Commemorating Newfields’ 140th Anniversary

Dr. Catherine Pangan’s class during their visit to Newfields’ Clowes Pavilion. Photo courtesy of Catherine Pangan


This November marks Newfields’ 140th anniversary. First opened on Nov. 7, 1883, as an exhibition of 453 works by 137 artists at the English Hotel in Circle Center, Newfields has since expanded to become a campus of 152 acres filled with various collections, sculptures, gardens and exhibits from a multitude of artists. To celebrate Newfields’ accomplishments throughout the years, the “Newfields at 140: What’s Past is Prologue exhibit was opened to the Indianapolis community on Nov. 12. 

Newfields’ first exhibition was coordinated by the Art Association of Indianapolis, an organization formed by suffragette May Wright Sewall along with her husband, Theodore, and a few other passionate citizens. In 1969, the Art Association changed its name to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and soon after, moved away from its long-established home at 16th and Pennsylvania Street into their new campus at 38th Street and Michigan Road. In 2017, after years of development, the Indianapolis Museum of Art announced the unification of its entire campus, consisting of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Fairbanks Park, The Garden, Lilly House, the Elder Greenhouse and the Miller House and Garden, under the name of Newfields. 

The “Newfields at 140: What’s Past is Prologue” exhibit is a celebration of Newfields’ founding and the social influence it had, and continues to have, on the Indianapolis community. 

Throughout the exhibition, Newfields’ founder Mary Wright Sewall’s impact and feminist legacy are continuously established as focal points of the commemoration with the use of interactive memory displays, community nominations of strong women and timelines of important events within Newfields’ history. 

Anastasia Karel, the archivist and interim library director at Newfields, is one of the many people who have been involved in the year-long planning process of this anniversary exhibit — an unusually short planning process for an exhibit compared to the typical three years. 

The emphasis was initially on May Wright Sewall, who founded the Art Association in 1883,” Karel said. “But as we developed the story we realized that, you know, yes, she was the founder, but there were [also] all these other women who had a pretty big role … in the institution’s history. So they became one of the focal points. ” 

The “A Love Untold: Women’s Stories at Newfields” section of the exhibit in the Davis Lab Space highlights Sewall’s role as founder, as well as the roles of many other important women throughout the history of Newfields. 

“That room is kind of broken into [the] women and the different roles that they played at Newfields,” Karel said. “So [there are] women as leaders, women as curators, as teachers and students. Then the last section is women as doers. So [the exhibit takes you from] the 1880s all the way up through [2006] … We chose women who were always behind the scenes, [who] never really [got] credit for their contributions.” 

Following the theme of recognizing local women from all walks of life, Newfields has decided to incorporate a college night as part of its anniversary exhibit which will take place on Nov. 15. The event features a panel that will discuss the topic of women’s empowerment in the workforce and the diverse experiences of womanhood. 

Cori Robinson, a senior political science and international studies double major, is currently volunteering at Newfields as part of her “Experiencing the City: Indianapolis through Public Art, Architecture, and Performance” Indianapolis Community Requirement (ICR) class. As part of her volunteer work, she has been involved with the planning of the Newfields 140 College Night. 

“[May Wright Sewall was] an activist and an educator with a history of forward-thinking, so [Newfields is putting on] a panel with equally-involved female leaders,” Robinson said. “I’m bringing a professor from Butler, and my classmate is also bringing a professor to speak at this panel. We were told to invite a woman [who] has impacted our life in a positive way and empowered us in our endeavors.” 

May Wright Sewall was not only a renowned educator and women’s suffrage leader, but also the co-founder of several institutions and civil rights organizations. Some of these included the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society, the International Council of Women in 1888, and the Indianapolis Classical School for Girls; a historic establishment that would become a precedent for future women empowerment. 

“At the time that Newfields was founded, I don’t think it was very common for women to be business owners, 140 years ago, so [May Wright Sewall] made a pretty big impact then,” Robinson said. “She’s still making a pretty big impact now with the message that Newfields conveys. I think [Newfields is] showcasing a lot of activism, especially with their exhibit [featuring] local black artists that have made an impact [through their] activism … I think that honoring [the history of] activism is also a way of honoring [Newfields’ origins].” 

The exhibit expands throughout Newfields as a way to get visitors to explore Newfields’ history and collections on their own, thus forming a personal Newfields experience. The exhibit contains several interactive displays such as a digital community memory board and a “Choose Your May” program in which people can nominate the important women in their own lives to be honored in the spring and summer of 2024. Through these interactions, the exhibit attempts to get the Indianapolis community involved in the continuation of Newfields’ history. 

Dr. Catherine Pangan, a professor in the College of Education, is a frequent guest at Newfields and even uses museum exhibits as part of her class curriculum. One aspect of Newfields Pangan has her students explore is the showcasing of different artistic viewpoints and how they compare with historical truth. 

“[May Wright Sewall] developed the Propylaeum on Delaware and people thought it was an exclusive tea room for wealthy white women, but actually it was for gathering women to talk about women’s suffrage movements,” Pangan said. “So when the men at the time saw tea, they didn’t want to engage, but she would gather all these women and talk about how to get the vote out.” 

In addition to addressing gender inequality throughout history, Pangan believes that Newfields has been succeeding at tackling inaccessibility and promoting inclusivity of all sorts. 

“[Through their exhibits, Newfields is] bringing in lots of different voices [and] a lot of technology and futuristic art in ways that [get] people [of all ages to] engage,” Pangan said. “And they’re also working to make things a lot more accessible for people with disabilities … It’s been a lot more inclusive [for] people of all backgrounds … to engage with art.” 

The “Newfields at 140: What’s Past is Prologue” exhibit is set to take place through June 2, 2024. As a reminder, Butler students get free student memberships to Newfields with discounts in the shop and other special Newfields events. Make sure to sign up and celebrate Newfields’ historical anniversary.


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