In Indianpolis, inspired public art once connected the public to their overlooked waterways. Then they turned the art museum into an Instagram playground.

The Indianapolis Art Museum once had a fine reputation for challenging and praiseworthy exhibits such as a groundbreaking way to connect the public to their urban streams and rivers. Now that reputation is at risk due to a shift to crass marketing gimmicks, yoga, craft beer, and the “greatest travesty in the art world in 2017”.

 

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Two of the most compelling and pioneering works of site-specific environmental art of recent decades – as much community engagement as art per se – took place in Indianapolis in the mid 2010s. Although they were the work of one of the most important living creators of public and “land” art, little record of them remains online (the most significant source is here) and they have disappeared from the online presence of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which commissioned it. You won’t find them on the website of this once-esteemed institution ever since its highly controversial rebranding last year, which has been described as “walking away from their mission” and “the greatest travesty in the art world in 2017“, resulting in an “Instagram playground” with “fairgrounds-style attractions”.

The two works, called FLOW – Can You See The River? (2011) and StreamLines (2015), consisted of over 100 giant oversize map pins – with bright red basketball-size pin heads – marking various features of the local urban waterways – such as small dams and sewer outlets – along with a variety of ingenious interactive installations for physically engaging the public and connecting them with their local urban waterways.

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The inspired innovation was that each giant pin was not located at the site of the feature it was marking. Instead, each pin was hundreds of feet away along an imaginary line between the feature and any one of a series of swiveling mirrors on pedestals located along pathways in parks and riverbanks. When the passer-by aligned the mirror with the oversize pin, they would see the dam, say, or the sewer outfall, in the mirror, beyond the pin – and the mirror was etched with information about the feature in question (see diagram).  Thus the installations, remarkably, achieved two widely differing aims: they allowed people – in fact, obligated them – to physically participate in getting to know their environment, by moving around and turning the mirrors. And it made it possible to have informational signs for overlooked features located far away from the viewer.

How the mirrors and map pins worked to physically engage the viewer. When you line up the dot on the mirror with the map pin, the feature in question – in this case a dam – will be aligned with them in the mirror.

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The artist was none other than Mary Miss (her given name), who has been one of the most important and respected pioneers in site-specific, land, and public art since the 1970s, based in New York City but with installations around the country and the world.

She is known for her innovative blurring of the boundaries between art, landscape architecture, engineering, and education. But this description doesn’t do justice to the physical activity and fun, playfulness and mystery her works inspire. Every New Yorker who uses the subway has seen her work thousands of times. The enigmatic bright red metal bars and narrow apertures with half-hidden mirrors and texts scattered, apparently irregularly, in the 14th Street subway station, are her Framing Union Square (1999-2000). They frame traces of the station from before its modernization, such as mosaics, rivets, and wiring, or mark where elements used to be. She also was the lead artist for the distinctive plaza and promenade at Battery Park City called South Cove (1984), which to this day is said to be the point in Manhattan with the closest pedestrian access to the water and has aged better than many plazas and promenades from that era. For some time her outdoor work has been focused on public engagement and done under the umbrella title of City as Living Laboratory.

The project was a collaboration with ecologists at Butler University and Reconnecting Our Waterways, a local environmental organization and included commissions for dance, music, and poetry works, other public events, and online tools for encouraging connection to and reflection upon local waterways and aquatic ecosystems among the general public.

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Equally exciting was the phone application called Track a Raindrop. You clicked on any point on a map of Indianapolis and it showed you the path that every raindrop falling on that point will follow – along the street, into a storm drain if there is one, from there to a stream and eventually into a river and I assume eventually the Gulf of Mexico. I don’t know for sure because the app has disappeared from the internet just like the documentation of the rest of the project so I only know it from a few screenshots I was able to dig up at a website set up for archiving defunct websites. Most people don’t realize that every point on the earth is in a watershed and all watersheds drain into rivers. This was a great way to show them.

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In 2015, a second project called StreamLines involved fewer installations – only five – but had more ways for the public to be active participants, whether individually at the installations or as part of a program of arts performances.

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Each StreamLines site had a platform where a person could stand and look up into a mirror and see text about local water features and systems etched on the mirror and in reflections of structures on the ground, with red balance beams radiating outwards from this point. Other mirrors and signs displayed not just information but prompts for play and physical engagement and exploration: “Listen for birds. When you hear one call, call back. Travel between the warmest and coolest spots on this site. Discuss: how many times do you cross over a body of water each day? Tell a joke from streamlines.org”.

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Between the striking red beams and prompts for actions, I can see StreamLines engaging families and other groups more than FLOW did. StreamLines also had a more extensive program of dance, music and poetry directly related to the water themes.

The installations were in place for a year or two, by intention, because maintenance to repair the effects of wear and tear, weather and vandalism would have been too expensive. But the lack of enduring and publicly available documentation is a disappointment. It took me weeks of exhaustive digging online just to come up with what you are reading here, detective work, combing through the Internet Archive which saves copies of websites that have been taken down.

For our non-American readers it’s important to point out that although Indiana is indeed deep Republican country – Vice-President Mike Pence was the governor – its level of both culture and environmental awareness at least among certain segments of the populace, can be as sophisticated and progressive as on the coasts, and this is true of cities in every state, regardless how Red they are. In terms of quantity these things may offset by the bible-thumpers and guns and racism but they are there. Having lived in both hinterlands and metropolises I can assure you they hold their own against what you find in so-called cosmopolitan centers.

That leads us to the sad story of the Instagramification of the Indianapolis Art Museum, a grand and well-funded institution with an excellent, encyclopedic collection. Although Indianapolis is the 33rd largest city in the U.S., its museum has the eighth largest endowment and eighth largest main building. It gets more visitors than the Frick in New York or the Cleveland Art Museum which has twice the endowment and is a major world-class museum (check the labels in the Metropolitan or any major European museum and you will find that loans from Cleveland are not uncommon), unlike Indianapolis’ which is perhaps one tier down, or a half-tier, but still excellent. It lies adjacent to the estate of its primary benefactors, the Lilly pharmaceutical family, who also donated the estate’s house and grounds, now registered landmarks, to the museum in 1966. In 2002 the same Lilly heiress gave $200 million to the Poetry Foundation (yes, $200 million). The museum had a reputation for innovative, challenging exhibits and early engagement with the digital realm such as its revolutionary “Dashboard” website, now gone like the Miss documentation, that reported hard behind-the-scenes numbers such as size of the endowment and numbers of visitors with a map showing their home zip codes.

Now-deleted Dashboard site saved at the Internet Archive. Dashboard appears to have been shut down in 2016.

But after an over-ambitious expansion program in the early 2000s led to financial troubles – attendance has stalled at half the number that was predicted – the museum fired its director and hired a new one whose massive restructuring and rebranding scandalized the art world. Around 2012, twenty-nine staff positions were eliminated, a staggering number for a museum, including seven out of the museum’s twelve curators and the director of publications. The museum refused to say which positions were gone. Admission went from free to eighteen dollars, the internship program was eliminated and the library ceased having regular hours and is now open only by appointment. An exhibit of cars was held. And that was before the “travesty” really got underway.

It seems the museum solved the worst of its financial issues shortly after these dramatic changes, but still the director and trustees went farther and carried out a tectonic shift in the museum’s identity and its role in the city’s or even the country’s culture. In the restructuring, the name Indianapolis Art Museum itself was retired and the museum repositioned as just one amenity among many in a multipurpose site christened Newfields, which encompasses several entities that are  adjacent to the museum and institutionally linked to it, either formally or informally: a critically acclaimed 100 acre sculpture park opened in 2010, beer garden, and Oldfields, the aforementioned Lilly house and gardens (hence the neologism), and more. The first time I viewed the Newfields website, before I knew any of this, before I knew anything whatsoever about the Indianapolis art museum, I took Newfields to be some sort of shopping mall or resort that was trying to be classyby offering art tours of local sites. It took 20-odd minutes of digging around to figure out what on earth they were talking about and discover that this was was in fact the website of what was formerly known as the Indianapolis Art Museum.

Now, the museum is lost in an onslaught of lowest-common-denominator, pandering, Instagram-targeted “experiences” and this is where great art and culture go to die in a tar pit of the worst focus-grouped marketing-speak that late capitalism has to offer. The website features contrived, patronizing commands to “Do & See” and “Shop & Eat”. Yoga, crafts, book club, Saturday morning “cereal and a movie”. Relentless exhortations to “explore” and “experience” with the latter word repeated so often it’s creepy and you wonder if they’re trying to hypnotize you into coming. “A place for kite-flying, cloud-gazing, memory-making, new-idea-having”. “A mansion to stage unforgettable events, restaurants for relaxing, bars for microbrews and friendships.” One wonders how many hundreds of thousands of dollars went to marketing consultants just to come up with those twenty-one words alone.  The flagship showstopper event of the season is… Christmas lights, but renamed in Instagramspeak to  “Winterlights”: “see the lights dance again as you amble side by side with family and friends”, instructs the website with the infantilizing message that the reader needs an explanation of the purpose of Christmas lights.

From the Indianapolis Art Museum website

“Cheap midwestern boardwalk” as the Atlantic‘s City Lab put it, accurate in mood if not geography, given that only seashores have boardwalks. The director was quoted as saying he can’t understand why the museum shouldn’t get as many visitors as the city’s runaway successful children’s museum, which sounds like something from the Fox News School of Art Criticism, and started a Facebook page just for his 20-room house where he shared his redecorating plans and thoughts about evaluating party caterers. The media and art world howled, mocked, and heaped deserved scorn on the sad and vulgar degradation.

Naturally the art is still there in the museum. There are collection tours, though they are jumbled haphazardly in amongst the listings with Instagram-style photos of Christmas wreath making and young women doing yoga. There’s a George Platt Lynes exhibit, which seems to have the challenging spirit of the “old” museum, raising the suspicion that it was planned long before the museum’s degradation. For now, it still has its revolutionary, first-ever-worldwide online database of deaccessioned works where you can see which artworks the museum has sold off from its collection and when and in most cases why. This is an crucially important service and it is a travestry that few if any other museums provide it. Deaccessioning is extremely controversial and secretive in the museum world, and, I am told, just plain prohibited by law in France and Germany. The reason is that it can turn museums into profit-driven speculators and indicate incompetence in choosing important works that are worth having, and can send a discouraging message to donors that the museum could someday sell off their donations. Indianapolis’ great step towards transparency, begun in the 2000s was a bold and rare move to show they only deaccession for very good reason, but in the museum’s new orientation it seems unlikely to survive at all.

Good luck finding the database, anyway, buried as it is in deep in the website, many labyrinthine clicks behind the yoga classes. I never would have known it’s there if I hadn’t seen it mentioned in negative criticism of the museum’s rebranding, as an example of the kinds of things the IMA – pardon, Newfields – doesn’t do any more. Mary Miss isn’t in the website at all.

In a talk about the FLOW project, Miss said one of her inspirations was Borges’ famous description of a map as big as the territory it describes, and elsewhere in the same talk she discusses river and watershed ecosystems. I can’t help comparing those rich and profound – not to mention, socially committed –  juxtapositions to Winterlights® (is it an ®? It sure sounds like one. If there isn’t a tie-in Frapuccino™ flavor I’ll eat my shoe). I get it, the museum needs to take advantage of the gardens and parks and other sights at the location in order to drawn in visitors. But as the same City Lab writer put it, “where the Indianapolis Museum of Art strove to challenge its audience, Newfields pats their heads.”


 

The FLOW website is archived here.

Image credits: Mary Miss / CALL, Indianapolis Museum of Art

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