Newfields Director Charles Venable on His Data-Driven (and Maybe Crazy) Quest to Save the Art Museum

Charles Venable may be the most controversial museum director in America. But he's convinced that in order to survive, other institutions must follow his lead.

Newfields director Charles Venable. Photo courtesy of Newfields.

These days, as the digital revolution has reshaped the way that audiences consume practically everything, the museum world is furiously trying to keep up with the shifting expectations visitors have for in-person experiences. In New York, for instance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is undergoing a shakeup over differences in vision for its future, while the Museum of Modern Art is overhauling its building to create more space for socializing, dining, and other non-art pursuits as part of a $400 million makeover.

But these agonized-over nips and tucks are nowhere near as radical as the wholesale rethinking of the museum project that is going on right now in Indiana, where the freethinking administrator Charles Venable is busy transforming the Indianapolis Museum of Art into something strange, new, and, by some measures, quite successful.

Formerly the director of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, Venable was appointed in 2012 to replace his longtime friend Maxwell Anderson, who had put the Indianapolis museum on the map by making admission free to all, organizing important shows, and producing Allora & Calzadilla’s US pavilion for the 2011 Venice Biennale. However, the museum had also fallen into a $5 million budgetary shortfall.

Tasked with steering the institution in a more profitable direction, Venable became intrigued by research the New York City marketing firm LaPlaca Cohen had done on museum audiences as part of its Culture Track initiative. The findings boiled down to one key observation: In an era of greater entertainment opportunities with on-demand availability, people had begun chiefly seeking out cultural experiences that are defined by “fun.” Museums, as traditionally construed, had become boring. Venable embraced this as gospel, and rethought the IMA from ground up.

Now, as of last October, the Indianapolis Museum of Art has rebranded itself as Newfields: A Place for Nature and the Arts. Admission is no longer free, and your $18 ticket brings you into a wonderland of flowering gardens, foreign delicacies, theatrical performances, cat-video festivals, mini-golf, beer gardens, and, should you be into such things, an art museum, too.

Some contend that it is enrichment of a cheap and meretricious kind. In a widely discussed piece, the writer Kriston Capps called the museum’s transformation “the greatest travesty in the art world in 2017,” writing that “the Indianapolis Museum of Art changed its name and walked away from its mission” and that “Venable has turned a grand encyclopedic museum into a cheap Midwestern boardwalk.”

But is Venable’s vision for his museum misguided, or a clarion call for a struggling industry to cast aside its pieties in pursuit of a purely rational bottom line? Venable’s contract has been extended for another 10 years, so time may tell whether others in the field follow his lead. (Now 57, he has said he wants to work in Indianapolis until he retires.)

To better understand the rationale behind Venable’s extremely unconventional directives, artnet News’s editor-in-chief Andrew Goldstein spoke to the director about the challenges facing art museums and the intellectual journey that led him to Newfields. Read the first installment of their two-part interview below.

The 152-acre Newfields campus. Image courtesy of Newfields.

To begin with, what is Newfields? Or why is the Indianapolis Museum of Art now called Newfields?

Newfields is a new brand, on the one hand, and its tagline—“a place for nature and art”—harkens back to the original Olmsted-designed estate that we sit on, which is called Oldfields. Like a lot of grand old country estates, it was built as a place outside of town where people could unwind, relax, and leave the gritty urban core. Meanwhile, the Indianapolis Museum of Art was founded in 1883 and grew up as a more or less downtown urban museum. Then, in 1967, the family that owned Oldfields came to us and said they would give the estate to the museum if we were interested in moving out of the city to be surrounded by a botanical garden.

So, in the late 1960s, the museum’s board decided to reorient itself and built the “temple upon the hill” on a bluff overlooking an 1840s canal and a beautiful forest, with all these Olmsted gardens around it. If you look back, while we did do some things with our garden, we really spent the next 50 years until today building a great art museum—and we neglected to tell the public that we had all this other stuff too.

When I arrived in 2012, I looked at the museum’s attendance and membership, in a city that in the metropolitan area of about two million people, and we seemed to be underperforming. We had 6,000 members, and we should have had a lot more. So, why weren’t we getting more traction?

To figure that out, we started working with some consulting firms—like any commercial company would—doing market segmentation, branding studies, and surveying our audience in terms of, “How do you respond to this?” and “What do you think of that?” and “Would you come more if we did x, y, and z?”

Where did you find your inspiration for this kind of market-research approach?

For me, personally, it really started with Culture Track [an annual study about the state of cultural organizations]. I had been paying close attention to their reports. The IMA had some frankly challenging problems, and I realized we really had to do something fairly dramatic and innovative if we didn’t want to spend the next 10 years struggling. So, I ended up getting the board together and saying, “We’re not going to create a 35-page strategic plan that nobody can remember—we’re going to have two pages and a mission statement that somebody can remember, and it’s going to be about people.”

You know, it’s fairly radical for someone who loves art and who has been doing this for a very long time to say, “We’re about people, we’re not about things—and that includes the art.” Now, at Newfields, we use art and nature as the bedrock raw material to create extraordinary experiences for people. We’re trying to put life back into art, which has become so drained of it on white museum and gallery walls.

Robert Indiana’s LOVE (1970) in the museum. Image courtesy of Newfields.

After you retained the consulting firms, what did they find?

Well, the segmentation study, which was done by the Halverson Group out of Chicago, estimated there were 50 million opportunities for leisure activities in Indianapolis every year. That’s a lot of ‘invitations’ you could get from endless number of organizations and movie theaters and ballet companies. The “aha” moment for me was that if you made a pie chart, with wedges for outdoor sporting activities, art museums, and all the other things, and you left food and beverage experiences in the mix, everything else collapsed into such tiny slivers that you couldn’t even see what they were.

Dining is so prominent in our society and that proportion keeps getting bigger and bigger, with people today saying that a dining experience is a cultural experience. Whereas someone from an older cultural era—Edith Wharton, for instance—probably would not have thought that. She would have thought going to the Metropolitan Opera was a cultural experience—eating lunch is not.

It’s lunch.

It’s lunch. Whereas now, eating lunch is increasingly a curated experience, from the plates you eat on to the wine you’re drinking to the chef coming to talk to you, just like a curator would about a work of art. So that was like, “Wow.” But even when we took dining out of the equation, the share of total available leisure activity that people were choosing to spend at the IMA came to 0.76 percent—less than one percent. In contrast, the year we did that study, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis—the most successful children’s museum in the world—had 1.3 million visitors, with their share of leisure time at two percent. Meanwhile, our 0.76 percent was totally in line with other art museums, but those were just tiny little wedges. Whereas being outdoors, going to a park, going to a garden? Those were large 20 or 30 percent wedges.

So, our extrapolation from that was, “Hey, we do all those things too!” We actually do have dining here, we have botanical gardens designed by one of the great botanical garden designers of all time, we have a park, it’s all curated at a very sophisticated level—and nobody knows about it. Because every ‘invitation’ you would ever get from us said, “Come to the IMA to see a Japanese painting show,” but it didn’t mention that we also have apple orchards, we have a whole estate, and we have all this other cool stuff.

Visitors enjoying the parkland at Newfields. Image courtesy of Newfields.

Did all of these other elements come under your portfolio when you became the director of the IMA?

All of it.

That’s a pretty broad portfolio.

We’ve basically been an art museum that has all of these other assets—and that’s how the public has come to know us. Which means that we spent all of our marketing money trying to get you to come to an art exhibition, but we never spent a lot of energy and capital in any way saying, “Come to see 100,000 daffodils bloom this spring” the way a botanical garden would.

So, Newfields really flips that dynamic. Now, if you’re interested in art, we invite you to come to the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields; if you like gardens, we say come to the Garden at Newfields. But then we have this superbrand of Newfields, which can be a catchall invitation, so that eventually people will say, “We should take the kids to Newfields,” or “We should go on a date night at Newfields,” or “We should go eat at the noodle shop at Newfields before we see the Japanese show,” and then they’re doing a sake tasting out at the beer garden.

So that’s not just a visit to a museum—that’s an evening out on the town.

It’s a whole evening. And, of course, I don’t want you popping in for 20 minutes—I want you staying for the whole day. The Huntington [Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens in Los Angeles] is a place that has already been doing that successfully for quite a while, and we’ve been looking at other models like that, like the Louisiana Museum in Copenhagen or the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands, where you go for the day, ride around on your little white bike, have lunch in the restaurant out back, and go see the great De Stijl paintings.

Two visitors enjoying the Beer Garden, located at the Madeline F. Elder Greenhouse at Newfields. Image courtesy of Newfields.

Newfields, obviously, wasn’t created in a void—as you mentioned, the IMA had been facing some tough challenges that the board wanted solutions for. For instance, while attendance was pretty good at 400,000 people per year, there was a nagging $5 million budgetary shortfall.

Well, we had a structural budgetary deficit that we covered by pulling money from the endowment—we were taking seven or eight percent out of our endowment, which is completely unsustainable. In 2008, we suddenly lost $100 million of our endowment in the financial crisis, and Max Anderson [who was director of the IMA from 2006 to 2011] had to lay off 100 people. If we continued to be so wedded to our revenue coming from the endowment, we’d just be waiting for the stock market to fall again and then we’d be right back at square one.

So, my challenge from the board was that, by 2018, we had to be at five percent, period. And the board said, “It’s obvious that, one way or the other, we’re going to have to really increase earned income, because we can’t be 75 percent wedded to our endowment.”

That’s why the board was looking for a director who loves art, who is somewhat interested in gardens, but who above all was going to take enough risks to try and figure out a future for the museum. We were facing the same challenges that so many museums are facing: How are you going to drive earned income, when the product you have is, frankly, a very old format? “Here’s an exhibition on white walls, come in through this door, leave out that door, here’s a catalog”—that increasingly doesn’t work.

One of the first experiments I tried was to push up attendance through exhibitions, which is something I know how to do. So, I called up my friend in Baltimore and said, “Let us borrow most of your Matisses and we’ll do a big Matisse show.” We’ve never had a big one in Indianapolis—we only own one Matisse painting—so it was well attended, with 53,000 people coming to our very important Matisse show… that cost just shy of $1 million. So, we knew that wasn’t going to work.

You had to make some cuts to the staff, is that correct? I believe there were once 12 curators, but that now that number has been cut in half.

I ended up having to lay off about 30 people when I arrived—which is a small number, compared to Max [Anderson]’s cuts, but it was another blow. No one thought there would be more layoffs after 2010, but there I was, saying, “We just can’t spend money we don’t have.” Under Max we had already lost several curators, and those haven’t been replaced, so now we have six curators to run our six curatorial departments—so, whereas we once had three contemporary curators, we now have one.

Visitors at the art museum. Image courtesy of Newfields.

It’s very interesting to compare and contrast your approach with Max Anderson’s. Under his direction, the IMA had earned a pretty stellar reputation for curatorial excellence, organizing Allora & Calzadilla’s US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and gaining acclaim for major exhibitions like the first major retrospective of Thornton Dial. Anderson was also famously metric-driven—he even created an online dashboard to share the museum’s key performance indicators, or KPIs, with the public—but his focus was primarily on attendance. Your tweak to his formula, it seems, has been to take the emphasis off of attendance and put it instead on increasing paid membership, priced at $55 for adults and $75 for families. Since you arrived, membership has grown from 6,100 to 17,100—an all-time high. How do you think about these two metrics, attendance and membership?

Well, membership has gone up, mainly because we reinstated an entrance fee to the museum and the botanical garden—which had been in effect before Max—and that’s naturally going to drive your membership up. Eventually, as our membership continues to grow through more experiences being added to the overall program, we’ll have a really interesting conversation about whether we want an infinite number of members or a balance of a certain group of people we identify as members and others who are ticket-buyers. We haven’t gotten there yet.

With attendance, though, the difference is that I want to know exactly what our attendance number is. Because those were estimated figures that were on that dashboard [Anderson’s] at the time. If our botanical garden has six entrances and you never know how many people are going in through those doors, you never really know how many people are going into those gardens. You estimate. And then, because you didn’t need to buy tickets to the museum either, we used a heat sensor at the front door to basically guess how many people were there. Now we’re even more data-driven than Max, and in a much more precise way—because now you have to have a ticket, so we actually know exactly how many people are people going to the botanical garden, how many people going to the art museum, et cetera.

What’s fascinating—and I bet other art museums would find the same thing—is that when you get to really know your attendance in terms of the categories they represent, it’s amazing how many are really just museum staff. We have 150 docents—how many times do you think they go to the art museum every year? It’s off the chart, about 100 times each. Our staff go through the front door, and that’s 300 people. In other words, you end up counting the trustees, the staff, and all these people you’re not trying to count. [Newfields board chair] Tom Hiatt does not count as general attendance, because he’s not!

If the goal is to get better general attendance and increase ticket sales, or if I want to increase visitation from low-income families who live in the neighborhood, I need to know the precise figures, when they’re there, and when they’re not there. Other museums don’t really analyze that.

“The Indianapolis Museum of Art remains a main attraction on the Newfields campus,” according to press materials. Image courtesy of Newfields.

Interestingly, while your membership numbers have skyrocketed, the attendance at the actual physical museum itself has plummeted by nearly three quarters, from 400,000 to 111,000. What is happening here?

If you go backwards, you would’ve had very similar attendance numbers when Max was there and before Max. We have a nice chart that shows we have, on average, 350,000 visitors—400,000 would have been an unusual year, perhaps if we’d had a major show, for example. Since the 1990s, we have tended to be between 350,000 to 380,000 every year, across the board.

There was a report in the Indianapolis Star that the most recent attendance numbers for the museum itself were 111,000. 

Those were the general attendees coming into the art museum galleries, but the old numbers also had park visitors and the rest—those were all included to get you to 350,000, or 380,000, or 400,000.

Tom Hiatt, the chairman of the board at Newfields and a big supporter of your efforts, summed up the institution’s skepticism about the traditional museum model in a quote to the Indianapolis Business Journal: “When you think about it, ‘museum’ is an old word that conjures up images of an indoor experience—passive, looking at art on the walls, sometimes being exhorted not to touch the painting, wandering around in a hushed environment. That, frankly, is an experience which a lot of people don’t find welcoming or engaging.” The key term here, for me, is “experience.” A recent study by Culture Track has shown that audiences today are seeking cultural experiences that are principally defined by “fun,” with “interest in the content” and “experiencing new things” being the secondary and tertiary considerations. Feeling that an institution is “not for someone like me,” meanwhile, is cited as the biggest turnoff. If the “indoor experience” of “looking at art on the walls” is passé, how would you describe the kind of experience that people are looking for when they come to Newfields?

You asked earlier what were some of the “aha” moments when we were talking to consultants? Well, we found out that 52 percent of people in our metropolitan area who demographically look like they should be art museum visitors never came to the art museum, ever. Ninety-four percent of them knew about it, and where it was located, but they never chose to go there! So, we went and asked some of these people why they didn’t visit, and they basically said it was because they wanted to be social and they didn’t want their friends to say, “You wasted my precious Friday night with a boring, static art-museum experience.”

Slide courtesy of Newfields.

After we tabulated their answers, we saw they were 400 percent more likely to come if they knew they could have some kind of outdoor experience. Whereas, when we said the word “museum,” what did that mean to them? Indoors, and old. Immediately, it’s this crusty old Latin word. It’s tough for an art museum to get out of that trap, when most of your stuff is indoors.

At Newfields, on the other hand, we’re very lucky that most of our stuff is outdoors, with a highly designed property that can even host outdoor exhibitions in the summer. Right now we’ve hired [the artist collective] Cracking Art from Milan to do a whole installation—the biggest one they’ve done in the United States—that will start in the art museum but will lead you out to see installations in the orchard and the park. We’ve never done anything like that, but we’re hoping to build on the excitement of seeing indoor and outdoor stuff together.

A visitor to Winterlights. Image courtesy of Newfields.

One big challenge in capturing this 21st-century experience economy is that these audiences, to believe Culture Track, are primarily seeking fun—and what museums have historically offered is not exactly fun. It’s something more challenging and not always pleasant, an intellectual puzzle that causes one to grapple internally with an idea and grow as a result. But it seems people are less interested in interior experiences than they are with external experiences, like standing in front of a spectacular outdoor sculpture and having a picture taken, or going to a special restaurant, and perhaps having a picture taken there too.

Pictures are a big deal—that interaction of documenting your experience, sharing it, and giving others a part of your experience. But, from my perspective, those two experiences you mention are different, but they both still exist—they’re just valued by different groups of people. So, when we segmented our entire audience’s motivations into cute little circles on a chart, we excelled in the ones that were about quiet reflection, intellectual curiosity, and slowing down. We over-indexed in that, so we know we own that audience—it’s just not huge. It’s not even huge in New York, but luckily there’s a lot of tourists who are in that category, so some New York museums can have it both ways because the population is just so big.

Meanwhile, I have a regional audience that is growing slowly, and my challenge is that I want to triple it. I want 330,000 people to be coming in the front door of the museum. I’m trying to increase earned income and donations so I can get off of the endowment draw. By 2020, I have to hit a 40/60 mix, with earned income and donations [accounting for] 40 percent of [our annual budget] and the endowment providing 60 percent. Those are very motivational numbers, but we’re already at 36 percent, and that’s happened in five years.

So, going back to my little circle chart, I could tell that even if I spent all of our available resources on quiet, reflective exhibitions, there was no way I could grow that audience because I already have all of those people. So, now I’m trying to take this quiet-reflection circle and turn it into an ellipsis that picks up the people who want to be social, and the people who want to have an active, fun experience but want that fun to be purposeful. Often these groups are connected, because they want to do something with their family and want their kids to have fun, but learn something, too.

Slide courtesy of Newfields.

For example, with Winterlights [Newfields’s annual holiday light display], I’m sure if you never saw it in person, you’d think the art museum has gone crazy and is just throwing up Christmas lights. As you walk by, your kids would just go, “Wow.” But it’s very sophisticated, Tchaikovsky is playing—it’s not cheesy! And 50 percent of the people who have attended haven’t been to the art museum in at least a year, and 15 percent say they’ve never been on the campus.

Compared to going to a museum show—even a Matisse show—a walk outside through a fantastically illuminated winter wonderland certainly sounds like a much more accessible and easier route to visual pleasure. How important is it that these type of experiences are easier to have? It’s a bit like the choice between playing chess or video game, perhaps. 

It goes back to your personality, you know—what circle are you in? Our core audience—which we’ve been grooming since 1883, it’s just not very big—might say, “I know what chess is, it’s an ancient Persian game, I know the rules, I want to play that.” Whereas some other person will say, “Chess? That crazy kid in college played chess! I don’t care about that—I want to go do something else.”

The scary moment is when you say: it’s okay to value both of those attitudes equally. How do I meet those different visitors in their comfort zones and still get them to visit one of the great collections of art in this country, one of the great botanical gardens, and one of the great parks? We care about the person who wants to play chess—and the person who wants to play shuffleboard.

Read the second installment of this interview, in which Newfields director Charles Venable describes the hard lessons other art museums need to absorb if they want to survive.

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