Joanna Taft and the board of the new Herron High School have a vision of a charter school providing an education in the classics and the arts to a diverse student body drawn from families of a wide range of income levels. Taft and her board also envision as a home for their new charter school the historic center of the visual arts in the city, the former John Herron Art Institute at 16th and Pennsylvania Streets.
The art institute, predecessor to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, was founded in 1902 and opened in an Italian Renaissance-style building designed by Indianapolis architects Vonnegut and Bohn in 1906. The institute’s two purposes, under the will of its benefactor, John Herron, were to exhibit art to the public and train students to create art. The Hoosier Group of artists, led by William Forsyth, T.C. Steele, and Otto Stark, helped launch the School of the Herron Institute and shaped its curriculum in painting, sculpture, and commercial art. The 1906 Institute building housed a museum exhibiting the work of both European artists and Indiana painters and sculptors. Under Wilbur D. Peat, Director of the Herron Museum from 1929 to 1965, benevolent local patrons gave and bequeathed outstanding works of art. The Marmon, Fesler, Tarkington, Clowes, Krannert, and Lilly families donated paintings, sculptures, and prints representing all the eras of Western art and contemporary European and American artists. In 1928-29, immediately north of the museum building, the Art School obtained its own elegant structure, designed by Philadelphia architect Paul Philippe Cret, one of the greatest Greek Classical designers of his time. Under long-time director Donald Mattison, the Art School expanded its curriculum to an accredited bachelor’s degree in the fine arts in 1938 and repeatedly saw students win the coveted Prix de Rome fellowship. In 1961-62, a second studio building was constructed adjacent to the Cret building, designed by Indianapolis architect Evans Woollen.
By the early 1960s, the Herron Art Museum faced the quandary of severe shortages of space in the 1906 building and possibility of losing major new collections if the museum could not significantly increase the size of its building. The surrounding area had also changed from a wealthy neighborhood in which museum patrons lived to an economically depressed locale in which crime was on the rise. In 1966, the family of Josiah K. Lilly, Jr. donated the Lilly estate, Oldfields, as the location for a new and greatly expanded museum, situated in a beautiful site overlooking White River amid grounds designed by the Olmsted Brothers, a top landscape architecture firm of the early 20th century. In a move to retain the artistic tradition of the original location, the Art School stayed at 16th and Pennsylvania and in 1967 became part of Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. The Museum building became galleries for student art and housed an auditorium, additional studios, and a library. In 2005, after years of planning, the Herron School of Art moved to a new building on the main IUPUI campus, and the historic complex became empty.
At that point, Joanna Taft; board members of the Harrison Center of the Arts, which operates in the former First Presbyterian Church buildings at 16th and Delaware; and members of families who live in the Old Northside and Herron-Morton Place historic neighborhoods around the old Herron campus, rallied and began to plan for a charter school in the vacant museum and Cret buildings. The objective that emerged, says Taft, was for a school that would train future patrons of the arts and reflect both the diverse population living in the surrounding area and families drawn from all over the metropolitan area.
With aid of grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the Fairbanks Foundation, and UBS, a financial services company, the school founders obtained a charter from Mayor Bart Peterson, organized the charter school, and hired administrators and teachers. With the advice of John Watson, a developer of historic properties, and Mansur Real Estate Services, the new school’s board created a development plan for the property. Mansur agreed to act as developer and help arrange for financing. During 2007, the board expects to acquire the museum and Cret buildings from the City of Indianapolis and move the 2007-8 freshman and sophomore classes of the Herron High School into the cultural landmark at 16th and Pennsylvania Streets.