Joyce Sommers has been on a road paved by chance and determination—a life she tumbled into and took on with a passion that grew deeper as she moved from volunteer to visionary.
Ms. Sommers is president emeritus of the Indianapolis Art Center and served as its president and executive director from 1976 to 2009. She is the longest-running leader of a major Indianapolis arts organization as well as the first and only woman to head such an entity until the 1980s.
An Indianapolis native, Ms. Sommers is a Broad Ripple High School graduate and attended Indiana University. She married Jan Sommers in 1956. Reading Native Son by Richard Wright as a young woman touched her and inspired her to think about racial inequality and social injustices and led to an important chapter in her life.
Ms. Sommers was an active civil rights worker in the 1960s and 1970s and headed up the Indianapolis office for UNICEF in the mid 1970s.
She discovered art at the age of 35 when a friend dragged her to a class at what would become the Indianapolis Art Center and her home for more than 30 years.
After starting as a volunteer with what was then the Indianapolis Art League, she went on to transform the small organization into one the largest community arts centers in the country. She did it with grit, tenacity and charm.
Ms. Sommers led the drive to build the Indianapolis Art Center and ARTSPARK, both beautifully designed by fellow Living Legend Michael Graves, a striking world-class facility and a beautiful public space that were true community partnerships.
Her early experiences were powerful influences that led to her philosophy—creating partnerships through art with global exchanges and realizing the transformative power of art for those who are challenged physically, mentally or by their socioeconomic situation. Of all she has accomplished, she is perhaps most proud of her many outreach efforts, including the award-winning ArtReach program, and also created cultural exchanges with Africa, Brazil and China—both of which influence the Art Center’s mission and vision.
A self-described autodidact, she reads deeply and broadly, attended countless hours of symposia, conferences and workshops, and learned on the job and from her many mentors. Colleagues describe Ms. Sommers as a visionary and relentless, someone who you can’t help but like. Being high in curiosity and a generalist has served her well. She is brave and isn’t afraid to take chances.
Named 2001 Fundraising Executive of the Year by the Indiana chapter of the American Society of Fundraising Professionals, Ms. Sommers also received a Torchbearer Award from the Indiana Commission for Women, a Touchstone Award from Girls Inc. and an Arts as an Agent of Change Award from the Martin Luther King Center. She is a member of Herron Dean’s Advisory Board and has been a member of the Contemporary Art Society study group at the Indianapolis Museum of Art since 1976. She serves as a Martin Luther King Community Center executive committee member and on the boards for Arts Education Northwest and Arts Indiana magazine. She is an emeritus member of the Spirit and Place Advisory board and a past president of the Indianapolis Consortium of Arts Administrators. Indianapolis Business Journal put her on its list of Most Influential Women in 2008.
Since her transition from the Art Center, Ms. Sommers enjoys spending time with her partner of 15 years, Bob Davis, her four children and eight grandchildren and her close friends of more than 25 years—a group that calls themselves the Wasatch Witches. But she hasn’t stopped. Her latest passion is to join the public art movement through task forces and to increase the importance of the White River as a cultural artery flowing from Noblesville all the way to the Central Canal.
Warm, compassionate and trustworthy, people close to Ms. Sommers say their worlds are richer places for knowing her. Indianapolis certainly is.