This story was previously published in our print issue, vol. 12. – Editor
“It’s important to support creative people, because art always intertwines with architecture, design, and a whole bunch of other things,” says artist, curator, philanthropist and former lawyer Jeremy Efroymson. “Even if you’re in a downtime economically, you can’t give up on culture. Once people have food shelter, and clothing, then they want to go do something — maybe that’s a movie or music or art. Art is important. Theater is important. Writing is important, and literature…all these things teach people how to be creative annd how to solve problems.”
Efroymson’s ideas on the importance of the arts are why after the death of his father in 1999, he left practicing law to shift his focus to arts and culture. He saw a real need in Indianapolis and the state so began to work as an artist, writing, shooting photography, and discovering sculpture.
In 1999 he spent a year as Editor-In-Chief of Arts Indiana. That’s when he traveled throughout the state meeting artists and learned about the challenges they faced. It was at that turning point in his life he realized he wanted to do something creative and support culture and creativity in Indianapolis. “All of the artists were being booted out of the Faris building [south of downtown],” he says. “I thought there was a vacuum, that there weren’t enough studio spaces. That’s how I got the idea for the Harrison Center.”
He found the perfect spot in the 70,000-square-foot church campus at 16th and Delaware streets. There stood a dilapidated complex, just a shadow of its former self. It was built in 1902 in honor of President Benjamin Harrison, who had lived down the street. It featured a sanctuary, gym, and an adjoining building, which had been classrooms and administrative offices. And though most of the structure was in a state of disrepair, Efroymson looked beyond its neglect to see its potential.
“When I went into the sanctuary there was huge 8-foot-wide hole in the ceiling, and water just pouring in. It smelled so bad I couldn’t stay for even a minute,” he recalls.
Through personal investment, Efroymson repaired the roof, fixed the plumbing, HVAC, and electrical problems. He then started filling the space with artists and art shows, hosting six exhibitions in 2000.
Artist William Rasdell, who remains at the Harrison Center for the Arts, was one of the first artists to take one of the twenty-four studios at the Harrison. In addition to the studios and gallery, the building featured an office located in the former locker rooms. Efroymson used this as his work space.
Also around that time, he purchased a building in Fountain Square with artist Jeffrey Martin. They opened a gallery and started hosting exhibitions there as well. “All the young people reading this won’t believe there was virtually nothing going on in Fountain Square,” Efroymson says. “We were literally ten years ahead of the curve. They always told us the neighborhood was going to develop in the next year or two, and it didn’t.”
After a year and investing a lot of time and effort in the renovation of the Harrison Center, Efroymson sold the building to Redeemer Presbyterian Church. And the nonprofit Harrison Center for the Arts formed, with Joanna Taft at the helm. She began running the artist studios and galleries that remain there today.
Through all this, Efroymson experienced firsthand the joys and struggles of artists. He also saw a need for more contemporary art. So he became interested when Stephen Schaf formed the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (iMOCA) in 2002. At that point iMOCA became a passion project for Efroymson.
“There was no one else who could run iMOCA, because we didn’t have the money to pay a full-time executive director. So I took over,” he says. “A lot of these art things are hard because you’re always year-to-year or grant-to-grant, and you never know what’s going to happen next.”
It started out as a museum without walls. Efroymson spent the next three years at iMOCA, organizing art exhibits around Indianapolis and stabilizing the organization. In 2004 he and his family also started the Efroymson Contemporary Arts Fellowship to help support artists.
“We were trying to get money to artists without it being filtered,” he explains. “Many times with a project, you start out with $100,000. They’ll pay the architect, the engineer and construction people. And, by the time, you get to the artist, they get $500 or $1,000 — such a small percentage. I wanted to flip that around.”
In 2004 iMOCA landed in the Katz and Korin building [recently iMOCA announced a move to a permanent home on the east side of Indianapolis]. Wanting to focus on his own artwork, Efroymson left iMOCA in 2006 and they hired a new executive director and curator.
Efroymson exhibited at various venues across the state, while still supporting a number of organizations — many of them working in the arts. And his interests started expanding from local to more regional.
“I see a larger picture. Also it’s kind of a younger person’s game, at least locally,” Efroymson says. “There came this point where I had seen every single artist in town. I understand there’s a new generation of artists coming up. But I felt, at some point, I had done everything locally I could do.”
Though Efroymson still supports the local arts, now his generosity extends beyond the Hoosier stateline.
“In my philanthropy and life, I’m thinking more regionally than locally,” he says. “I go down to New Harmony. I’ll go to Chicago. I’ll go wherever just to get a different perspective on things.”
Efroymson continues to create art and supports local and regional arts initiatives. Most recently, he’s worked with Richard McCoy on Exhibit Columbus, in Columbus, Indiana. He curated an exhibition for iMOCA, the Museum of Odd and Real spring of 2017 which received national attention from Hyperallergic. And he’s focused on New Harmony, a small southern Indiana town with a Utopian history. He curated Hinterlands, October 2017, an exhibit focused on faraway places and loneliness at the New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art.
“In America there’s always that mythical small town experience, movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, Gilmore Girls. I studied that in my undergrad film class, with these certain kinds of people and certain type of community,” he says. “But we’ve entered a different phase of zombies and dystopia and violence. With all these movies, there was this pleasant and mythic small town. And maybe in my mind, since that’s my reference point, that’s what I’m always trying to re-create.”
Up next for Efroymson is an exhibit he curated that opens May 4th at Tube Factory artspace, Christos Koutsouras: Land Art. The exhibit is influenced by a large scale fire that tore apart Koutsouras’s birthplace on the island of Samos, Greece. Koutsouras first approached the theme in 1994 after a fire destroyed much of the vegetation on the island and again in 2016 when a rampant blaze took large swaths of land. The island, like Koutsouras, showcases the vicissitudes of life.
“It’s exciting to have Christos back in Indy and to see him going outside his comfort zone of painting and experimenting with new mediums including photography, installation and performance art,” says Efroymson.