How Important Do You Think You Are?

Every once in a while, we all run into someone who has been successful at something, generated some positive PR, and let it go to his head. (I say “his” advisedly–although I’ve encountered a few women like this, it generally has been a dude.)

It’s a bad idea to believe your own media hype. It can foster a misplaced sense of entitlement.

It isn’t only individuals who fall into the trap of thinking that–since they have earned praise for doing X–they are entitled to do Y and Z (and sometimes A,B and C…) Organizations can be equally self-important.  My last column for the Indiana Business Journal considered an Indianapolis example: the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.

For those of you who live elsewhere, I should explain that the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has long been one of our city’s points of pride. It’s the largest children’s museum in the country, and it has been a lure for tourists and a source of bragging rights for locals. But as my grandmother might have put it, over the years it has gotten “too big for its britches.”

The museum is located in a low-income neighborhood on the near north side of the city. These days, admission fees range from $12 to $35—far more than most of the low-income families and children in its neighborhood can manage, and there are few free days.

The museum’s structure fronts on Illinois Street, a one-way north thoroughfare, and backs onto Meridian Street, a parallel and immensely significant north-south corridor. A drive past the museum on Illinois takes you past its massive parking garage and a seemingly endless string of parking lots on real estate it has purchased and cleared over the years. (Among the structures demolished in the neighborhood was an architecturally notable—and affordable—apartment building.)

The bleak transformation of the neighborhood surrounding the ever-expanding museum is one thing; the museum’s total indifference to the significance of Meridian Street and the transit goals of the city is another.

Most recently, the museum built a “Sports Legends Experience” (an enormous children’s playground) fronting Meridian Street. What the garish “Experience” has to do with the mission of a museum is a legitimate question (and a number of people have asked it), but a far more pertinent one is why the museum thought this was an appropriate use of this particular real estate.

Meridian isn’t just the primary north-south street in Indianapolis; it has long been considered one of the most prestigious residential streets in the state. Even the decades of suburbanization didn’t dim its importance. As this is written, significant sums are being spent to upgrade the stately apartments directly across the street from the unfortunate playground; just a few doors down is an architectural gem, the Drake, which the museum has purchased and proposes to demolish and replace with–wait for it!– yet another parking lot.

On Meridian Street. Where the Red Line–Indianapolis’ first effort at a modern and efficient rapid-transit line– just opened, and where the city administration is prioritizing residential density to support it.

Why the museum acquired the Drake and an adjacent structure is unknown. It certainly doesn’t need more parking (and if it did, it could build another garage on one of the multiple lots it already owns). Museum officials say they issued an RFP, but no developers emerged who wanted to buy and restore the Drake; however, the last time I checked, the museum was stonewalling efforts by the city and Indiana Landmarks (our historic preservation organization) to see that RFP.

The City and local Community Development Corporations have offered to participate financially in rehabilitation of the Drake. Indiana Landmarks has identified potential bidders who could buy and restore the building. An architect friend of mine is working with a developer who has demonstrated capacity and a track record, and who wants to convert the Drake into a boutique hotel.

They have all been rebuffed.

Why the museum is so determined to demolish the historically-significant Drake—especially considering the professed absence of plans for long-range use of the real estate, and despite incompatible priorities of the city– is mystifying.

For many years, the Children’s Museum has been an important asset to Indianapolis. But over the years, that status has encouraged it to act with impunity—to dominate its neighborhood, demolish much of that neighborhood’s built environment, engage in various competitions with for-profit venues, and generally go about its business with little or no regard for the priorities and interests of the city and its residents.

Demolishing the Drake and further mutilating the Meridian streetscape should be a step too far.

The museum’s arrogance  is a textbook example of how an asset becomes a liability.


  1. The Children’s Museum is not making these decisions. Its Board of Directors is making these decisions. I want the names of those decision makers and what county they live in.

  2. Having done work with the museum in the past (in marketing), I can tell you that there is a certain cult of personality that pervades the organization from the top down. We have seen this type of overactive ego at work at other institutions in the city, most notably in the changing moniker for the IMA. Institutions search high and low for a brash and dynamic leader from out of state who will burst onto the scene and save the failing membership, sponsorship [insert your favorite ‘ship’ here].

    The problem is that they often get a brash and dynamic leader who is not familiar with the city or the context within which the organization lives.

    There have been some notable exceptions, but spending some time finding the right head honcho who is at least aware of the city and the institution’s history would go a long way in improving the ‘too big for their britches’ syndrome.

    As far as the Children’s Museum and its Napoleon-esc need to land grab, the city needs to step in and work to limit their predatory development. For years the museum has leveraged its power as ‘the largest children’s museum in the country’ to bully city leaders into rubber-stamping anything they want to do. It’s obvious that the museum won’t self-regulate it’s development so it’s up to the city to protect the neighborhood and the Meridian Street corridor.

  3. About 15 years ago, my cousin Carolyn and I made a trip to the Children’s Museum; at that time it cost seniors $12 to visit. I questioned some of the displays as being museum-quality and what meaning they would/could have for children for whom the museum was built. The food court consisted of typical fast-food, carry out, drive-thru “restaurants” found on all streets throughout the city. Parking for handicapped was not convenient. All-in-all; a disappointment and sorry I didn’t find a more rewarding use for my $12. I had no interest in returning with my grandchildren to tour the museum, nor could I afford multiple charges to make the tour.

    Are those many parking lots and garages ever actually filled with visitor’s vehicles to indicate the need for more?

  4. While I do recall reading about the recent battle with the museum over their purchase/plans for a apartment building, I did not know why there was a battle. Thanks Sheila for clarifying this.

    Sheila, I imagine that you must know several of the Board of Trustee members of the museum and have already asked them about this issue. Have they been sworn to secrecy? There are some pretty significant and recognizable names on this board. I wonder if the members are divided about tearing down historic apartment buildings on Meridian street to add parking lots.

    Anyway, for those of you who may be interested in contacting the Trustee members of the Childrens Museum to offer your opinion, here is the link to their member list, unfortunately it does not include contact info:

  5. Nancy is correct — the BOT oversees the CEO in a nonprofit. While many have been hand-selected by the CEO, most should be drawn to the ICM for other reasons. Those BOT members chosen by the CEO are rubber stamps for anything developed by the CEO.

    And Sheila is correct, the city should step in at some point. Thanks to Nancy’s link, there is an advisory BOT member from the City of Indy who should be carrying out the wishes of Indy residents.

    Does the museum pay a PILOT fee to the city for all the private land it has acquired?

    If not, the local taxpayers are subsidizing these land grabs by a nonprofit. I’d also look at the major donors to see who might be manipulating the CEO and BOTs.

  6. Pascal,

    True dat. Ironically, the lust for money does nothing but cheapen the museum and its surrounding area. Too bad the money grubbers don’t get that. Oh, and I’ll bet all those parking lots charge handsomely for people to stash their BMWs for the day.

  7. Well, we enjoyed the children’s Museum in Indianapolis quite a bit. I liked that great big fluid clock they have, our granddaughters who were very small at the time, enjoyed digging dinosaur bones in the pit. Also the hot wheel cars and the giant transformer, and the myriads of other interesting and eye-catching exhibits. We actually became members for a while although we never really got back down there, there really is enough to do here in Chicago without heading down to Indianapolis. We would always drive through Indianapolis on the way to Knoxville to visit my wife’s family. I do remember eating at that barbecue place with the pig painted on the wall, I also remember some very shapely young ladies walking down the street near there with see through through yoga pants and red undies, if you could call them that, LOL. But hey, it’s not like you don’t see that sort of thing here in Chicago anyway. That really doesn’t bother me!

    Possibly, the museum feels like it’s gentrifying the area, just as they’ve done here in Chicago. They’ve torn down, closed, or purchased a lot of the entertainment Facilities, residential Rooming houses, hotels and such. Affordable to a segment of the population that it seems are being “gentrified’ areas and properties are razzed, to then rebuild the area into what the ‘powers that be’ seem to feel would be more appropriate and acceptable, along with those that would relocate into the area. I remember an interesting nightclub in the area that was on College I believe, it had 3 levels and seemed to be in an older building with carved big cats on the stairwell going upstairs to the main level. My memory is a little fuzzy of that particular visit a long time ago.

    I’ve been to Indianapolis 3 separate times in my life. The other time was meeting Marvin Johnson and his father along with other family members that owned a funeral home small cafeteria like restaurants, a car dealership, and ran the local Indianapolis P Shaker lottery, LOL. But hey those days were a long time ago, and I was a much different person then. My grandfather ran the numbers up here in Chicago so I was familiar with that sort of activity.

    Anyway, I digress, LOL. But my bet would be on gentrification with an eye towards future development of the area bring in a certain type of resident that they prefer, and making life miserable for those who can least afford it. It takes all sorts of folks, all stripes, all races, creeds, ethnicities, orientations, identities, and the like to make and enrich society. We all deserve the opportunity to make choices, we all deserve the opportunity to improve ourselves, if you want to call it that. We do not deserve to be excluded, do not deserve to be used as a doormat, or to be discriminated against, or to have civil liberties trampled upon. To use a guise to accomplish these things is detestable, at least they should stand up and espouse their true reasonings.

    Until this sort of mentality is ferreted out, we’re still going to have people disenfranchised, moved around like bags of trash, due in large part to those individuals who seem to be, and claim to be, the movers and shakers of this world. Because of our illustrious president, you will see some of these reasonings vocalized in a more and more disturbing manner.

  8. I know it’s not the main thrust of the argument being made here, but just as an FYI, if you live in one of the neighborhoods near/adjacent to the Children’s Museum you can pick up a free family pass to the museum every year. It’s something I didn’t know about until I looked at a few houses for sale near the museum.

    I don’t know if they advertise that benefit much, but it is there. Mapleton Fall Creek and places like that qualify.

  9. I don’t live in Indy, but have had some experience trying to work with non-profit organizations whose missions are (supposedly) to make things better for a community. While many do that well, some fall into self-glorification, often becoming embodiments of the egos of their executives and/or boards. It is a particularly slimy version of “power corrupts”.

  10. Shiela, with all do respect, I cannot support your analysis of the impact of The Children’s Museum in our city. It is one of the most important institutions in our community that returns a huge benefit(s) for the transformation of ‘Nap Town’. My family decided to build a new home in a transition neighborhood downtown that once was a haven for street crime. The Children’s Museum was a plus factor in making the decision to invest in the neighborhood. The museum has served as an anchor for redevelopment of an area I have been familiar with since I moved to Indianapolis in 1994. The museum has worked with social service providers to respond to needs in the area. I found the museum leadership very responsive. It takes a great deal of intense emotional capital to lead redevelopment and create defensible space that redefine negatives into positives … and there are many overtime within the radius of the museum. Your feedback about the integrity of museum leadership is very unfair.

  11. I moved from Indy nearly 20 years ago. Even then, it was clear that the Children’s Museum was a growing enterprise. No one should be surprised that they needed (or wanted) more room to expand. So, other community institutions should have been ready to compete for those properties if they wanted to “save” or “repurpose” those properties. At least, they could have been ready… I can’t see the reason to blame the Children’s Museum for 100% of this problem.

  12. I think it. And then you speak it. Thank you, Sheila, for calling out TCM’s selfish, unneighborly behavior.

  13. Hmmm…”progress” is in the eye of the beholder, BUT…it is rare when there is real progress to aiding those with unequal opportunity.

  14. To give you some idea of how old I am, I was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to quash the Children’s Museum when proposed. Fellow lawyers I knew on the street would (tongue in cheek) ask me why I hated kids etc. I think now that, overall, with pluses and minuses, the museum is a good idea but how it operates and the egos under cover of non-profit and forever expansion involved are the issues. This to me is an operational problem and is not unknown among other non-profits. Sheila’s piece may generate criticism from other knowledgeable sources and perhaps bring about reform. Let us hope.

  15. I have the same question that TLentych brought up. Why didn’t other nonprofit entities attempt to purchase the historic apartment building with the ultimate plan to restore it?

    Maybe there really aren’t any nonprofits in the business of doing this? It would take an awful lot of money to restore a broken down old building. It seems that only a for profit corporation would attempt to do this and we all know that restoring and bringing ancient buildings up to code is more expensive than tearing them down and building something new to replace them.

    That building is probably not in the desired location for high rent downtown apartments that have been created in Indy. Not all buildings are savable, no matter how beautiful or historic they may be.

    One of the two local churches in the extremely small town (population 300) is being torn down. Many people who never attended either church are complaining about what a shame it is that it is being torn down. Of course, they never contributed a penny to the upkeep of either building and would never contribute a penny to saving one of them, but they sure do manage to complain when a historic building is torn down.

    The point is – I attended church in that building for almost 40 years of my life. I left the community church years ago to move on to another church. Eventually I left organized religion altogether. Even though some of my ancestors built the church that is being torn down I don’t harbor any sadness or hard feelings. It is a matter of economics and I am surprised that it didn’t happen sooner. Life goes on.

    My ancestors also built the other church in this small town and I have many more connections to it and attended there much more than the one being torn down. However, I imagine that one day it will also be torn down because this area has been losing population rapidly due to a lack of jobs. It is just reality. The two churches combined when I was in elementary school to share a pastor and we had church services in one building Oct-Mar and the other Apr-Sept. The congregation was made up of United Church of Christ and United Methodist. They combined 50 years ago due to financial stress.

  16. Most, not all, of the museums in town are taking pages from the same book. Jack up the price of admission so that a single visit is so prohibitive that the public who can afford it will buy memberships. These same museums only give breaks for disadvantaged people if they can prove that they are on some sort of assistance, like food stamps, so the working poor are left out in the cold. In the meantime, they have all but eliminated free entrance times. And then there’s the theme park element meant to attract people who have no interest in learning anything.

    Don’t get me started. I am still burning over the IMA walling off their grounds so that you have to pay $18. to go to the greenhouse.

  17. By the way, I drive north on Illinois most days of the week at all times of the day. Most of those CM parking lots are rarely, if ever, used.

  18. Hard to judge. The Children’s Museum has free entry for school trips from neighborhood schools. There are a few occasions organized which are free and directed to the local residents. (We are in the catchment area.)
    As to parking needs, when new popular exhibits open, there is visitor parking overflow in school and church parking lots in the area and in every available spot on our nearby streets. The question is, do you build for the extreme or for the normal needs. Parking at IUPUI has been nearly impossible at the beginning of this school year. Will it ease up for those with low class permits now that the year is underway? More parking lots needed? Even longer walks? Maybe better bus transportation in the future will ease some of this, but Indianapolis seems to be a one person to a car city.

  19. Who was it that said “You can ease some of the people some of the time, but you cannot pleas all of the people all of the time”?

    My apologies for forgetting to state in my earlier comment that the small town with the two churches that I was writing about is my home town in northeast Indiana.

  20. I’m a little disturbed at some of the comments that seem to be from people who have no use for historic preservation. Without saving (even unpopular buildings), so much history and culture would be lost. No, not every building can be saved, but many die from the lack of effort. To paraphrase JFK, we save some buildings not because it is easy, but because it is the right thing to do.

    Imagine Indy without Lockerbie, the Old Northside, the Indiana Theater and the Circle for that matter. Each of these entities was once considered too expensive to save.


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