Big Car isn't your run-of-the-mill art institution. The collective of artists, writers and musicians sees art as being something much more dynamic, engaging and connected than pictures on a wall. “Our idea for art is that the community, the social capital, the connections –- that’s what the product is,” says Jim Walker, Big Car executive director. “We want to give people a chance to experience all kinds of creativity and make sure nothing is exclusive or about the ‘right way’ to create something.”
Big Car’s vision is to “bring art to people and people to art.” That focus has taken a variety of forms in the organization’s 10-year history, which it is set to celebrate on Sept. 10, including opening and managing its original gallery space in Fountain Square, producing the 48 Hour Film Project, fostering neighborhood-based cultural events, re-activating an abandoned service station, and now putting a gallery and sound art space into a strip mall. And they do it all with a sense of whimsy, joy and openness that subverts traditional notions of insider-only art organizations.
To honor its history and set the stage for more work in the future, Big Car is hosting an indoor-outdoor fundraiser on Wednesday, Sept. 10 at The Alexander. Tickets are still available (for just a few hours). And, if you can't make it to the big event, you can still check out the group's free retrospective exhibit at the University of Indianapolis' Christel DeHaan Fine Arts Center beginning at 5:30 earlier that night and featuring an interactive exhibition (think figures, stories and games) and a live performance from local artists.
To dive a bit deeper into the group's start in a former bathroom at the Murphy to the multi-site interdisciplinary organization it is today, we asked Walker to share his take on Big Car's story, which you can read below.
Jim Walker on Big Car's origins:
Big Car started in a classroom, a newsroom, a bathroom. It was early 2004. I was working several jobs to piece together a living for our young family in Fountain Square. One of those jobs was teaching creative writing on Saturday mornings to IUPUI students, many my age or older, who really wanted to learn. I also worked as staff photographer at NUVO Newsweekly, allowing me the chance to meet lots of great people in the arts, government, and philanthropy in our city. I snapped their pictures, heard their stories, visited their offices and studios and homes. And many became my friends, too. On top of all that, I spent every day with a staff of multitalented writers, designers, and artists right there at NUVO.
In the middle of that mix, a small group of artists, writers, designers and musicians -- pulled together from these circles -- began working to make creative things happen in Indianapolis. Instead of sitting around and complaining about the cultural offerings our city lacked, we started making things happen. We started by renting a tiny studio -- formerly a bathroom -- in the Murphy Art Center in Fountain Square for $135 per month. We stuck a handmade sign on the door that said "BIG CAR."
Soon, we moved from the bathroom into a larger studio space, pooling our money and sharing the room with belly dancers, a visiting artist from Hungary and a local record label, to make rent. Meanwhile, we brought First Fridays to Fountain Square and worked hard, then as volunteers, to do what artists can do to help turn our neighborhood around. That happened. And Big Car continues to thrive in this friend-based, collaborative, multi-disciplinary, yes-saying way.
And, on the philanthropic efforts that have made growth possible:
After a few years of operating mostly as a board-run all-volunteer organization, a handful of big-vision people helped us grow up and into a full-fledged nonprofit. First, Ken Honeywell hired me to work for him at his new marketing company in Fountain Square. There, I was able to split my time venturing into nonprofits myself, including working on Big Car, while also learning about nonprofits from the inside by writing about Well Done’s clients, including LISC and their quality of life plans. In 2009, Big Car received a $50,000 GINI Imagine Big grant from the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center. With the guidance of Marc McAleavey, then at the INRC, we completed social practice projects in eight neighborhoods -- all with no paid staff time. Then we found Service Center in Lafayette Square and began receiving support from the Indianapolis Foundation and enjoyed the mentorship CICF’s president, Brian Payne. At that same time, the Allen Whitehill Clowes Charitable Foundation began supporting us too.
Then, Jeremy Efroymson, of the Efroymson Family Fund -- who, along with the Arts Council of Indianapolis, was the first to back Big Car in early years -- granted us a three-year gift so I could begin working as our first full-time employee and executive director. This grant that started in 2011, allowed me to focus on Big Car programming, fundraising, and strategy. Soon, we received a similar two-year grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and hired Anne Laker, also one of our founders, as our full-time program director. Upon the suggestion of Michael Twyman, then of Pulliam Trust, we began a fee-for-service design program that allowed us to bring our creative director, Andy Fry, also a Big Car founder, on staff full time. Also in 2011, David Forsell of Keep Indianapolis Beautiful connected us with Lilly Day of Service and Sherrie Bossung of Eli Lilly & Co., who leads this effort. Since then, we’ve enjoyed many public art projects in partnership with Lilly, including one this year that has us completing community-engaged murals in 10 cities around the Unites States. Currently, we're working on exciting newer partnerships with the Glick Fund to support its work on the Far Eastside and with young people, Steve and Livia Russell and their passion for our city and its people, and with Rachel Simon and the Herbert Simon Family Foundation, as we continue bringing art to people and people to art in innovative ways.