Spring is a time to enjoy the outdoors, and for this, one of the heartland’s leading cultural institutions, the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), is a destination. Even if you never enter the museum itself, it’s worth the trip.
In 2010, the IMA opened their 100 Acres: Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park. 100 Acres is characterized by the water that runs through and around it—a human-made canal and lake, and the White River, which is a tributary of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The land itself has undergone significant changes. It was cleared for agricultural use in the 1900s, and was converted to a quarry for gravel excavation decades later. The site served the construction of many of the region’s highways. The company that operated the quarry—Huber, Hunt and Nichols—donated the land to the IMA in 1972. Planning to develop the land into park space started back in the 1980s when the IMA’s Horticultural Society contracted the firm Sasaki Associates to develop a Master Plan. In 2010, the park finally opened and it now also serves as an extension of the museum as a space for contemporary art.
In 2002, Lisa Freiman, Ph.D., joined the IMA as senior curator and chair of the museum’s contemporary art department. Her primary role at that time was to oversee the renovation of the contemporary galleries and breathe new life into the collection and the contemporary art exhibition program. When the galleries reopened in 2005, space had doubled to 25,000 square feet. Freiman has since realized commissions by artists including Robert Irwin, Kay Rosen, Tony Feher, Orly Genger, Julianne Swartz, and Ghada Amer, and curated numerous exhibitions of works by international contemporary artists including Amy Cutler, Ingrid Calame, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Ernesto Neto, and Tara Donovan. Then there is Freiman’s curatorial vision for 100 Acres. In addition to raising the IMA’s profile within the contemporary art world through influential commissions and exhibitions within the walls of the museum, Freiman is blazing trails through her work with the park.
As project partners were considering how to design the 100 Acres visitor experience, they decided to explore the relationship between those things that were natural to the environment and those that were introduced. In that process, they removed all the invasive plant species, planted species native to the area, and then developed a series of pedestrian paths that the IMA calls Landscape Journeys. The Landscape Journeys wind around the marsh, lake and meadow and lead visitors to discover 10 different large-scale works of contemporary art.
100 Acres might be described as a sculpture park, but what that traditionally means is there are works of sculpture placed around the park space. What’s different about 100 Acres is that Freiman handpicked these artists to create something inspired by the site. She calls the work interventions. In a 2010 interview with artinfo.com, Freiman said she was inspired by projects like the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands, as well as by the Diane Shamash’s “Watershed” project in the Hudson River Valley. She was drawn to the idea of letting the artists engage with the site, and really giving them the freedom to do what they want to do. Freiman clearly represents a very well established encyclopedic museum, and the response from peers to her concept for the park was that it was somehow meant to be an institutional critique. When in reality she was just finding her answer to a critical question posed by Ned Rifkin, one of her advisory board members at the time, “What is a 21st-century sculpture park?”
100 Acres includes works by Kendall Buster, the Havana-based art collective Los Carpinteros, Jeppe Hein, Alfredo Jaar, Tea Mäkipää, the artist collective Type A, studio group Atelier Van Lieshout, Andrea Zittel, Mary Miss and the Swedish architecture duo visiondivision. What’s beautiful about the way people interact with the work is that those experiences are completely unique to each person.
Take Jeppe Hein’s Bench Around the Lake (2010), for example. The 15 benches positioned around the park were designed to be one bench that emerges, twists and turns, and then disappears into the ground. I found couples sitting, admiring the view of the lake. There were people taking pictures of the benches without interacting physically with them at all. There were also children who were climbing and playing, treating them like a slide or piece of playground equipment.
The same thing can be said for the piece by the Rotterdam-based multidisciplinary company and studio group, Atelier Van Lieshout. Funky Bones (2010) is made from 20 fiberglass benches. On the top of each piece, from a distance, you see evidence of black lines and shapes. It’s difficult to see exactly what all the pieces together create. So instinctually, people walk around and through the various pieces. They climb on top and jump from one to the other. Once you get more of an aerial view you see that it’s a large stylized human skeleton. These little discoveries reinforce the idea that exploring the park is a journey—through the surprises that you find along the way, you’re able engage with the site in new ways.
The piece by artist collective Type A called Team Building (Align) (2010) consists of two incredibly large metal rings, 30-feet across, suspended in the air. The rings are meant to represent the complexity of collaboration. The shadows cast by the rings become perfectly aligned during the summer solstice. What’s particularly striking about the rings is that they look at home in the clearing of trees where they hang, but at the same time the scene itself feels like something from another dimension because it’s just so unusual. It’s really fascinating.
Other works add to this sense of otherness—works like Tea Mäkipää’s Eden II (2010). Eden II consists of a large ship emerging from the 100 Acres lake. There is a guard house on the shore nearby. The museum says it’s meant to be a modern ark seemingly filled with human passengers who have been displaced by the rising sea levels caused by climate change. Peering into the guard house windows you see surveillance equipment, a coffee maker and other office supplies. There is a loud speaker that calls out to the ship. The ship itself looks somewhat ragtag, and the audio can be heard elsewhere in the park so the piece has an imposing kind of presence. It seems to mystify visitors in an interesting way.
In addition to the art that visitors can discover, the Landscape Journeys also meander back to the gorgeous Ruth Lilly Visitors Pavilion. Designed by Marlon Blackwell Architects, the museum says the Visitors Pavilion takes inspiration from the structure and geometry of a fallen, folded leaf. It beautifully emerges from the environment and provides visitors with restrooms and the opportunity to sit or take cover from any weather. Being on a floodplain, the architects had to figure out a way to elevate the structure. This required some creative engineering, but the effect is seamless when approaching the pavilion.
One of the most striking features is the large slatted sunshade that extends off the side of the pavilion. Walking underneath it offers the same experience you get walking along the path through the woods—the light naturally filters down like it does through the leaves and branches of the surrounding trees. The light feeds into the interior spaces as well through floor-to-ceiling windows, and there are meeting rooms that make the space perfect for private events or corporate retreats.
The 100 Acres experience is a beautiful one, for communion with nature, for the unique discoveries that can be experienced alone or shared with others, for the incredible artwork that can be enjoyed on so many levels. Freiman and the IMA have done an extraordinary job trying to define what the sculpture park of the 21st century should be, but it will change as the landscape itself will grow and change. The museum intends to commission a new work each year so that the park will continue to be enriched by these wonderful interventions. It’s a great asset to the Midwest and the perfect destination for that spring road trip.
Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road, Indianapolis | 317-923-1331