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A Heart for Art

Joyce Sommers Reflects on Career as Indianapolis Art Center Executive Director

Writer  /  Jon Shoulders
Photographer / Brian Brosmer

The professional career of Joyce Sommers, former executive director of the Indianapolis Art Center, can be traced back to a single, serendipitous moment.

At age 35, a friend convinced Sommers to join her for drawing classes at a non-profit operation known at the time as the Indianapolis Art League on 31st Street. An art novice at the time, Sommers became a regular and eventually struck up friendships with some of the instructors and fellow students at the facility, which was founded in 1934 and became funded during the Great Depression through the federal Works Project Administration program.

It didn’t take long before Sommers, who was then serving as president of the Indianapolis chapter of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), was asked to become a member of the Art League board. By the time the members decided to relocate the facility to Broad Ripple on the White River in January of 1976 – five years after reluctantly trying her hand at drawing – she was serving as president.

“I think that moment when my friend, Marilyn Price, got me to take that first art class was one of the defining moments of my life,” recalls Sommers, a Broad Ripple High School alumna. “I really didn’t have any art experience other than taking those classes, but the people were so great that I thought it felt right to get more involved.”

Immediately after relocation to the modest, four-studio building in Broad Ripple, referred to informally by students and board members as the art shack, demand for classes skyrocketed, and less than a year later Sommers was officially named the organization’s first executive director. A lifelong Broad Ripple resident, she took to the position with vigor, raising the League’s profile within the community and improving its day-to-day operations in the process.

“I seemed to have a knack for raising money, which I never would have thought,” she says. “I just had the passion for it because I always felt strongly about the Art Center mission.”

That passion would come in handy by the mid-1980s, when Sommers and her colleagues realized the ever-increasing number of students at the center would necessitate a bigger, multi-million-dollar facility. Anything but daunted, Sommers embarked on perhaps her grandest professional task — raising the approximately $8 million needed to construct a new building at the League’s existing Broad Ripple location.

Sommers reached out to internationally renowned architect Michael Graves, a Princeton professor at the time and her former schoolmate at BRHS, to conceptualize the new structure. After several years of tireless community outreach and securing the necessary funds, including donations from the Lilly Endowment and several other corporate organizations, the collective vision of Graves, Sommers and her board members became a reality. The demolition of the existing building and subsequent new construction occurred in two phases between 1994 and 1996, at which point the facility was officially renamed the Indianapolis Art Center.

Not long after the construction process ended, Sommers spearheaded yet another major fundraising effort, this time for an outdoor creativity space on the Art Center grounds that would complement the new studio structure. Graves was retained to design the project, and 2005 saw the completion of ARTSPARK, a 12-acre sculpture garden and open-air studio area bordered by the Monon Trail.

“There’s nothing quite like it,” Sommers says of the outdoor space, which features more than 27 sculptures and can be rented out for private or corporate events. “The ARTSPARK project and the Art Center itself are really representations of the kind of collective accomplishments that are possible when people come together and form true community partnerships.”

The Art Center currently offers classes in painting, ceramics, glass blowing, jewelry, printmaking and more, hosts the annual Broad Ripple Art Fair – which on May 20-21 will feature more than 225 artists and craftsmen – and provides year-round art education outreach programs for underserved areas of Indianapolis.

Since retiring in 2009 after 33 years as executive director, Sommers has remained busy spending time with her children and eight grandchildren. She also continues taking figure-drawing courses at the Art Center with Price, the same friend who dragged her to that fateful drawing class more than four decades ago. Still a Broad Ripple resident, Sommers believes in the power of art and individual expression now more than ever.

“Art can teach people so much because it’s from the inside out. You learn a lot about yourself from the combination of hard work and expressing yourself,” Sommers says. “I believe in lifelong learning, and that’s what the Art Center is about.”

About Jon Shoulders

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