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[PHOTO] Stepping Up: Summer 2008

Where culture becomes experience

Anne Laker, in the Richard D. Wood Formal Garden at the Indianapolis Museum of Art

Anne Laker has always been creative, always loved to share the world she sees around her with others, whether it was her first writing "job," covering sports for the Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School newspaper, or her girlhood dream career as a TV news anchorwoman.

But the IUPUI alumna, who earned her master's degree in English from the IU School of Liberal Arts in 2002, hit the mother lode in her current career: Laker is the assistant director of education for public programs at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) and daily finds herself immersed in new worlds that she helps museum visitors experience.

It's a big job, considering that the IMA — founded in 1883 — is home to more than 50,000 works of art and is the fifth largest art museum in the United States.

"I've always loved museums, even when I was a child," she says. "But I never really envisioned working for one. My job is to build learning experiences around the exhibits and collections we feature, to help round out each person's understanding of what they are seeing."

Since the collections and exhibits extend from ancient Chinese times to contemporary art, defining those "learning experiences" isn't always easy, especially when budgets can be tight. "But we have access to some exceptional resources to help us learn about what's being featured."

In the case of the Roman Art from the Louvre collection displayed earlier this year at the IMA, Laker helped kick off the opening weekend in an unusual way.

"It so happened that our celebration occurred on the fall equinox," she says. So she and IMA staffers hit the books, learned what ancient Romans did to celebrate that occasion, and recreated that experience through the "Festival of Apollo." The event included exhibitions of falconry and archery, demonstrations of stone carving, golden wreathes for guests to wear on their heads, and more.

For IMA guests, the festival was a unique experience; for Laker, it was merely a test of her creativity.

Tested in Spirit & Place

Those creative skills were honed in part at IUPUI, first as a graduate student and later as an employee, serving as the manager of the Spirit & Place Festival for IUPUI's The Polis Center, which launched the event — dedicated to drawing upon Indianapolis' strengths in the arts, humanities and religion — in 1996.

Taking that job was a bit ironic for Laker, whose first job after graduating summa cum laude from Mundelein College of Loyola University in Chicago was with the Indiana Humanities Council, where "one of the first things they had me do was 'grunt' work for this new community event called Spirit & Place," she recalls with a smile. "I remember thinking then that it was a really unusual event."

She took over the leadership of the then-5-year-old festival while pursuing her master's degree, and helped push the annual two-week event to new heights.

"I really felt my biggest job with Spirit & Place was to increase the outreach and the partnerships that are such a big, unique part of the festival," Laker says. She was successful in that effort; during her tenure, the number of civic organizations, congregations and community groups that participated in Spirit & Place Festival events climbed from less than three dozen to more than 100.

To Laker, Spirit & Place offers a unique glimpse of the city.

"It's a window to the social capital of our community," she says. "The diversity of perspectives, the passion to exchange ideas and transform our city for the better are what make the festival unique, I think."

Besides the memories of her work with Spirit & Place from 2000-03, her time with the festival had a practical impact on her career, too. "I left with a really fat Rolodex," she laughs, before remembering that — since it was electronic — it wasn't that "fat." But she also "took relationships I will always treasure, and a sense of the power of collaboration that I know now can strengthen partnerships."

Thriving cultural community

Laker's years at IUPUI, both as a student and with The Polis Center, helped expand her horizons in the city's growing arts community.

"It's a dynamic environment," she says. "No matter what your taste — from avant-garde to traditional — the pie is getting bigger!" That growth is vital for Indianapolis if it hopes to succeed as a Mecca for the arts, a goal established by former Mayor Bart Peterson in the city's cultural tourism initiative.

The IMA is just part of "a rich environment" for museums, Laker points out.

The city "is a hotbed of museum activity" that caters to a variety of interests, she says. Among the choices: youth-focused activities at The Children's Museum; a glimpse of our past at the Conner Prairie Living History Museum; the rich history of America's westward expansion at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art; the ever-changing kaleidoscope of exhibits on display at the Indiana State Museum; the evolution of the automobile and motorsports at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum; the intersection of art and sports at the IUPUI-based National Art Museum of Sport, and "so much more," Laker adds.

That variety is important because art and culture connect with people in many different ways.

"People have a lot of reasons to come to a museum: solace, communion, socialization, entertainment and more," Laker says. "We hope our visitors will find ways to engage with our exhibits for any — or all— of those reasons."

One of the best things about her IMA job, she finds, is her ongoing ties back to IUPUI.

"The IMA partners frequently with IU PUI ," Laker says. "Last year, we had a project called My Daily Constitution,' featuring dialogues on the American constitution and its impact. It brought together the IMA, Herron, the Center for Service & Learning and the American Democracy Project — students really seemed to enjoy it and get a lot out of it."

Other ties include Herron students working on space utilization with IMA people; an ongoing partnership with IUPUI's Museum Studies program, directed by Elizabeth Kryder-Reid; and a project with IUPUI's committee on African and African-American Studies for a film series in February.

Strengthened by connections

Those ties to her past keep Laker energized.

"I've always felt IUPUI is a great springboard," she says. "There are so many opportunities, so many options. You can explore different paths, and you're encouraged to do it!"

Laker's own IUPUI career illustrates the point. She wanted a master's in English, but she wanted to indulge her passions for film — she's written movie reviews for NUVO Newsweekly, Indianapolis' leading alternative newspaper — and museums. In Liberal Arts, she found all three, thanks to the school's Film Studies and Museum Studies programs.

"I was able to connect a lot of the dots in my life here," she says. "There is a good cohesiveness to liberal arts. I think the school did a good job of recognizing its students and creating a sense of community."

Faculty members like Jane Schultz and Dennis Bingham helped refine her writing skill, as well, an important part of her career training. "I've always loved writing," Laker says. Whether it was writing sports in high school (she admits friends might be surprised at that, at least until they learned that her father was a high school coach) or indulging another passion — poetry — she loves the creative release she draws from writing.

Though she no longer does movie reviews, she still writes occasionally for NUVO.

"I contribute articles on environmental issues, which I'm pretty zealous about — ask my family," she laughs. "They just roll their eyes, then talk about something else!"