Travel allows me to understand. It provides me a three-dimensional perspective that can only be gained from being there. Feet on the ground. Travel moves me past tropes by allowing me to form my own, first-person judgements. My greatest learning experiences in art have all come as a result of travel. Of seeing things. Experiencing places. Meeting people. So it came to be with the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
What makes any city an arts destination?
Having an art museum with a van Gogh oil painting?
What if it’s a big one? A good one.
What if that same museum has the first and largest of Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculptures? What if it has Rembrandt’s first self-portrait, an exceptionally special painting completed in his early 20s?
That institution may be an arts destination, but it doesn’t necessarily make the city one.
But what if that city has another art museum, one of the best Western art museums in the country annually producing a top national show and sale of contemporary Western art?
And what if it has the only hotel in the United States with an art collection curated by an accredited art museum?
And what if it’s filled with giant outdoor murals and graffiti art?
Any one of those attractions alone doesn’t make a city an arts destination. The combination of them all surely does.
That city is Indianapolis, Indiana.
Moving beyond controversy at Indianapolis Museum of Art
True to it’s humble, middle-American values, Indy isn’t one to brag about its arts community, but there’s plenty to brag about starting with the Indianapolis Museum of Art, newly christened in 2017 as “Newfields.”
The Indianapolis art museum’s brilliant permanent collection, which I’ve called the most underrated in America, has been utterly overshadowed by a series of ugly racial controversies which reached a peak in early 2021 when a job posting for the Newfields-associated Indianapolis Museum of Art mentioned one of the responsibilities as maintaining the institution’s “traditional core, white art audience.” The unconscionably white supremacist language resulted in a national firestorm and the ultimate resignation of Newfields’ director and chief executive, Charles L. Venable.
National exposure of Newfields’ history of racial hostility finally pressured the institution into promising to change its ways. We’ll see. I hope. The Indianapolis art museum could (should) be a regional leader in the presentation of the arts and using the arts to welcome diverse communities.
The “Newfields” name pays homage to “Oldfields,” the moniker for the J.K. Lilly Jr. family home and estate on the property. Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company is headquartered in Indianapolis.
“Newfields” encompasses everything the Indianapolis Museum of Art had to offer, yet kept in the background while spotlighting its van Gogh and the Rembrandt and its Gauguins and the 4.6 ton LOVE sculpture big enough to eat the puny-by-comparison LOVE sculptures you’ve seen in New York or Philadelphia or New Orleans.
Research conducted by the museum discovered that when asked how they liked spending their free time, locals responded by prioritizing eating, drinking, being outside and walking in nature. Not the traditional strengths of an art museum. Viewing art and visiting museums were further down the preferred “to do” list.
From Indianapolis art museum to Newfields
The Indianapolis Museum of Art, however, had an ace up its sleeve: 152 acres of landscaped and wooded gardens behind the building perfect for eating, drinking, being outside and walking in nature.
Newfields, now carrying the tagline, “a place for nature and art,” put this research and its scenic “back yard” into action hosting its inaugural Harvest Fest the first weekend in October 2019. The event, featuring pumpkin carving, arts, crafts and games for kids along with a beer garden and culinary village for adults, checked all of the eating, drinking, being outside, walking in nature boxes.
The museum’s goal is to extend Harvest Fest to cover all of October in four year’s time, providing Newfields a signature fall event to go along with its fantastically popular Winterlights holiday light show.
While Newfields now emphasizes more than art, its permanent collection remains astonishing.
In addition to works previously mentioned, IMA houses a Georgia O’Keeffe Jimson Weed painting. Its sister painting became the most expensive piece of art by a woman ever sold at auction, fetching $44.4 million in 2014.
It has the largest holdings of works by J.M.W. Turner outside Great Britain. One hundred and one paintings by Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven help form the largest public collection of Neo-Impressionist paintings in the U.S. Among them you’ll find a radiant Pointillist harbor scene from Georges Seurat, a picture you’re thankfully not limited to 45 seconds with.
Its Japanese paintings are especially noteworthy.
Those highlights do little more than scratch the surface.
The Old West in the Midwest
Rembrandt and Seurat give way to C.M. Russell and Fredric Remington (and Fritz Scholder and T.C. Canon) at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. Founded in 1989 from the personal collection of local businessman and philanthropist Harrison Eiteljorg, the Eiteljorg has become a leader in both Western and Native American art.
Each September, its Quest for the West art show and sale puts on display and up for sale new work by the top artists in the Western genre.
The full Indy art experience can only be achieved through a stay at The Alexander hotel, conveniently located in the new CityWay neighborhood development, a short walk to all destinations in the downtown area. Whether self-parking or ride sharing, original contemporary artwork greets guests immediately upon arrival.
British graffiti artist Nick Walker’s work can be found throughout the property’s parking garage, and his gigantic mural, Love Conquers All, towers above CityWay. Alyson Shotz’ stunning Standing Wave mesmerizes visitors entering through the lobby.
You’ve heard these platitudes plenty of times from hotels boasting about their art programming. The Alexander backs it up. Both the hotel and the IMA display an example of “rock star” contemporary artist Nick Cave’s raucous Soundsuits, obvious evidence of the IMA’s curation of The Alexander’s collection.
Take advantage of The Alexander’s proximity to the Indianapolis Cultural Trail by enjoying a 15-minute walk to Hotel Tango Distillery in the zesty Fletcher Place neighborhood where you’ll be stunned to find this legendary name: SAMO©.
Al Diaz, one half of the early ’80s New York City graffiti art super-duo with Jean-Michel Basquiat, struck up an online friendship/collaboration with Indy graffiti artist Matt Aaron. Hotel Tango hosted a show for Aaron’s work, he invited Diaz, one thing led to another, and now Hotel Tango—America’s only distillery owned by a combat disabled veteran—features the SAMO© signature, with adjoining philosophical phrases, throughout.
It turns out, Indy is a hot spot for outdoor and graffiti art. Forty-six murals were commissioned for Super Bowl XLVI (46) alone, hosted by Indy, in 2012.
Ancient art, old masters, modern masters, contemporary art, graffiti, murals, yeah, I think that makes Indianapolis an arts destination.