This piece is part of a series of articles submitted to The Local Tourist through a cooperation with a 400-level travel writing class at Purdue University.
By Alexis Murrell
“Newfields is a setting where it’s easy to make connections of all sorts. Like no place else in Indianapolis.”
The website of Newfields uses this description when introducing readers to the art and nature campus. After a recent visit, I found that their description hits the nail on the head.
Originally established in 1883, the extensive 152-acre campus has expanded greatly over the years and now encompasses the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Fairbanks Park, The Garden, Lilly House, and the Elder Greenhouse. In 2017, each of these entities was unified together under one name, Newfields, with the intention to create a place for guests to explore nature and the arts while making connections with others.
This idea of creating connections was not on my mind at all when my friend and I pulled into Newfields on a Sunday morning about 20 minutes after the museum opened; however, by the end of my visit, connections were exactly what I was left with.
As we parked in the nearly empty lot and began the walk to the building, I took in the crisp November air and admired the architecture of the museum.
The front of the museum building is round with four floors of glass windows extending into the clear sky. Gray metal rings separate each floor of windows, similar to the way rings orbit planets. Tall, slender trees with browning leaves stood adjacent to the building.
I noticed that the building is much larger than I remembered it, although I have not been to the museum since I was in elementary school so my memory could be serving wrong.
After entering the museum, purchasing tickets (easily and painlessly I might add) and checking our coats, my friend and I set off to explore the museum. As a Newfields member, she promised to show me all of the best exhibits in the four-story building. I let her lead the way to the second floor, the home of European and American galleries.
The first piece that caught my eye was Robert Indiana’s massive LOVE sculpture. The original design was used for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1964 Christmas card.
The print was translated into a steel sculpture in 1970 and has been in Indianapolis since. It used to sit on the front lawn, but it was moved inside in 2017. It’s an iconic museum piece that immediately comes to mind when I think of Newfields. I was happy to see it still possessed the awe-inspiring qualities I remembered it having.
After taking in Robert’s piece, we moved into the Davis Lab to admire a photography exhibit that I developed a connection with. The description of the exhibit expressed that 450 Indianapolis residents from throughout the city were asked to be photographed for a black-and-white portrait and answer one question: Where would you wish to wake up tomorrow?
The exhibit is a compilation of all of their portraits in one room with their responses playing on an audio track for museum-goers to hear.
As a fellow Hoosier, this exhibit struck a chord with me because it told a story of the city and state as a whole. It showed the physical diversity of our area, but the answers of the residents shed light on how similar we all truly are.
Nearly all the answers I listened to were very simple and echoed each other.
One resident said, “A better place where people are looking out for one another and not so much conflict is going on.”
Another said, “I wish to wake up in my bed because it’s home. After Hurricane Katrina hit, I came here. I guess you could say Indianapolis saved my life in a way.”
In a sense, everyone wished for a place that would bring them comfort and happiness. Something about this exhibit was so pure, honest, and stripped down. From the simple black-and-white photos to the minimalist layout of the room, everything worked together in a way that I felt was reflective of our state and the people that call it home. With such a strong start, I was eager to see more of the museum.
As we moved on from the Davis Lab, we decided to skip the visit of floors two and three and go straight to floor four, which is entirely devoted to our favorite style of art: contemporary. In fact, it is in this collection that I discovered my second favorite piece, Acton by James Turrell. This specially designed room lit with tungsten lights creates a visual phenomenon that left my friend and me questioning the piece for what felt like an eternity.
We discussed the visual trick for a long time, attempting to figure out how Turrell accomplished such a mind-contorting experience. Our conversation led us down a rabbit hole of a discussion about what art truly is. Is it the piece itself or is it the experience that takes place when we view the piece?
At this point, I had to tip my hat to Newfields. They really had created an environment in which I was pushed to think critically and connect with the exhibits and my friend in the process.
We stopped and viewed another popular contemporary piece, Tara Donovan’s Mylar sculpture. I appreciated this piece because its dynamic structure reminded my friend and me of two completely different things. To her, the piece resembled a melanite rock. She also said she may name the untitled piece “The Plague.” Personally, it reminded me of the black microorganism that takes over Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man 3 and makes his spider suit black.
Bo-Ho Suh’s Floor is another thought-provoking contemporary piece that shows thousands of molded men holding up a piece of glass to create a platform. Upon first glance, it’s hard to notice that they are people at all. When you look closer, however, you realized how many thousands of people you are walking on. The piece evokes some self-reflection and discussion of issues like collective action.
After viewing the remainder of the contemporary art, we went down to the third floor to explore the Design Gallery, the 11,000-square-foot gallery devoted to modern and contemporary design.
The exhibit features many interactive elements including a virtual reality experience that blew my mind. A word of advice: follow the instructions and stay seated when you are wearing the VR goggles. Trust me.
My friend and I also enjoyed the design lab and drawing stations where we were able to craft furniture pieces. Newfields did a great job creating an exhibit that felt very hands-on and collaborative. I felt as if I were a designer just like those who crafted all of the beautiful pieces in the collection.
After briefly stopping on the second floor to see some American art paintings and the Georgia O’Keefe piece, we decided to grab a double espresso in the museum café and make our way outside to investigate the gardens before the museum closed. We exited through the back door of the museum and strolled across a bridge, past the Lilly House, and toward the Elder Greenhouse.
Upon entering the greenhouse, we were welcomed with lush plants, warm air, and a friendly face tending to the greenery. We went up and down the aisles, admiring the desert-dwelling cacti, intertwining tropical vine plants, and holiday poinsettias. Newfields’ greenhouse and gardens were a refreshing sight to see in Indianapolis because there are not many places in the city to see so much nature and wildlife in one location. Newfields serves as a green oasis in the center of the concrete landscape that is Indianapolis.
After wrapping it up in the greenhouse and making our way back to the museum, my friend and I decided we could not leave without seeing the photography exhibit in the Davis Lab one last time. While we headed to the second floor, we reflected on our experience at Newfields.
From the contemporary sculptures and Design Gallery to the beautiful gardens and winding pathways, Newfields provided us both with a chance to interact with our environment and draw on our own thoughts and experiences to make connections with the arts. The pieces inside the museum pushed us to consider what art truly is, how it makes us feel, and how it can be interpreted.
Not only this, Newfields provided us with the opportunity to connect with each other through their space. Finally, the gardens and greenhouse allowed us to escape and focus on the small, simple beauties that nature has to offer.
As I admired the portraits of the Indianapolis residents surrounding me, I understood what Newfields meant when they said it was like no other place in Indianapolis. I wondered how many before made this discovery after a day here, and how many after me would feel the same sense of wholeness I felt in the moment. We left feeling full of content, already planning our next visit to Newfields.
Visiting Newfields – Indianapolis Museum of Art
Newfields is located at 4000 Michigan Road, Indianapolis, IN. Hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday 11am to 5pm and Thursday, Friday, and Saturday 11am to 8pm. Closed on Mondays.
Admission to Newfields is $18 for adults, $10 for youth (6 – 17) and free for children 5 and under. It’s also free for members. Visit discoverniewfields.org for more information and current events and exhibits.