep coming, and the museum continues to tailor it’s exhibits and activities for that same group. I suppose it’s only up to us to change this… more on that next time.