Charles Venable, Melvin & Bren Simon CEO and Director at Newfields, United States. Photography © Courtesy of Newfields
1.What is your museum about and what is your work there?
Newfields’ mission is to “Enhance lives through exceptional experiences with art & nature”. Located in Indianapolis, Indiana, our 152-acre cultural campus includes the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park, and The Garden at Newfields, a 40-acre, Olmsted-designed pleasure garden.
As the Melvin & Bren Simon CEO and Director, my job is to guide the institution overall, ensuring its positive and inclusive impact on our community, financial sustainability, excellence of programming, and stewarding its art and nature assets.
2.How is your museum dealing with the coronavirus crisis?
After months of closure, we were fortunately able to reopen our outdoor Park and Garden in mid-June, with the IMA galleries following in mid-July. Safety procedures are still in place, including social distancing, limits on attendance, and a mask requirement for both staff and guests. The Lume Indianapolis at Newfields will open next June and will also have such precautions in place unless the COVID-19 situation changes dramatically for the better by then.
Luckily, The Lume’s digital art galleries are very large, occupying nearly 30,000 sq. ft. Because guests can spread out and tickets will be timed, we can control both visitor density and capacity in the space. Therefore, the inaugural Van Gogh experience will be welcoming and safe for young and old alike. One will be able to experience great art on a grand floor-to-ceiling scale, but visitors will not have to touch anything unless they want to enjoy food or beverage in The Lume’s café bar or make purchases in The Lume shop.
3.What is the impact on your digital activity? Do you have tips to share with your colleagues?
For the past eight years, we at Newfields have been expanding our audience by instituting a business model that combines art and nature programming within seasonal festivals. The Lume will be the anchor experience for our summer season, the last one we have to build out. As part of this effort, we have done extensive international research on digital applications to both art and garden programs, and conducted experiments that include VR, projection mapping and content on high-quality, flat-screen panels. Right now, for example, guests in our design galleries can take a VR tour of our wonderful Miller House & Garden that is located 45 minutes south of Newfields in Columbus, Indiana, and experience a total transformation of our historic Lilly House at Newfields through projection mapping in the evenings. The combination of seasonality and digital experiences have really moved the needle for us.
My biggest “tip” for colleagues is: “Do your homework!” To start with, you need to know a lot about your current audience, along with who is not coming and why. Then you need to find out if there is room for significant growth within the cohort that is already coming. We learned that in the greater Indianapolis area, people who really love art and art museums were only about 16% of the population and most of those people were already coming to Newfields. But another 57% said they liked art and nature, but were generally not motivated enough to spend their limited leisure time on a visit to an art museum where they would worry about their children behaving, could not buy any of the art, and were not allowed to eat or drink in the galleries. We call this large slice of the community the “Movable Middle” and these are the people we are now targeting.
We believe The Lume will strongly appeal to the Movable Middle because it is a multisensory experience that combines things that are highly motivating to lots of people, like visiting a commercial art gallery, going to the movies, dining in a restaurant and having a cocktail at a bar. Analyzing every edition of LaPlaca Cohen’s Culture Track reports inspired us to boldly move in this direction, and I am sure those studies can be helpful to any cultural organization. The bottom line is that art museums can’t keep doing the same sorts of things over and over again, if they want a different outcome, including a more diverse audience.
4.Are you preparing yourself for the reopening or you are already opened? Tell us in what way.
The Indianapolis Museum of Art, The Garden, and The Virginia B Fairbanks Art & Nature Park are now all open here at Newfields. We are now working to transform our entire fourth floor of galleries into The Lume with the goal of unveiling our first all-digital art exhibition in June 2021.
As this inaugural show focuses on the work of Vincent van Gogh, we expect it to draw visitors from across the Midwest and beyond, but guest safety will come first, of course. Ensuring that everyone feels welcomed and safe is our number one goal.
Interview by Fabio Pariante, journalist
In October of 2012, Dr. Charles Venable was appointed the Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) with the directive to improve the institution’s long-term financial sustainability by increasing earned and philanthropic revenue, while reaching a broader audience. Immediately, Venable began working with the board and staff to transform the institution through a series of key strategic initiatives. In 2014, the institution reinstated general admission and named its 152-acre campus Newfields.
This move allowed the institution to better market the fact that its campus is also home to The Garden at Newfields and The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park, as well as the IMA. Next, in 2016, Venable unveiled a new programmatic vision based on seasonality. Since then, much of Newfields’ art and nature programming has been highlighted during large festival experiences that have increased both attendance and earned revenue. Simultaneously, Newfields’ outstanding bond debt has been reduced dramatically, the institution’s reliance on income from its endowment significantly declined, and philanthropic giving increased. Based on years of extensive research, Venable’s next major initiative will be the opening of The Lume Indianapolis. This nearly 30,000 sq. ft. suite of galleries devoted to digital art exhibitions will be the first of its kind in any American art museum and is scheduled to open in June 2021.
Before taking the helm in Indianapolis, Venable was the director of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, KY, and deputy director at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Dallas Museum of Art. His scholarly art expertise is in decorative art and design, a subject upon which he has published several books and organized numerous exhibitions. A native Texan, Venable holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from Boston University, a M.A. in decorative art from the University of Delaware, and a B.A. in American History and Art History from Rice University.