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The Recentering of Newfields

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The Recentering of Newfields

Perhaps the best place to get a sense of recent changes at Newfields’ 152-acre campus, which includes the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the gardens, and the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature:100 Acres Park, is the terrace behind the 107-year-old Lilly House that overlooks 100 Acres.

From the terrace you experience the new genius loci, or center, of the Newfields campus, according to landscape architect David Rubin. But the view from the terrace is different now than it was just recently, and more closely resembles the view that was available before the Lilly estate — Oldfields — became part of the IMA. The lake to the west of the Lilly House is now entirely visible. This is because a strip of land in the 100 Acres park, approximately an acre and a half, has been cleared. This is land that will soon function, if all goes according to plan, as a pollinator meadow.

And the center of the Newfields campus has shifted to Oldfields, according to Rubin, because of the fact that you can now look out over across the soon-to-be pollinator meadow to 100 Acres to the lake and in so doing  “understand the breadth of this institution.”

Just beyond the lake curves the White River.

Lake at Newfields

Lake at 100 Acres Park

Rubin, of David Rubin Land Collective, is the leader of Newfields’ 30-year master plan that aims to better integrate the museum and the surrounding campus. This goal harmonizes with the museum’s 2015-2025 strategic plan that aims to provide a more engaging experience for patrons, and a more sustainable business model for the museum.

When I went back to the museum on Saturday, April 27 with my daughter Naomi, our experience served as an illustration of what David Rubin, the Newfields board of governors, and the senior staff were aiming for. That is, Naomi and I have different interests and Newfields has diverse attractions, indoors and outdoors, that appeal to both of us.

What they were clearly not aiming for is any sort of controversy as a result of the recent clearing of brush and trees in the 100 Acres park.

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first let me describe our trip.  

My daughter wanted to visit the museum to see, and photograph some of the half million Spring Blooms carpeting the campus.

It’s the third year of Spring Blooms. This was the big new seasonal attraction that foreshadowed the 2017 rebranding, when the Indianapolis Museum of Art changed its name to Newfields. That year also was the debut of Winterlights — the Christmas lights installation extravaganza — has been even more successful than Spring Blooms in bringing in more patrons to the museum. (Winterlights attracted a record-breaking 111,000 visitors in 2018.)

And it’s full steam ahead for seasonal attractions at Newfields: this fall, Newfields will see its inaugural Harvest Festival with a concurrent exhibition of Yayoi Kusama’s infinity mirror room “All the Eternal Love I have for the Pumpkins”.

But back to our trip. Naomi and I explored the grounds from the Allée to the border gardens to the Lilly House, and she stopped to take pictures of the blooms every so often. We toured the Elder Greenhouse before walking under the Lilly House terrace. From there we followed the trail down the 100 Acres Park and explored my favorite work in the park, the “Park of the Laments” designed by Alfredo Jaar. The work, which was installed in 2010 when the 100 Acres Park first opened to the public, consists of a courtyard with a trimmed grass lawn, surrounded by walls made from gabion baskets filled with limestone rocks. The only way out of the walled courtyard is an underground tunnel.

Alfredo Jarr's "Park of Laments"

Alfredo Jarr's "Park of Laments" entrance

Breaking Down Walls

When talking with David Rubin, I got the impression that he was the kind of guy who liked to break down, rather than put up, walls, as it were.  

While the main office of David Rubin Land Collective is in Philadelphia, Rubin established a studio in Indianapolis in 2018. This makes sense considering the firm’s relationship with Newfields but also Rubin’s design of CommonGround and Sky Farm at Eskenazi Health Hospital (2014) and the forthcoming Eskenazi Patient and Canine Therapy Garden at the same location. There are multiple other Collective projects ongoing and completed both in and outside Indiana -- too numerous to mention here.

Rubin told me that Newfields, with its expansive landscapes and its encyclopedic art museum, has an enormous capacity to improve its engagement with visitors, following a master plan that utilizes spaces on the campus that had previously been overlooked.  

“Our role was to assist in finding opportunities to make the the cultural institution relevant in an ongoing manner ...” he said about the master plan. “One could choose to go into the museum specifically and just engage in cultural artifact; one could go on to the property and into the landscape and just appreciate the gardens. But one could also go in and appreciate the relationship between art and landscape, art and nature.”

It was in the spirit of utilizing spaces that had previously been overlooked, that Newfields staff cleared the land for the pollinator meadow in the 100 Acres woods. From above, the clearing might appear to be an extension of the historic Allée on the opposite side of the Lilly House.

But members of the Indiana Forest Alliance first saw the clearing not by airplane but on foot and on bicycle, along the Central Canal Towpath. This included Indiana Forest Alliance director of communications and outreach Angela Herrmann, who saw the clearing of trees during a bike ride on April 3 and later wrote of the development in the comment section to Bill Watts’ opinion piece in titled “The Suburbanization of the IMA”.  (Watts’ opinion piece takes issue with Newfields’ rebranding and restricted bicycle access, among other concerns.)

Around the same time, Indiana Forest Alliance Urban Forest Preservation director Jerome Delbridge sent a letter to Newfields horticulturist Katie Booth, expressing his alarm.  

“I saw the tree removal last week at the 100 Acres,” he wrote. “It was upsetting to me that many native trees were removed to install a pollinator meadow. Possibly the design team and entomologist(s) were not aware [of] the critical importance of the protein-rich pollen box elder and other maples produce as the first source of food for bees in the spring. Have they not witnessed the densely-packed vertical flower gardens black locusts give every spring or the bees who flock to the blooms? Even the invasive mulberry provides a rich source of food for pollinator species. All tree species I saw removed provide pollen and/or nectar for pollinators.”

Clearing at Newfields, site of the forthcoming pollinator meadow, viewed from Lilly House terrace

Clearing at 100 Acres at Newfields, site of the forthcoming pollinator meadow, viewed from Lilly House terrace

An Explanation from Newfields

I published an article titled “Newfields Announces New Gifts, Raises Questions” in NUVO on April 10, excerpting Delbridge’s letter to Newfields.

In order to answer questions raised by the letter, I met with Newfields’ deputy director of horticulture and natural resources Jonathan Wright along with the communication team including spokesperson Mattie Wethington and deputy director of marketing and external services Jonathan Berger.

On April 17, a sunny day with the flowers along our path in full bloom, we walked out from the museum to the terrace behind the Lilly House. We walked up to the edge of the terrace and looked out at the view afforded by the recent clearing of brush and trees of the lake to the west.

The land cleared to make the meadow was not virgin forest, Wright told me.

“When this house was built, this was a big cornfield all the way out so everything from the canal to those trees right on the banks of the river was all farmland,” he said. “This, before it had been cleared for farming, would have been floodplain bottomland with open moist meadows. There would have been woodland edge species and none of that existed anymore because it had all been cleared for farming.”

The area that used to be used to be farm field included where the lake is now; a gravel pit (referred elsewhere in this article as a quarry) was dug in the farmland adjacent to the river and then, eventually, it filled with water.

Wright explained to me that the clearing of brush and trees from the meadow is limited to the 1.5 acre band stretching between the lake and the Lilly House. He said that the meadow will ultimately be an environmental benefit to its surroundings.

“What we’re going to do here is create this incredible ground plain of rich, herbaceous, and pollinator rich and habitat friendly native plants that are friendly to all the native wildlife,” said Wright. He said that a lot of what was cut were early successional species.“It’s not that they don’t have any value it’s just that we have 30 acres to the right, 30 acres to the left of them,” he said. “What we don’t have here are woodland edge species.”

Wright acknowledged that some trees were taken down in the clearing.

“We did lose some trees that do have a pollinator source,” he said. “But once those pollinator sources are done blooming for the year, and they're very quick, there's nothing else here. So what we're going to create it something that has pollen sources throughout the entire season, for  a wider range of wildlife.”

To effect these changes, Wright is working with a team that includes Kevin Tungesvick, senior ecologist at the consulting and restoration firm Eco Logic.   

“Kevin’s going to help us because there’s a lot of invasive stuff, a lot of what you see on the ground aside from those few native trees are largely invasive plants,” said Wright. Newfields, in fact, has an extensive invasive removal program already in place, employing staff and volunteers to remove invasive plants.

During this conversation, Wethington then made the case to me that Newfields had been transparent about the clearing activity that had taken place. She reminded me that the master plan came out in 2017, and that there was a press release at that time where plans for 100 acres were detailed, assuming Newfields would receive funding to complete the projects detailed within.

The announcement that funding had been received for various master plan projects, to the tune of $21.7 million, was made April 6.  

“So the 30 year master plan entailed projects over that over the 30 years but they are things that we cannot do without support from our community as well,” Wethington said.  

Talking with Jerome Delbridge  

While the Indiana Forest Alliance’s Jerome Delbridge still stands by the email he wrote to Newfields, he is more confident about Newfields’ intentions after meeting with Jonathan Wright and his team recently.     

“Although I’m disappointed whenever I see trees removed, I can understand what their motivation is to create a different habitat there on the property, still a native habitat, and create an area going from forest to prairie and that is a more diverse transition,” he told me in a phone conversation.  “In the meeting, I recommended to them that when they’re going to make big changes to green spaces open to the public that they involve constituents and the public in the decision making process and in the information process.”

In other words, Delbridge didn’t feel that the press release in 2017, or the grants announcement April 6 was enough to keep the public in the loop.

‘Often we will stand up and be an advocate for conservation and protection in the public realm,” said Delbridge. “And this is a private nonprofit that has property that they’re opening up to the public. They’re not required to go through the public comment period but Jonathan shared with me that they should have been more transparent and it would have been more helpful for the public. And I believe it when he says he’ll work to be more transparent and communicate better with the public and be open to comments about this and he made the point to me when I said that.”

His meeting with Newfields, and their explanation of the history helped put some things into context for Delbridge, even though he knew much of the story already.

“It is significant that this private nonprofit has a public green space ... and they’ve removed a ton of invasives, a ton of Asian Bush Honeysuckle which is an exotic species that has choked out many of our native plants,” he said. “They’re slowly working to restore native plants. Although taking out native shade trees is not the decision that I would have made for that property, I can understand their motivation and I think that we as a city need to give them credit for providing us with more green space that’s free and open to the public and working to restore native habitat.  So ... I feel much more educated and less threatened by the work that they are doing.”

Oldfields from below

Historical photo of the Oldfields-Lilly House Estate, about 1930. IMA Photography Archives (PHO003)Archives, Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, Indianapolis, IN

A Brief History of Oldfields

Both the Newfields rebranding in 2017 and the 30-year master plan draw connections between Newfields and Oldfields, so a brief history of Oldfields is in order here.

The Oldfields home — now called the Lilly House — was constructed between 1909 and 1913. Architect Lewis Ketcham designed the home for the family of Hugh McKennan Landon, whose family lived there until 1932. That year, it was sold to Josiah K. Lilly Jr., who served as president and CEO of Eli Lilly & Co., the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical firm started by his grandfather.

In 2003 the estate was designated as a U.S. historic landmark. Now open to the public, the 22-room mansion is interpreted to reflect the era when Lilly and his family first occupied it in the 1930s. It has since undergone historic renovation.

The Oldfields grounds and gardens, which were designed by Percival Gallagher of the Olmsted Brothers firm, include the Allee lined with oak trees, that stretches 775 feet in front of the Lilly Mansion. The decidedly European flair of the Allée is no accident since Gallagher was modelling it on European precedents.

In 1966, Josiah K. Lilly III and Ruth Lilly gave the Oldfields estate to the Art Association of Indianapolis. The Art Association changed its name before it moved from the John Herron Art Institute at 16th and Pennsylvania to its current location at 38th St. and Michigan St. in 1969.

A 21st Century Campus

Reflecting this history — in conceptualizing the Newfields Master Plan that visualizes a connection between the historic Allee and the pollinator meadow— was important for Rubin.

“Our goal has never been to be simply preservationist, but actually to embrace heritage and recognize that history is only relevant in the context of 21st century participation in it,” he said. “So if you end up preserving things in stasis, then you don't give people an opportunity to understand their relationship to that history. And so really, the vista that is created is a continuum between the historic fountain or the fountain at the end of the Allée, and the distant shore of the lake itself …”

And the pollinator meadow is part and parcel of Rubin’s expansive vision laid out in his 30-year master plan for Newfields.

“Artists, or art enthusiasts can be traveling through the pollinator meadow and understand for the first time the relationship between the historic home, the terrace, the canal, and the quarry,” he said.  “And [they] realize that this is a rich history of the region, not just in terms of the American villa, as the house is described, but infrastructure and water intake in the canal, and in quarry excavations and productivity in landscape that ended up informing all the local roads and highways ... all in the context of the bend of the oxbow of the the White River. That's an extraordinary epiphany for most people. It's not that everybody has to explicitly see or hear that, but they can understand their place in history in the moment by standing in that great construct.”

Back up to Fernand Léger

After exiting the Park of Laments, Naomi and I took a walk through the soon-to-be pollinator meadow. It is not hard to imagine in this space, now cleared of brush and trees, a ground layer of perennials, wildflowers, and native plants, with woodier species planted near the borders of the meadow, curving up towards the tree canopies on either side.     

Whether the city’s preservationists, horticulturists, and landscape architects will come together and sing kumbaya over the final result remains to be seen. But I think the fact that Indiana Forest Alliance and Newfields have come to an understanding is significant.

Another issue addressed in conversations with all parties involved is the (now fully-funded) work Newfields will do to curb erosion on the narrow bank of land between the river and the lake. (The path along that bank is currently closed pending completion of said work). 

Because of increased precipitation in the Midwest in the era of global warming —  because the White River will overflow its banks pretty much anytime it wants — this may ultimately be one of Newfields’ more difficult challenges in years to come.

Speaking of precipitation, it was just beginning to rain, when Naomi and I headed back to the museum. On a previous visit we had spent a lot of time in the American collection and with the contemporary art on the fourth floor, but on this visit we spent more time with the European post-impressionists and modernists.  

Just before we left the galleries, we stopped and paid homage to my favorite painting in the museum, Fernand Léger’s "Man and Woman" (1921) which depicts the embracing subjects as inseparably intertwined, and almost indistinguishable with the machinery they are surrounded by.  It continues to serve, I think, as a stunning visual metaphor for modern life.

It’s a painting that came up, actually, in conversation, with (then) board chair Tom Hiatt on the day when the Newfields rebranding was announced back in 2017.  When Hiatt asked me when came to mind when I heard the name “Indianapolis Museum of Art,” the Léger painting was my response. I had asked him if he anticipated any confusion in people’s minds over the rebranding, if people, say, would still continue to call  Newfields the IMA.

What Hiatt said next was telling, and prescient.  

"Man and Woman" by Fernand Léger

Fernand Léger, Man and Woman, 1921, Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, Martha Delzell Memorial Fund, 52.28 © 2018 Artists Rights Society, (ARS), New York/ ADGP, Paris.

“For me,” he said, “the first image I have is actually the entrance to the building, the building itself. And what we want for people to think about when they hear the name Newfields is not just the art, but the beer garden, the nature park. So you’re absolutely correct to suggest that it will take a significant infusion of marketing dollars over months, not years, to underscore what it is and what it involves.”  

I revealed no small amount of skepticism in the article I subsequently wrote based on our interview.

But since then, I suppose, I’ve come around the bend somewhat in covering developments at the museum. It’s impossible not to note, for example, that the museum has a solid business model and is well on its way towards its goal of drawing five percent or less from its endowment each year.

But even more importantly, I think, the museum has proven, in the face of withering criticism by the likes of CityLab’s Kriston Capps, that it could both mount seasonal extravaganzas like Winterlights and serious exhibitions as well. The recent opening of Samuel Levi Jones’s Left of Center, with its deep dive into contemporary racial politics, might serve as a rejoinder to Capps calling Newfields “the greatest art travesty in the art world in 2017.”

Perhaps it might be worthwhile for Capps to pay a return visit, perhaps this October when the leaves are changing. Then again, I have a feeling that the upcoming Harvest festival, concurrent with the exhibition of Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkin-themed infinity mirror room, won’t quite do it for him.

Managing Editor

Having lived and worked in Indy on and off since 1977, and currently living in Carmel, I've seen the city change a great deal. I love covering the arts in all its forms, and the places where the arts and broader cultural issues intersect.