Trash or art? Visit the Indianapolis Museum of Art and decide for yourself | Travel | Chicago Reader

Trash or art? Visit the Indianapolis Museum of Art and decide for yourself 

The museum, now known as Newfields, has gone through a controversial rebranding.

  • Photo by Nathaniel Edmunds Photography. Courtesy of Newfields.

L ast October the Indianapolis Museum of Art—an improbably grand institution for a midsize midwestern metropolis—was either gloriously reborn or notoriously trashed.

That was when the museum's controversial director, Charles Venable, launched a rebranding campaign that buried the IMA name under a new umbrella identity, devoid of any mention of either "museum" or "art." Henceforth, IMA and its 152-acre campus a few miles north of downtown Indianapolis would be known as Newfields. The new name was meant to signal that a visit to IMA could be more than just a sojourn through one of the top ten most comprehensive art museums in the nation.


The art world took note: two months later, for example, in a widely read article in the online magazine CityLab about the "Instagramming" of cities, critic Kriston Capps declared the rebranding "the greatest travesty in the art world in 2017."

"[M]useums are cultural treasures, not amusement parks," Capps argued, pinning the blame squarely on the director: "Venable has turned a grand encyclopedic museum into a cheap Midwestern boardwalk."

  • Winterlights
  • Image Courtesy of Newfields

As evidence, Capps cited a holiday light show that, by the end of its run, attracted 70,000 visitors. It's the same event, Winterlights, that Venable likes to cite as evidence of the rebranding's success.

You can judge for yourself whether the IMA has suffered a mission-crushing blow or—at a time when many museums are struggling to remain relevant—been thrown a lifeline. A three-hour drive through the flatlands and wind farms south of Chicago and a left turn off I-65 at 38th Street in Indianapolis will deliver you to the stanchion announcing your arrival at Newfields' gate. You'll have to search the wall behind it to spot, in smaller letters, INDIANA MUSEUM OF ART.

Inside that gate? Let me paint you this only slightly hyperbolic mental picture: imagine the Art Institute of Chicago (OK, smaller), dropped into the midst of the Chicago Botanic Garden and surrounded by 100 acres of forest preserve and art park.

While it's not the million-square-foot AIC, the Indianapolis museum is not small. Its collection of about 54,000 works covers the same 5,000-year span of global art, with the advantage that you can, if you push it, view just about everything that's on display in a day. What you'll see is one piece each by many of the major names in the Western canon, with more depth in neo-impressionism, pointillism, and J.M.W. Turner, and selections from notable collections of Japanese, Chinese, and African art.

Organized in 1883 as the Art Association of Indianapolis, the museum has been in its current location nearly 50 years thanks to the heirs to the Eli Lilly and Company pharmaceutical fortune. Lilly's great-grandchildren, Josiah K. Lilly III and Ruth Lilly, gave their parents' home and estate, known as Oldfields, to the IMA in 1966. (This is the same Ruth Lilly who in 2002 let the Poetry Foundation know that she was bequeathing it a transformational gift of stock, ultimately worth about $200 million.) The Lilly home, a national historic landmark with a sumptuously restored and furnished main floor and gardens designed by Olmsted Brothers associate Percival Gallagher, became part of the IMA campus.

Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: 100 Acres - IMAGE COURTESY OF NEWFIELDS
  • Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: 100 Acres
  • Image Courtesy of Newfields

The museum building opened in stages between 1970 and 1975, and underwent a major expansion between 2002 and 2005 that included the glassy oval atrium that's the first space you'll walk through when you enter. In 2010, a huge adjoining chunk of land was added to the campus with the opening of the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: 100 Acres. It was hoped that the expanded museum could attract as many as a million visitors a year.

But those numbers never materialized, and the expansion, followed by the recession of 2008, left the museum deeply in debt. In a phone interview earlier this month, Venable said that when he arrived in 2012, the museum had $121 million in construction bond debt, which has now been reduced to $81 million with a ten-year plan to pay it off completely.

To get a handle on the finances, Venable made some controversial changes. There were staff layoffs and curatorial departures, and he began using audience research to determine marketing approaches and the direction of programming that now includes movie nights, book clubs, and yoga. The most controversial decision, instituted in 2015, replaced IMA's free access with an $18 admission fee for adults.

When the museum was free, there was "no urgency to join," Venable says. After the admission charge was instituted, membership, which starts at $55 annually, rose from about 5,500 to its current level of more than 17,000. According to figures provided by Newfields, total attendance, including the still-free Fairbanks Art & Nature Park, was about 347,000 last year, but only 125,000 of those visitors paid to enter the art museum.

  • Yoga at the museum
  • Image Courtesy of Newfields

Venable wants to see that number grow, but for the weekend visitor (or day-tripper), Newfields' relatively sparse attendance is a bonus. In comparison to the crush at Chicago museums, it offers blessed breathing room—inside and out. During my midweek visit, I had many galleries (most equipped with comfortable sofas and chairs that invite you to linger) nearly to myself. That included even the central atrium, dominated by Robert Indiana's familiar LOVE sculpture, and my two favorite galleries: one devoted to urban scenes, the other to American realism (including Edward Hopper's unforgettably stark Hotel Lobby). There's a nicely appointed cafe (open for lunch whenever the museum is open and for dinner on Thursdays through Saturdays), a theater, a gift shop, and areas dedicated to activities for kids.

From the museum it's a short walk through exquisite gardens to Lilly House, a 22-room mansion where you can get a look at what life was like for the very rich in the early part of the 20th century. A beer garden featuring local brews is also open Thursday through Saturday, and the adjacent 100-acre nature and art park features lakeside paths, woods, playgrounds, and climbable sculpture like Funky Bones—a giant skeleton, flat on its back, grinning up at the big Indiana sky.

“Bes-Ben: The Mad Hatter of Chicago" - IMAGE COURTESY OF NEWFIELDS
  • “Bes-Ben: The Mad Hatter of Chicago"
  • Image Courtesy of Newfields

Get there this year, and you'll catch "Bes-Ben: The Mad Hatter of Chicago," an exhibit of sculptural and theatrical millinery by Benjamin Green-Field. Textile and fashion curator Niloo Paydar says there are 59 of Green-Field's famously quirky creations on view, with embellishments that include cigarettes, baseballs, puppies, and whole birds; all but six of them are from IMA's own collection. It's up through January 6, 2019.

Starting June 1, "Summer Wonderland: Spectacular Creatures," a kid-pleasing invasion of about 500 plastic animals by Italy's Cracking Art collective, will join the giant blue snail already in residence in the entry atrium. Something decidedly more adult, "Sensual/Sexual/Social," George Platt Lynes's photography of the male nude from the collection of Indiana University's Kinsey Institute opens September 30.   v

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