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.
Here’s how: Today the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works and Heritage Preservation announced that the IMA is the winner of the 2013 Ross Merrill Award for Outstanding Commitment to the Preservation and Care of Collections. The award has been given by AIC and HP since 1999. Previous winners include the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Colonial Williamsburg.
In a press release, AIC and HP explained why IMA was receiving the award:
From its beginnings, the leadership of the IMA recognized the importance of the care of its collections and, over the years, the conservation staff have coordinated activities with other departments within the museum and assisted local collecting institutions with their conservation needs. Its original conservation laboratory was expanded and upgraded over the years, and, within the past five years, the IMA constructed an analytical and research laboratory and hired its first conservation scientist.
Taking a leading role in outreach for museums and collection care, the IMA has also instituted groundbreaking web initiatives featuring curators, conservators, and significant collections. From its award-winning online engagement activities such as ArtBabble, to its goals for institutional transparency on the Dashboard, the IMA exemplifies an institution-wide commitment to preservation.
That’s an eye-catching citation, mostly because the cited initiatives have been the targets of Venable’s cuts.
Furthermore, the timing of AIC/HP’s awarding the Merrill to IMA is somewhat remarkable: AIC’s annual meeting starts next week — and the host of the meeting just happens to be the IMA. To make this all even more awkward, the IMA’s conservation department has been particularly hard hit by Venable’s layoffs. The IMA has announced cuts of 11 percent of staff museum-wide, but Venable has laid off 25 percent of the conservation department’s 12-person staff. (Sources tell MAN that a fourth employee’s future status is uncertain. If that staffer is let go, Venable will have eliminated a third of the award-winning department.)
With all this in mind, I emailed AIC executive director Eryl Wentworth to ask if the AIC was trying to put some heat on Venable. Surprisingly — professional associations rarely take dead aim at institutions, even when those institutions are cutting staff who are members of or within the field of the relevant professional association — Wentworth said yes.
“The nomination was recommended by the Awards Committee and voted for approval by both the AIC and Heritage Preservation boards late last year,” she emailed. “Following news of the cuts, we determined that the presentation of this award to the IMA, along with our support of the conservation staff and their work over many years, is an opportunity to impart to the IMA leadership the significance of the museum’s conservation and collections outreach activities, locally and nationally, and the importance of supporting these efforts in the future.”
Should make Venable’s presumed acceptance of the Merrill Award at the IMA next week all the more interesting, no?