Newfields is Getting it Right

Shortly after my move to Indianapolis this past April I took an afternoon with my friend and colleague, Jamie Glavic to visit the Indianapolis Museum of Art now known as Newfields. I make it a point to visit local art museums everywhere I go. My love for museums began with my first visit to the Cincinnati Art Museum as a young child. Ever since, art museums have inspired me as an artist and I love to experience new works that I have not yet seen. True to form, I made sure that Newfields was my first museum experience in Indianapolis. I was not disappointed.

Upon arrival on the sprawling campus I was immediately impressed. The site is massive, the building is beautiful and the grounds equally gorgeous. Newfields is more than an art museum, it is a complex that includes Fairbanks Park, botanical gardens, outdoor sculpture, an historic home that was owned by J.K. Lilly Jr., an outdoor amphitheater and a beer garden next to a set of greenhouses that are open to visitors as well. When we entered the main museum building we were greeted by friendly staff and because of our AAM membership, given member stickers and had our admission waived. We spent several hours exploring the 4 stories of galleries showcasing an impressive collection of works. Throughout our experience we were guided to points of interest by some of the best museum docents I have encountered.

Portrait and Silverworks

One of the highlights of the visit for me was Bes-Ben: The Mad Hatter of Chicago. This exhibition focused on the artist, Bes Ben and showcased a fantastic collection that ranged from whimsical to downright bizarre headwear from the famous milliner. Every one of these pieces was intriguing and had it’s own history. Beyond the hats themselves the exhibit did a nice job delving into the life and history of the artist and the frenzied public demand for his works.

The museum also boasts an incredible collection of silverworks. I’ll admit that in art museums when I see a case full of silver bowls, flatware, and so on I generally skim through quickly. Make absolutely sure, if you visit, that you take a moment to really admire the details in these pieces. The Newfields collection shines here and I can’t express enough how intricate and stunning some of these works are. From ice bowls with polar bears and walruses to a soup ladle shaped like a clamshell, this section is not to be missed.

Intricate Silverworks
Do Ho Suh's floor of tiny people

Another must see area is on the fourth floor in their contemporary galleries. There are a number of piece that solicit viewer participation, some unsettling, some challenging and all of them truly fun to engage with. Do Ho Suh’s Floor invites you to walk across a sea of tiny people holding up the floor as you look down on their thousands of miniature hands as they hold you up. James Turrel’s Acton subtly asks you to reach into what appears to be a painting on the wall but is in fact a large void in space. This experience was thrilling even if I was scolded briefly by one of my fellow well-meaning patrons for “touching the art.”

Beyond the galleries there are a multitude of other experiences to enjoy on the campus. Be sure to take in the beautiful botanical gardens as you stroll over for a cold one in the beer garden and don’t miss the chance to tour the J.K. Lilly Jr. historic home. From the staff, to the art, to the grounds and all they contain, this museum experience fires on all cylinders. It strikes a wonderful balance of accessibility, shaking off the posture and pretense that so many museums still hold onto. The museum invites us in, it gives the visitor agency and makes them feel that they are a part of the experience. The staff is engaging and helpful, and I left at the end of the day wanting to go back and experience more. This is a museum looking to the future, embracing its audience and welcoming them to engage in new and exciting ways. Newfields is challenging what we view a museum to be and the field is better for it.

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Jesse Kramer