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

Over 100 engaging and innovative land-art installations raised public awareness of river ecology and water infrastructure. But the once-prestigious museum behind them has since pivoted to crass marketing gimmicks – yoga, craft beer – and the “greatest travesty in the art world in 2017”.

 

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Two of the country’s most compelling and pioneering installations of site-specific environmental art in decades – as much community outreach as art per se – took place in Indianapolis, of all places, in the mid 2010s. The two projects, 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 placed throughout the city to mark various features of the local urban waterways such as small dams and sewer outlets. The goal was to increase the public’s connection with the natural urban environment, specifically rivers, streams and water infrastructure. Further, every site had an ingenious interactive installation that not only provided multimedia information about the water features, but literally, physically engaged the viewers by involving bodily movement and play. A worlds-first phone app called Track a Raindrop provided user-friendly visualizations of how stormwater travels through the city infrastructure.

The creator was Mary Miss, one of the world’s most important and respected artists in the media of public art and land art since the 1970s. Several of her permanent installations are are global landmarks of late-20th century public art and a few, I suspect, have been experienced by more people than any other site-specific installation in the world, due to their locations in central Manhattan.

Shockingly, though, hardly any trace of the groundbreaking Indianapolis project has survived online, and it’s looking unlikely that the institution that commissioned it, the former Indianapolis Art Museum, will ever again present a such innovative and sophisticated project. The article you are reading is essentially the only publicly-accessible documentation of it, anywhere, the information and photos having been cobbled together from a variety of now-defunct websites. The project was erased from the IMA website after the museum’s highly controversial rebranding last year. The rebranding sparked outrage and withering criticism, with the media and art worlds saying the museum “walked away from its mission” and “is arguably not a museum anymore” due to “the greatest travesty in the art world in 2017“, and instead is now more an “Instagram playground” with “fairgrounds-style attractions”.

 

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The astonishing and truly unique feature of FLOW was that the giant pins were not necessarily located at the site of the water-related feature it was marking, such as a wetland, dam, or sewer outfall. The pin could be some distance away, say up to hundreds of feet. The other element of FLOW was a series of swiveling mirrors on pedestals located along pedestrian pathways in parks and riverbanks around the city, also not directly near the water features. Each mirror had a red dot and etched informational text about the distant water feature. It all came together when the viewer turned the mirror so the red dot aligned with the reflection of distant oversized pin. Now the pin would appear to have been placed directly in the wetland or dam, or alongside it. In other words, there was an imaginary line formed by the water feature, the pin, and the informational mirror, each located some distance apart.

The point of all this – the stroke of genius – was that it allowed for marking features where signs would be impossible to install or too far away from the viewer, such as a publicly inaccessible wetland on the opposite side of the river from a public park. Further, it physically engaged people in getting to know their environment, because you had to stop and turn the mirror and think about what was going on with the big red pin and the water infrastructure.

Mirrors and map pins physically engaged the viewer because they had to swivel the mirror to make the dot and pin align. This would cause the pin to appear directly at or in front of the feature – here, a dam.

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Mary Miss 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, playfulness, fun and mystery her works inspire. Every New Yorker who uses the subway has seen her work thousands of times. The enigmatic bright red metal frames and narrow apertures with half-hidden mirrors and texts throughout 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 carries the umbrella title of City as Living Laboratory.

FLOW 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 in an archives of deleted 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 but had more ways for the public to be active participants, whether individually at the installations or in 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 could only remain in place for a year or two because maintenance costs would have been prohibitive. 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.

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 – it has pockets and sub-populations where  the committment to environmental issues, respect for human rights, and rich, diverse and open-minded culture are not much different from the coasts and major blue-state cities. Such pockets are found in many ultraconservative strongholds, and have been for many decades, despite the country’s extreme polarization. (The near-absence of such pockets in Germany has been among the biggest surprises to me here as a transplanted American. Compared to the U.S., the German population is much more self-selecting – it sorts itself into homogenous zones more than the U.S. does. In the conservative cities and towns and rural areas in Germany, you just don’t see the pockets of un-conservative and open-minded culture that you find around the U.S.. If I had to name the #1 misconception that non-Americans have about the U.S., it’s that few of them have ever heard about these oases which are scattered throughout the country.)

That leads us to the heartbreaking 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 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 once had a reputation for innovative, challenging exhibits and early engagement with the digital realm such as its revolutionary “Dashboard” website, now deleted like the FLOW 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 and the country’s culture. In the restructuring, the name Indianapolis Art Museum was eliminated 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, a 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, I was confused because my searches for the Indianapolis Art Museum kept ending up at what I thought was a slick, excruciatingly market-researched, and garishly commercial resort or shopping mall that was trying to be classy by offering some sort of art tours. After extensive digging it dawned on me that this was corpse of the Indianapolis Art Museum and it had been renamed Newfields.

Now, the museum is lost in an onslaught of lowest-common-denominator, pandering, Instagram-targeted “experiences”. This is where art, culture and thought itself go to die in a pit of the worst focus-grouped marketing-speak that late capitalism has to offer. The website features contrived and patronizing commands to “Do & See” and “Shop & Eat”. Where they had “Roman Art from the Louvre” exhibitions, there is now yoga – directly in the galleries, with no apparent concern over high sweat concentrations – crafts, book club, Saturday morning “cereal and a movie”. Desperate 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.

Yoga in the art museum. So far, the museum has not commented on the possible effects of airborne sweat on major art treasures.

“Cheap midwestern boardwalk” as the City Lab put it (when City Lab was still at the somewhat respected Atlantic, before billionaire Michael Bloomberg bought it in 2019 in an ironic parallel of the Newfields debacle), 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. He started a Facebook page just for his 20-room mansion where he shared his redecorating plans and assessments of caterers who supply parties for the 0.1%. 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 among 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 a 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 can send the 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 talk she discusses aquatic ecosystems. The contrast between Miss’ thoughtfulness and creativity, and the tawdry gimmicks such as Winterlights® is staggering. 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 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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