On November 7, 1883, an exhibition of 453 works by 137 artists opened at the English Hotel on the downtown Indianapolis Circle. It was the first exhibition organized by the Art Association of Indianapolis, which well-known suffragette May Wright Sewell, her husband Theodore, and a small group of art-minded citizens had formed a few months earlier. In the process, they wrote the mission statement that spelled out their intentions. The success of that exhibition, which attracted sizable crowds throughout its three-week run, established the Art Association as a viable factor in the local cultural scene and led to more exhibitions, as well as lectures and eventually a campus featuring both a museum and an art school.
Though the Sewalls were never timid about dreaming big, even they would be shocked to see what the small group they helped found 130 years ago has become. Since the Art Association of Indianapolis changed its name to the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1969—a precursor to its move the following year from its longtime home on the campus of the John Herron Art Institute at 16th and Pennsylvania streets into a new building at 38th Street and Michigan Road—the organization has evolved into the fifth largest encyclopedic art museum in the country, with active exhibition and education programs that far surpass anything the Art Association’s founders could have imagined.