Do a Google search for the Indianapolis Museum of Art these days and you’ll land at discovernewfields.org, a website that looks like the online home of a botanic garden. Indianapolis Museum of Art director Charles Venable incurred the wrath of the art world last year by changing the museum’s identity, reducing its world-class art collection to just one component in a group of attractions on a 152-acre campus known as Newfields.
Venable told me he did it because “very few people in the greater metropolitan area of Indianapolis knew that we had gardens or a large park. We figured if we started marketing the fact that we are this big holistic experience where you literally can spend an entire day, indoors and out, we would be likely to reach a broader community.”
And, he said, it’s working. One model? California’s Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
That’s what sent me to Indy to check it out for a story for our travel issue. Here’s some of what I saw:
Lots of gorgeous spring flowers and a glassy, Guggenheimish entry pavilion, with a big blue snail by the Italian collective Cracking Art inside.
Four floors of galleries, mostly chronologically arranged, some vast, many cozy, and all, in my midweek visit, sparsely populated by visitors.
Art by everyone from Rembrandt to just-lost favorite son Robert Indiana. (The collection can be previewed on the Newfields website.)
How Indianapolis’s corporate aristocrats lived in the first half of the 20th century. Oldfields, the home and estate of the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company heirs, was donated by them to the Indianapolis Museum of Art in the 1960s.
A flower-bedecked path to the museum’s beer garden, which offers snacks and local brews.
Did I mention the interactive but mostly untamed 100-acre nature and art park?
Venable says museums are “at one of those watershed moments, where we have to continue to evolve in order to stay relevant to an ever-changing audience.”
You can judge for yourself whether this controversial director has a bead on the future of museums (or, at least, this one); Newfields is a three-hour drive from Chicago. Visit this summer and you’ll catch an exhibit of work by Chicago’s 20th-century mad hatter, Bes-Ben, and a kid-pleasing, critic-baiting, campuswide invasion of hundreds more of Cracking Art’s deliberately kitschy plastic animals.