Does the Indianapolis Museum of Art Represent the Future of Museum Audience Engagement?

Is it us, or are museums in a state of perpetual existential crisis? We imagine curators tossing and turning all night, continually wondering how to engage audiences, roll out innovative programming, and ensure that visitors keep walking through their hallowed doors.

Of course, a little existential crisis now and then can be a good thing, especially considering what museums are up against: rapidly changing demographics, a prolonged economic downturn, and potentially costly (though exciting) technological changes. And so, when certain museums take that bold leap into the unknown, attempting to coalesce these divergent forces into a coherent plan to engage audiences, we pay attention. 

We pay even greater attention when the museum gets $1 million for its efforts.

So we turn to the Midwest, where the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) recently received a $1 million grant from the Efroymson Family Foundation to support an ambitious new programming effort called ARTx.

Picture ARTx as a kind of central programming hub with related engagement-oriented spokes extending in all directions. These spokes take the form of programs and events like Art X Fit, Grown-up Summer Camp, and "Avant Brunch." They all sound tremendously cool.

Conceptually speaking, ARTx is organized around the idea that the museum experience should be smart, fun, highly participatory, and maybe even a little weird. Take the "Avant Brunch." ARTx calls it a "unique sensory experience" that features "musical performances and one-of-a-kind menus from local chefs." If you're going to be in the area, take note — on January 17th, local chef Alan Sternburg will present a "never-before-created meal," accompanied by a listening of the "new Palmbomen II" record.

And what is Palmbomen II? Why, it's an Amsterdam-based rock band of course.

ARTx boasts about a dozen or so other programs and events, ranging from a self-guided "chose your own adventure" tour to a monthly "Family Day" that features museum-themed programming ranging from hip hop to skateboarding.

The Efroymson Family Fund, which is a donor-advised fund of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, has a long and fruitful relationship with the IMA. The Efroymson Contemporary Art Fund, an endowed fund at the IMA, was established in 2006 by the Efroymson Family Fund to support work by emerging and established local, national, and international contemporary visual artists through a rotating installation program in the IMA's Efroymson Family Entrance Pavilion.

All of this brings us back to those poor museum programming coordinators, sleep-deprived and worried about the future. They're a diverse bunch. Some seek to boost audience engagement by embracing singular disciplines like storytelling. Others work to engage with fast-growing demographic groups in their areas. And others, like the IMA, create broader, overarching visions that feed into thematically similar events and program series. In the process, they transform the museum into a kind of community hub.

At the end of the day, we imagine every programming coordinator will tell you the same thing — hey, whatever works.

Now if we can only find out what's going to be in that "never-before-created meal..."