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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

The sad, unnecessary situations at MOCA, Indy

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The implicit contract amongst the board of a non-profit institution, its staff and its community goes something like this: If the staff does a good job, the community will embrace the staff’s work and the board will support it at a level that allows it to continue to do good work. It’s a triangular feedback loop that has worked well for art museums, which are, happily, overwhelmingly well-run. Art museums collect and preserve our visual and cultural heritage, generate scholarship, provide more education than any other organizations except schools, and expose Americans to peoples and ideas that would otherwise be outside their experience.

But somehow that traditional, tripartite system has broken down in Los Angeles and Indianapolis, where boards have failed to support widely respected institutions. In Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art is in its fifth year of crisis. Last week the Los Angeles Times reported that in addition to merger talks with the University of Southern California, MOCA’s board has initiated similar discussions with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Until the directorship of Jeffrey Deitch, MOCA had been America’s most admired and copied contemporary art museum. By bringing traditional art historical rigor to today’s art, MOCA set a standard that every significant contemporary art museum in the U.S. has followed. Many in Europe have too: Two of the continent’s top modern and contemporary art museums — Amsterdam’s Stedelijk and Cologne’s Ludwig — are run by former MOCA curators.

In Indianapolis, IMA director Charles Venable announced last week that the IMA was laying off 21 people, 11 percent of the museum’s staff, and that it was eliminating 29 jobs in all. (The Walker Art Center also recently announced a much smaller round of layoffs.) Under Max Anderson, Venable’s predecessor, the IMA had emerged as one of America’s top-performing art museums. The IMA’s digital initiatives, such as its transparency-providing Dashboard, its video service ArtBabble and its open-information deaccessioning policy, set new standards for the field. Under Anderson the IMA became free, providing everyone in Indiana with the same access to the art the museum held in trust for them. The IMA also spearheaded the United States presentation at the 2011 Venice Biennale and, at a time when too many Americans rushed to demonize Islam, the IMA presented a significant exhibition of Islamic art. When Anderson left the IMA, the museum was a national model.

The MOCA and IMA situations would appear to be as different as can be: Indianapolis is a fraction of Los Angeles’ size. MOCA is a contemporary art museum and the IMA is an encyclopedic institution (though via projects such as its new 100 Acres sculpture park, it has demonstrated better than most of its peer institutions how an encyclopedic museum can put contemporary art its heart.) MOCA has an international board of billionaire contemporary art scenesters, the IMA’s governors are almost entirely Indianans. But the two boards share one thing in common: They have allowed the implicit contract between staff, board and community to fail. MOCA’s board has been leading poorly for more than half a decade. Now the IMA’s board has joined them. [Image: Los Carpinteros, Free Basket, 2010. Collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.]

MOCA’s situation and the unwillingness of its board to support the museum is long-chronicled, most recently by Christopher Knight on the front page of Saturday’s Los Angeles Times. The Indianapolis Star is no Los Angeles Times, so the Indy situation is less clear. Let’s focus there.

As with MOCA, the IMA story is about not just the board, but about how the board is allowing a director to lead. In the Star, Venable recently claimed that the IMA cannot afford its current level of services and that he needs to cut around $2 million from the museum’s budget, roughly 10 percent of expenditures. He told the paper that the core of the alleged problem is that the museum is drawing down about six percent of its endowment this year. Venable considers this is an unacceptably high figure, not just in terms of draw, but in another, more novel way. [Image: Edouard Vuillard, The Seamstress, 1893. Collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.]

“In my opinion, endowments ideally should not be used to support more than 50 percent of operations as a rule with the other half being supported through donations and earned revenue,” Venable said. In over a decade of covering the non-profit sector and in years of working for non-profits before that, I’ve never heard of any remotely similar formulation or management theory. Nor could I find one when I looked.

How much should an art museum draw from its endowment each year? There is no industry-standard figure. Under rules put forth by the Internal Revenue Service, each year private foundations must make eligible charitable expenditures that equal or exceed five percent of their endowments. (The IRS rule also details what counts toward that figure and how it may be calculated, but that’s a little beyond where we need to go here.) Art museums are not private foundations. They may, if they choose to, spend far less than five percent of their endowment per year. Or far more. But for better or worse, art museums and other non-profit institutions have taken the IRS’ ‘five percent rule’ for foundations as a guideline.

According to Venable, the IMA is exceeding that figure by about one percentage point. Venable seems to have presented this percentage point to the Star as an irresponsible expense that will damage the institution if it is not controlled. Is six percent on the high end of the average art museum endowment draw? No data is available, but based on years of conversations with museum directors, I’d say yes. But is it irresponsibly or dangerously high, a level of spending that will damage the institution? Certainly not. It’s within the realm of reasonable. However, the Star accepted Venable’s analysis and wrote that the museum is “struggling.” But is that really true?

No, and it’s not even close. The IMA is an exceptionally well-endowed institution. As of last June, the IMA’s endowment stood at $326 million. (With the Dow Jones Industrial Average up 12.1 percent and the S&P 500 up 14.2 percent since the IMA last reported its endowment total, today that figure is likely substantially higher.) While there is no available accumulated set of data that ranks current art museum endowments, the IMA’s endowment is likely within the top 15 in the country. [Image: Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, about 1629. Collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.]

According to the Star, just over $200 million of the IMA’s endowment is available for operating expenses. So when Venable talks about an alleged need to cut $2 million from the IMA’s expenditures, the math is pretty obvious: $2 million equals almost exactly one percent of eligible endowment draw. Venable’s decision to axe staff and to reduce the IMA’s mission-delivery capability stems from a false imperative to reduce endowment draw — and at a time of fast-rising financial markets, too — and a novel formulation of from where a charity’s revenues should come.

(Especially galling: Just as Venable decided that he needed to cut $2 million, $1.7 million of which will come in staff cuts, he admitted to spending about $1 million to launch a show of art rented from the Baltimore Museum of Art, effectively sending money raised and earned in Indiana not into the IMA coffers, but to Maryland.)

This brings us to the choice made by Venable’s bosses, the decision to either instigate or allow devastating cuts to staff and mission fulfillment. The IMA board is doing its best MOCA impersonation: Instead of increasing giving as part of a considered medium-range effort to reduce its endowment draw — for this is how such reductions typically work — the IMA board chose to fire staff and to lessen the IMA’s ability to serve its community. Instead of building on the generosity of the past donors who built the IMA’s endowment and MOCA’s collection, their current boards are content to coast on the wealth of the past. Instead, they should be giving so as to enable their museums’ present and ensuring its future. That’s both flinty and an abdication of responsibility to staffs and previous donors who have helped make the two museums respected national leaders. [Image: JMW Turner, The Fifth Plague of Europe, 1800. Collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.]

Even worse: Two days after the IMA and its board mandated austerity, the Dow Jones hit an all-time high. Apparently Rep. Paul Ryan’s America lives on the IMA and MOCA boards.

The decimation of MOCA’s capabilities has been well-chronicled. The cuts made by Venable and his board are already degrading the IMA’s ability to fulfill its mission: The IMA laid off its director of publications, which portends poorly for the IMA’s ability to produce scholarship, particularly on its many excellent collections. Last night the museum’s librarian sent an email to IMA staff outlining cuts in library services: The IMA’s library will no longer provide open access to the public. It is also cutting its hours and will be open only six hours a day. The museum has signaled that further cuts are coming to the curatorial and conservation departments. Those cuts will be especially self-defeating as those are two of the museum departments most able to attract substantial grants from regional and national donors and foundations.

There’s an additional unsavory edge to Venable’s early IMA tenure. It’s clear from my conversation with journalists, present and former IMA staff and others involved in the arts in Indiana that someone or someones have initiated a whisper campaign portraying the museum’s previous leadership as irresponsible, profligate spenders, the kind of people that Indianapolis just couldn’t afford. Heck, the whisper campaign has continued, this place just doesn’t need to provide for its community the way museums in Minneapolis or Kansas City do, let alone museums in Los Angeles or in that place Anderson came from, New York!

On many levels, poppycock. The IMA is immensely popular in its community: In terms of population, the Indy metropolitan area ranks No. 33 in the U.S. It is not a city that draws a significant number of tourists. Yet according to the most recent available survey data from the Association of Art Museum Directors, with over 400,000 visitors per year the IMA ranks No. 19 in museum attendance, ahead of better known museums such as the Frick Collection and the Cleveland Museum of Art. The community has clearly embraced the staff’s work. [Image: John Marin, Hurricane, 1944. Collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.]

Venable himself fed the Star some data that allegedly pointed to Anderson’s irresponsible ways: Venable claimed that only 7,000 people visited a recent IMA exhibition of Islamic art. Yesterday, Anderson took to his Facebook page to reveal that figure as false: According to Anderson, 20,000 people visited the exhibition, and on a cost-per-visitor basis the show was not exceptional. Sniping at the previous museum director and presenting misleading data about his programming is small. The IMA board and director should be trying to build on the successes I detailed above, not explaining them away. (The exchange is revealing in another way: Anderson’s IMA was focused on being a museum that was engaged with world culture, art, artists, scholarship, conservation and education. Venable, who has proposed an exhibition of automobiles, seems  more interested in fairgrounds-style attractions and less interested in collections, historicizing exhibitions or in enabling and publishing scholarship.)

Should all this matter to art-lovers outside Indianapolis or Los Angeles? Yes. When the boards and directors of large, successful museums abandon the staffs and past donors that have produced and enabled significant work, and when they shrug at the communities that value that work, it serves as a warning shot for the whole field. It is the kind of behavior that should be documented and noted, as a warning of worst-practices. If it can happen at admired institutions such as MOCA and the IMA, it can happen anywhere.

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  1. thomas says:

    mr green,

    i couldn’t agree with you more. as a resident of LA, i’m saddened to see what has happened with MOCA. the last great exhibit i saw there was when they dug into their permanent collection and i walked into a room filled with no less then 6 Rothko’s. as well the unbelievably fantastic exhibit at the geffen temporary about the history of graffiti art.

    one bright spot might be that LACMA has been doing a fantastic job not just in exhibits but drawing people in by reaching out to the community by creating public spaces which can be occupied 24/7.

    while i dont see that MOCA will go down as a some sort of statement on present day politics, your article and the current climate of hateful tea party politics perhaps is an insight that some are taking on any and all public institutions as a moral imperative to “fix” the liberal bias. i sincerely hope not.

    but then again.

  2. Can't Buy Good Taste says:

    Not to mention decimating the award-winning Publishing and Media department. Seems like Venable is cutting out anything that made Anderson look good.
    And around Indianapolis, it’s more than a whisper campaign. Venable and the development staff are openly talking to higher level donors about the “troublesome spending” of the past 5 years. But Anderson was not forced out- the board is complicit in those decisions as well.

  3. Dan says:

    I’m glad you made the Paul Ryan comparison – I have been saying that for months now. Venable appears as someone who parades as a deficit hawk but whose misguided approach to spending cuts the foundation of the very institution they propose they are saving. Even if putting on blockbuster shows and making bank at the IMA was a simple task, it’s focus that is misguided.

  4. Abraham Ritchie says:

    Excellent post that goes right to the heart of the matter about museums, community, and trustees.

    Particularly liked the referenced to the deficit doomsday cult on Capitol Hill, which seems quite apropos in this situation.

    Thanks for a level-headed take on these museums.

  5. Eric Thoelke says:

    A well researched, largely objective take on the bad math behind bad decisions.

    (I would have left out the Paul Ryan snark, as tempting as it was. It will be easier for 48% of the readers — and an even greater percentage in Indiana — to dismiss you as simply a liberal polemicist. While the facts of your case are undeniable, refuting the undeniable has become de rigueur among the Paul Ryan set).

    Thanks for this important article.

  6. Tyler Green says:

    Thanks for the kind words. I included the Ryan line because I think what’s happening at MOCA and the IMA is a clear example of people with obligations to institutions and their staffs shirking those obligations. A certain political point-of-view had made the shirking of long-ago commitments newly fashionable. We should not be surprised when that same approach migrates from the political sector to the non-profit sector.

  7. john doe says:

    Good piece and I thank you. I always find it unfortunate when art museum directors with new posts criticize, indirectly or otherwise,their predecessors. They forget what good their predecessors did and how they really made the institution an alluring one to direct. In a NYTs piece a couple of weeks ago, there was a long piece about Claudia Gould and what her plans are for the Jewish Museum. Implied but not directly said, she criticized Joan Rosenbaum who had done an enormous amount of good at the JM, programmatically and adding an entirely new addition.

  8. Betty says:

    Max is smelling like a rose right about now. Personally, my skin crawled when he was in the same room. Remember, he also had a hand in a painful round of layoffs during his tenure. Recall the brilliant firing of low wage security staff to be replaced by 100 work study students at a savings of $600,000? All in one press release. You are right about “Anderson’s IMA focused on being a museum that was engaged with world culture, art, artists, scholarship, conservation and education.” It was also no secret that he (and his wife) spent freely to achieve these goals with the board at his side in Venice and everywhere else eating it up. They loved his city credentials. So it isn’t exactly a whisper campaign (or new information) that spending was a problem during the Anderson years.

  9. Amy Rubin says:

    I fear this response may appear jaded, which it actually is … Charities are laregly funded by private, corporate dollars and led by largely private high-wealth and corporates board member, all of whom/which have a vested interest and habit of bulking up investments, maximizing investments when the market is good by cutting staff and trimming programs or services, and re-focusing on investment figures to make up for hits (2009). Philanthropy is set up to revolve in large part around Wall St. I wish this were not the case. P.S. I was layed off from a nonprofit in 2003. My salary was coming out if the endowment, they had taken a huge hit by the first wave of the recession (not diversified enough AND reliant on endowment more than 50%, first time I heard that figure. But, the IMA offers itself for free, should be proud of that and that alone should justify the 6%, as public benefit. But the reality is that wealthy individuals and organizations are selfish for higher numbers regardless of context. It is sad.

  10. […] The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) announced last week that the museum will be laying off 21 people (11 percent of its staff). Why are they doing this? Tyler Green takes a look at their rationale and finds it inconsistent with museum management practices. Consider this your must-read article for the day. [Modern Art Notes] […]

  11. […] There’s a lot to unpack in this article on the IMA’s recent decision to cut it’s budget under director Charles Venable – [The sad, unnecessary situations at MOCA, Indy | Tyler Green: Modern Art Notes | ARTINFO.com.] […]

  12. Marty Radecki says:

    As I stated before in my first coment which seems to have been removed the IMA Board is mainly reponsible for this situation. Their biggest failure is they did not control Max in his spending or driving away major donors. I would contend that many of the things Max did as the DASHBOARD were more for show value and the core needs of the museum such as building the endowment were let fall by the wayside

  13. Tyler Green says:

    Your previous comment has not been removed. You seem to have posted it on another post.

  14. Marty Radecki says:

    Tyler thanks for the clarification about my first comment. In addition the staff at the IMA are expecting as many as 30 additional staff to be laid off during this year. This will decimate major departments as Conservation and this is an odd decision for the Board and for Charles since the addition of the Conservation Science has placed greater emphasis on Conservation.

  15. Andrew Bordwin says:

    As an artist who worked with a cross section of staff at the IMA on a sizable project for 100 Acres, I feel incredibly fortunate to have intersected with the museum at a time when its creative ambitions and programming vision were at their peak. Max Anderson, the curators and the entire staff made deeply ambitious decisions and it all paid off… a range of respected publications, new media development (including ArtBabble), thoughtful acquisitions, the expansion of contemporary programming, 100 Acres and the Biennale… It all brought a new level of national attention to the museum. That can only happen with complete trust and respect from the top on down. All of us artists involved felt that we were in the middle of something truly amazing. So needless to say, it saddens and angers me to see everything that was built up come crashing down this way. There is an asset that doesn’t seem to figure into the balance sheets when budgets are being drawn up: cultural impact, historical relevance, and innovation that touches everyone involved. I miss the IMA.

  16. Marty Radecki says:

    MThis is a bit of clarification for Andrew’s view about the IMA crashing down. I am happy he had a great experience with at the IMA and I bet he feltthe staff was amazing and they are. First the hundred acres was the brain child of Bret Waller and we were to place temporary installation by artist because of the flooding which it did last year. The walk ways for the visitors were quite poor and after a rain if one was handicapped seeing the 100 acres was very difficult. I contend Max should have raised funds and developed the entire 100 completely. In addition the Biennale was in the red 650,000 and some say even more. You cannot mount grand exhibitions if you cannot raise funds and keep with in a budget for it damages the entire museum. It is interesting that the Dashboard stop reporting museum expenditures last year so where is Max on financial transperancy. The board is the main problem because the let Max do what he wanted and know the staff is paying the price. The 2% wins again. Max built so many of his endeavors on a foundation of sand and then left

  17. ArtsyGirl says:

    It’s worth stating again that Max Anderson become the CEO of the IMA late in 2006, after the museum had undergone a 100m expansion and already launched the Art Park, another multi million dollar project.

    This reality was the strategic prerogative of the IMA’s Board, one in place before Anderson arrived. It was and remains the Board’s responsibility to make a plan that would guarantee that the institution could maintain its mission whilst accepting the expansion that they planned and implemented.

    The simple solution here would be for the IMA’s Board to take ownership of the mess they created, and reject the tone deaf and childish behavior of the CEO they just hired. But the reality seems to be that the current Board has taken zero responsibility for this mess and does not even know how to respond to it, much less get their CEO to respond whilst he jaunts through Europe. This all means that the people of, in, and around the museum unnecessarily bear the Board’s burdens, and the community in which the Board lives and prospers directly suffers from a debilitated and demeaned institution.

  18. Poor leadership says:

    Artsy Girl has written an excellent analysis of the situation. It is hard to sustain an institution when the leadership is and has been this poor. Thank you, Artsy Girl. I hope some of the local press will pick up and run your astute observations. Thank you, Mr. Green, for providing a forum.

  19. Marty Radecki says:

    Response to Artsy Girl is that the Art Park 100 Acres did not have to go ahead. If Max told the Board that the project should be put on hold until all the funds were received that is what would have happened. The 100 acres could have started smaller with temporary installation in the meadow. I contend Max wanted another feather in his cap so he went for it, but as other things he did it was only part way done. He may have also wanted to take the Boards minds some of his screwups as the guard situation and upseting donors.
    Although I am glad the Miller House in Columbus is an historic home was that the best move for the museum snd Max never raised the complete endowment for the Miller Home. If any major thing goes wrong at the house there is no funds to fix it.But I do completely agree with Artsy Girl the main fault lies with the Board.

  20. […] museums, it would seem that the Indianapolis Museum of Art board and director are also engaged in some bizarre clusterfuckery. Seriously, museums, what the hell is going […]

  21. IMA Fan says:

    It must not be fun to be an IMA staffer these days, but at least their CEO is watching great opera in Europe and telling everyone about it on his Twitter Machine. Maybe the IMA Board will convene a special meeting over an island cruise to discuss this “bizarre clusterfuckery”. Or maybe they will watch the problems pile up their CEO’s desk over in Indianapolis.

  22. JMWTurner says:

    Great article. I am an arts educator here in Indy and can say this read is quite accurate and I am grateful to Tyler and this level of informed journalism. The loss of public access to the library is a devastating rebuke to students, especially university students, throughout the city. This hurts IUPUI, Marian, Butler, UIndy and Ivy Tech student’s the most. Furthermore, in an unheard of move student passes will not be available for the upcoming Matisse show this fall. Shame.

    The IMA has some wonderful, exciting events the last few years including “Beauty and Belief” and participation in the Venice Biennale. The upcoming Ai Weiwei http://www.imamuseum.org/aiweiwei is also amazingly timely and important. Let’s hope that the momentum of the last 10 years isn’t compromised in this mess.

    The IMA is too important to the city and state.

  23. […] by 11%, gets called out by Indianapolis’ NUVO as “cagey and opaque”. Yikes. This follows Tyler Green’s damning article on the director’s decision to make cuts in March. […]

  24. […] worked to fulfill the IMA’s core mission, and as [Modern Art Notes critic Tyler] Green points out, expanded that mission to include making the museum more accessible in exciting ways. He made […]

  25. […] worked to perform a IMA’s core mission, and as [Modern Art Notes censor Tyler] Green points out, stretched that goal to embody creation a museum some-more permitted in sparkling ways. He done […]

  26. […] For the first time, a national organization of arts professionals is putting heat on the Indianapolis Museum of Art as a result of director Charles Venable’s recently announced layoffs. […]

  27. […] Green, of Modern Art Notes, laid out many of the flaws in the IMA leadership’s thinking in a fiery articlecomparing the IMA firings with MOCA’s unending […]

  28. […] The sad, unnecessary situations at MOCA, Indy […]

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