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Debating Newfields

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"LOVE" sculpture by Robert Indiana at Newfields

"LOVE" sculpture by Robert Indiana at Newfields

Last Saturday I went to the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields with my daughter, Naomi. Considering how much I’d be paying for separate tickets — and that we’d likely return a number of times during the year — I sprang for a $100 family membership. I enjoy the museum, and enjoy sharing the experience with my daughter.

This doesn’t mean I’m a passive observer of everything that has gone on in the museum during the past several years. I wrote some pretty skeptical things immediately after the unveiling of the Newfields brand. I even compared the effort to Applebee’s rebranding, in 1986, as Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar. It’s not my proudest moment as a journalist, but hey, I was trying to make a point.

In his recent opinion piece in NUVO, Bill Watts, associate professor of English at Butler, addresses the rebranding and more. He brings up many issues, in fact, including the imposition of an admission fee, and the restrictions on bike and pedestrian access to the Newfields grounds. But “perhaps more than anything,” as he says, he’s disturbed by what he calls a lack of accountability by the board and by CEO Charles Venable.  

The comments on Facebook were largely in agreement with Watts on some, or all, of his points; roughly 30 comments in fact. Only one of them, at my last count, expresses unabashed support for Newfields.   

“I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees the “suburbanization” of what used to be the IMA,” writes Geno Smith, agreeing with the positions Watts expressed in his article.

Echoing that sentiment, 2014 Artprize-winning artist Anila Quayyum Agha writes, “To me on the few recent visits Newfields feels more like a mall than a revered institution.”

Others brought up the issue of the admission fee, which went from $0 to $18 in April, 2015.   

Jason Wagoner writes “I used to love going to that place. Shame it caters pretty much exclusively with $$$.”

Richard Anderson writes skeptically of the museum’s curatorial M.O.: “So on the rare occasion that I am there, to the point that when they have something that is ‘new,’ I always walk away asking this question: how much of the work was pulled from collectors of this artist’s work (it goes up in value when it’s been exhibited in a museum) versus how much is new work that was created for the exhibition? Unfortunately though, I don’t get to ask that question of the work very often as there aren’t many exhibits that include artists from our own community.”

But Jake Budder, responding on Twitter, says that Watts misses a lot in his commentary. "Why have top art displays when attendance is terribly low?" he asks. "Also a clear lack of understanding about branding and how the local process was to redesign Newfields, done by local firm."

One of the respondents on Facebook, Emily Udell, seemed to be wrestling with all the aforementioned issues.

Udell writes, “Thank you for putting into words all the discomfort I’ve had with the rebranding and the ‘fortification’ of the museum. I am a member who has felt myself repeatedly alienated by the cordoning off of the grounds (and how that’s enforced by staff), the changes to membership and the fees. It’s just not the friendly welcoming place it was. I also ride my bicycle to the museum a couple of times a year, and I can say with sad certainty that someone is going to die trying to access the museum in the only currently allowable route. I cannot for the life of me understand why this institution blocked off cycling and pedestrian access when everybody else in Indy started really embracing it.  It’s cruel and unfriendly and dangerous. I have questioned continuing my membership due to all this, but I am a true lover of art and I want to see the institution succeed, and I want to be a part of it, even if flawed …”

(A surprise for me is that no one commenting on Facebook mentioned Newfields' signature winter attraction Winterlights.)

Kate0317, posting her comment directly on the NUVO site, writes of her unabashed love of the institution that has meant so much in her life.

“I couldn’t just not support a place that had brought me such a sense of wonder and comfort and fascination over the years,” she writes. “It’s occurred to me that the opinions regarding Newfields are much like our opinions or perceptions of works of art — we all have them, right?  I can be deeply moved and connect to a piece of art in a way that doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else. It doesn’t need to, the feelings are my own. And someone else can reject it for their own specific reasons or thoughts, and that’s okay too. It’s how art works.”

Also responding directly on the website was Gary Reiter, who is board secretary of Riley Area Development Corporation and Board President of IndyFringe. In his long and detailed response, one of the notable details he mentions has to do with the price of admission. A detail that I suspect may not be as widely known as it should be is the availability of access pass accounts. 

"Let’s talk about the price of admission and affordability," he writes. "Families that participate in any of the state assistance programs can visit Newfields for just $2 per family member on the account per visit." 

Reiter goes on to take issue with all of Bill Watts’ points — except for one.

“I stated on Twitter that I disagree with just about everything in the Bill Watts article,” Reiter writes. “What do I agree with? Apparently, not much. But I am a bicycle commuter. I ride the Pacers Bike Share almost every day to and from work. My front door is on the Cultural Trail, and I use the Cultural Trail daily. A lot of people would know my wife and me as Coco’s owner. Therefore, I am passionate and enthusiastic about Bill’s argument that the infrastructure needs to be fixed to give access to pedestrians and bicyclists. There is still no sidewalk that leads from the old pedestrian [route] to the entrances pedestrians are now forced to use.  I join Bill and ask for the IMA to create a solution.”

Walking through the galleries

During my visit to the IMA galleries with my daughter, I had Bill Watts’ article in the back of my mind. I suppose I was trying to weigh everything, and finding myself (like Emily Udell) on the fence.

Naomi and I started our tour in the American Art Galleries. I was curious about the recent rotations there under the curatorship of associate curator of American art Kelli Morgan. 

I noticed work I hadn’t seen before as I walked in. I’m thinking of a painting titled “Dr. Kool,” an oil on canvas painting by Barkley Hendricks depicting an African American man dressed in all white, against a white background. It was not far from one of my favorite Georgia O’Keefe paintings, "Pelvis with the Distance," which radically warps the scale of the cow pelvis depicted versus the hills in the background.

It was, I thought, a cool contrast.

There were some portraits that appealed to my daughter. Chief among them “Edna Smith in a Japanese Wrap” by Robert Henri, which depicts a girl, a little older than my daughter probably, but with similar features, and with red hair.

My daughter also has red hair.

Walking through the galleries, there seemed to be a more diverse mix of artists, in terms of people depicted and the artists depicting them, in the galleries than I recall from previous visits. Or, could it be that I was paying more attention now?   

“Dolly and Rach” by John Wesley Hardrick

 “Dolly and Rack” by John Wesley Hardick

I noted a strikingly vivid painting by Hugh M. Poe of two Black characters from Booth Tarkington’s Penrod Trilogy, “Herman and Verman,” from 1924. Also notable was John Wesley Hardrick’s “Dolly and Rack” from around 1930, in which the painter depicted his two young daughters in dresses, in his impressionistic style. (Hardrick studied at Herron School of Art & Design.)

But, there was a more contemporary painting as well, on display, that was something of a shocker. 

“Knowledge of the "Past is the Key to the Future (St. Sebastian)” by Robert H. Colescott

“Knowledge of the "Past is the Key to the Future (St. Sebastian)” by Robert H. Colescott

I’m talking about “Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future (St. Sebastian)” by figurative expressionist Robert H. Colescott, dating from 1986.  It depicts the lynching of a naked figure, half white/half black, tied to a pole and shot with arrows. 

It’s a very different painting, I must say, than “The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian,” a preparatory study dating from around 1780, by Giacinto Diana, owned by the IMA, but not currently on view.

The other works that surround Colescott’s painting, including the large stained glass window “Angel of the Resurrection” by Frederick Wilson, date largely from the Gilded Age.  

I caught a bit of new wall text too, which revealed the curator’s desire to arrange the art in the galleries in a way that considers historical and political currents as seriously as aesthetics.  

That is why, it seems, we found Colescott's painting in the middle of works dating roughly from the time of Benjamin Harrison’s presidency, when many, many lynchings of Blacks took place in the American South with impunity.

The juxtapositions seemed much in line with associate curator of American art Kelli Morgan’s remarks on Friday, March 15. She was speaking at the opening of Marion-born Samuel Levi Jones exhibition, Left of Center. Morgan wanted, she said, to have a conversation about history, race, gender, and white privilege that begins in the galleries and continues in the schools, homes, streets, and shopping malls of Indianapolis.

The juxtaposition of work here is, to say the least, a conversation starter.

I wondered, as we walked through the galleries, how many other museums in other American cities were doing in terms of diversity. It seems, from a preliminary look online, that the “diversity gap” is pretty huge.

According to a recent study by Williams College focusing on 18 major U.S. museums’ collections, 85 percent of artists represented in these collections were white. 87 percent were found to be men, and almost 76 percent were white men.

So, it seems to me that any argument about the direction that Newfields is taking ought to factor these apparent strides towards diversity, which include Samuel Levi Jones’ new exhibit.  

And it seemed important that any such argument consider the African American children who have the chance to experience the shock of recognition just like my daughter did.

Writer Arts, Faith & Equity

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.

(3) comments

Dan Grossman

Hi Bill, thanks for your thoughts. This is definitely the kind of discussion we are aiming for with NUVO's transition or rebranding, as it were, as a nonprofit. I am delighted that there is a point of agreement between you and Gary Reiter. Since one of the aims of our journalism is to define and solve problems, I'm delighted that Reiter has suggested a path forward that I'm sure you agree with: suggesting a fix to what really appears to be a public safety issue: pedestrian and bike access to the Newfields campus.

As far as diversity is concerned, what impresses me most is when a museum gives space and a voice to living artists of diverse backgrounds. Certainly, this has happened under the IMA label too: Think of the Thornton Dial exhibition 'Hard Truths' in 2011, so I take your point on that score. But what's going on right now is different from anything I've seen before at the museum, and I'm interested to see what Kelli Morgan has coming next.

You bring up Silvia Filippini Fantoni, who was director of interpretation, media, and evaluation at the IMA but has since left; I think it's important to note that in her recounting of the history of the decision to charge admission -- and what she describes as the IMA's bungling of aspects of the admission fee rollout -- she ends her discussion by saying "I know this is a bit of a confusing story." She ultimately provides no answer for the question in the title of her presentation: Should Museums Charge Admission?

My hope in my reporting on this subject, and in my playing referee, as it were, in some forthcoming discussions, to make this story a little less confusing.

Dan Grossman

In my comment I should have said Fantoni provides no clear answer, but acknowledges that museums, especially those that do not receive state or federal funding, must be paid for somehow.

William Watts

You have given me and others a lot to think about, and I am grateful for that. i have long thought that there should be more public discusion in Indianapolis about all of our cultural institutions. For that reason, I am thankful that you ran my piace, and I am thankful for your reflections here.

I value diversity too, and the historical moment we are in now makes it all the more important. It seems to me, though, that diversity has long been on the agenda of the iMA. For a museum of its size, the Asian collection is strong, and I think the Eiteljorg collection of African art very good too. While I am more attuned to earlier art (I am a medievalist by profession), my impression is that the modern art collection has long made a point of including different voices.

Is the museum making greater strides toward diversity than it has in the past? Perhaps, but I would ask two questions about this.

First, is there anything inherent to the Newfields project that promotes diversity? Couldn't one imagine a more diverse museum under the old IMA umbrella?

Secondly, isn't there reason to think that the Newfields branding has made the audience of the museum more white and less diverse? When I wrote of the suburbanization of the IMA, I meant to suggest that it is appealing more directly to the sensibilities of people in Carmel, and Zionsville and Fishers. The fortified campus gives them a safe and protected place to land their vehicles while they go in to visit grounds and from which to return to their homes.

Silvia Filippini Fantoni, who was on the staff of the IMA but has since left, gave a presentation in 2016 showing that the $18 admission charge drove down overall attendance, and made the audience less diverse. I believe the museum has subsequently claimed that attendance has gone up, but I don't find their numbers very convincing, nor do I think they have evidence that they are appealing to a more representative population of the city. I have pasted in the slideshow from Fantoni's presentation below.

So, barring any evidence to the contrary, I continue to believe that we coujld have a stronger and more broadly appeling museum, and one more connected to the community around it, if we dispensed with the Newfields gimmickry.


https://www.slideshare.net/MuseumNext/to-charge-or-not-to-charge-museums-and-the-admission-dilemma-silvia-filippini-fantoni