On Shaky Ground: Price Hikes, Public Image, and the IMA

Once, I was six and my mother brushed my hair until it shone and buckled my best Mary Janes, and we went to the art museum. It was an autumn day and the sky was sharp, the drive from our rural home an epic journey to my wide little eyes. All filled with bright murals and parapets where they hid paintings of princesses, and I presumed the art museum was a palace for the masses. I remember one room that my mother so loved that she sat me down with strong, grave hands and told me to look at its contents for a little while.

I knew nothing of Georges Seurat nor of his pointillism, but I knew about looking and thinking and building a place inside my mind, and so I set myself to task on that, my little legs swinging like metronomes. That lesson of looking, I later found out, built my foundation for making art.

I learned to look at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The Museum’s recent sea change has been well-covered by other outlets, with new director Charles L. Venable’s mission to bolster its endowment leading to an institution that’s hard to recognize. The IMA of my youth was a free institution for all, opening a remarkable collection to the public. In recent years, the IMA tackled all sorts of new and exciting projects with bravado, from launching an art video repository to opening Indianapolis’s first sculpture park; when it was announced that the IMA had been chosen to represent the United States for the 2011 Venice Biennale, it felt a bit as if we’d arrived. And while the IMA was making waves on a global stage, the museum was still reaching out to the casual visitor at large. One of my favorite recent memories was witnessing how many people came to view a series of visiting Roman marbles from the Louvre. It was hard to gauge what was more breathtaking: the monumental head that sat at the entrance of the antechamber or the rippling line that folded through the galleries and around the rotunda, all full of gasping, gossiping delight.

Understandably, institutional ambition comes with a hefty price tag; indeed, I’m hardly privy to what the previous administration did budget-wise. So when it was announced in December that the IMA would start charging $18 for general admission and $10 for children, my initial reaction wasn’t necessarily that of scorn – however, it was doused with a certain amount of confusion. Wanting to pay back past debt accrued by the endowment’s isn’t something to decry, but $18 and it sounds as if Venable never met his market. There’s the stereotypical Hoosier analysis: art’s a hard sell in a blue-collar community that values racecar drivers over Rembrandt. This is also patently unfair to my Naptown brothers and sisters, who support a beloved orchestra, a vibrant theater community, and a vibrant gallery system. But within the stereotype lies a seed of truth: Hoosiers are careful with their money. When your median income cruises in just below $44,000, you have to be. The cost of living might be pretty low in this neck of the woods, but every bill has to justify itself – including the entertainment dollars. Most of the museums in the area are aware of this; out of a survey of fourteen museums in the metro area, the average ticket price sits at $9 – half the proposed price of admission to the IMA. The few institutions that rise above $15 on the list are immersive learning experiences that act as much as a theme park as they do museum, such as The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park. Although the IMA is an institution that I treasure, it lacks an en suite merry-go-round, animatronic dinosaurs, and hot air balloons. There will be many who insist that you get what you pay for.

That said, the IMA has made some important exceptions to the rule, the likes of which are only fair to mention. Namely: special exhibitions are no longer billed separately with admission, the campus will no longer be charging for parking, and – perhaps most important of all – the IMA has joined the Access Pass program, which allows for low-income families to enter the museum for $1. This is vital for many of the families in the Museum’s neighborhood; the median income of the United Northwest neighborhood, which the IMA borders to the north, is $23,800. The median price of rent is $500. 41% of households sit below the poverty line. Just within the first week of January 2015, visitors within the United Northwest neighborhood and adjacent inner city neighborhoods ranked within the top 10 highest visitor counts in the metro area, so ensuring that the neighbors can still afford to attend is instrumental to the Museum’s survival.

But it is just as important to mention that the Access Pass program hinges on paperwork, proper documentation, and qualifying for state assistance. For undocumented citizens and the family whose income pushes them just above federal assistance but still living paycheck to paycheck, the Access Pass is out of reach. But more distressing is that I had to discover that the program existed on the culture blog Sky Blue Window, entirely by chance. If it took a happy accident for a person invested in the Indianapolis arts and culture scene to learn about this program, then what of the families that actually need its help? The IMA is at least trying to be transparent online, but quietly so. Hopefully, their in person outreach at the Museum is much more proactive – after all, when you’re on food stamps, I don’t think that paying for internet is high on the priorities list.

But even with the IMA’s honest attempts to make this fee workable for everyone, what’s most disappointing is that the damage may already be done. In the Sky Blue Window article, a comment reflects this truth: “I regularly took guests to the city to the art museum to show it off. And no, I won’t do that anymore.” Another stated flatly, “There was a time that the IMA did not need apologists. It is telling that they now do.” For in the end, an institution is only as good as the people who support it: the old guard and the young professionals, the well-to-do in Geist and the single mother on Lyndale alike. And when I think to the young girls who might have their mothers take their wide little eyes to sit in front of the Seurats and Turners and El Anatsuis, I wonder: will they make it in? Or will her mother feel put off from a well-meaning policy gone horribly sour?


Stumbling Man by David K. Rubins at the IMA. Image courtesy of the author.

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