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Harrison Eiteljorg: Indianapolis Businessman and Philanthropist

Indianapolis is home to Harrison Eiteljorg’s labor of love, the Eitelorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. This unique cultural experience is located in Indianapolis downtown. The expansive galleries overlook the Indianapolis canal walk. On display at the museum is one of the largest collections of Native American Art in the country. Nestled between White River State Park and the Indiana State Museum and Imax, the Eitelorg contributes to not only Indianapolis arts and Indianapolis attractions, but also Indianapolis history, making Indianapolis museums even stronger. But how is Indianapolis society so lucky to have such a deeply rooted cultural museum in its own backyard?

It is all thanks to one man the founder of the Eiteljorg Museum, Harrison Eiteljorg, a businessman and philanthropist. Eiteljorg’s love for art in all of its forms has left a lasting impression on the Indianapolis art scene. Born in 1903, Harrison Eitelorg’s love for art is most likely linked to his relationship with his mother, a talented artist in her own right. From an early age he was an avid appreciator of art, sculpting, painting, theater and dance.

As a man who had made his fortune, Harrison Eiteljorg would travel all over the country to see exhibitions and competitions, to visit museums of Western Art, and to patronize galleries, similar to many Indianapolis art galleries that featured work that depicted the American West. Over time his own collection of Native American art began to grow. Harrison Eiteljorg had a deep love and respect for Native American culture. He recognized even in his home states name, Indiana, that Native Americans had an impact on the world around him.

Particularly interesting to Harrison Eiteljorg were the various textile works done by Native Americans including, pottery, basketry, clothing, beading, quill work, and weaving. He viewed his collection as personal and romantic, remarking that in his paintings the violence with which the old West was won seemed absent. In its place he saw the beauty of recognizable themes of the old West such as cattle drives, wagon trains and the serenity of Native American culture.

It soon became a goal for Harrison Eiteljorg to make a contribution to art museums in Indianapolis. In 1989, Harrison Eitelog worked in tandem with Eli Lilly and Company to secure funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. to create the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. The museum, in Eiteljorg’s mind, was to capture the diversity and unique aesthetic of the old frontier.

Taking cues from the Indianapolis Children’s Museum and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Eiteljorg offers programs, activities and traveling exhibits all in constant motion. Indianapolis children and families have been reaping the benefits of Harrison’s Eiteljorg’s love for Western Art and his generous mission to share it with the Indianapolis community, making him one of the most valued and famous of Indianapolis people. Surely Harrison would be proud of his vision today as it continues to make a valuable contribution to museums of Indianapolis.