A History of the Park

Construction of the Ruth Lilly Visitors Pavilion. Click to enlarge.

The IMA’s The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: 100 Acres comprises an expanse of land and water that has been uniquely shaped by both natural and man-made changes in the environment. The physical terrain of the Park is notable for its variety - woodlands, wetlands, a meadow, lake, river, and canal.

Situated in a floodplain that is defined by the distinctive curve of the White River on one side and the straight form of the man-made canal on the other, its landscape is shaped by the dynamic character of the water that runs through it. As a floodplain, it is a place of constant change, as the lake rises and falls through the seasons, in accord with the river’s flow. As a tributary of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the White River is part of the nation’s largest watershed, which stretches all the way from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

The landscape of the Park has undergone significant changes in the last century. In the early 1900s, this land was cleared for agricultural use and was used by farmers for cultivation of crops and pasture through the 1940s. Later the site became a quarry and gravel was excavated for use in the construction of the nearby interstate highway. The lake was created as a result of the mining excavations. After the completion of the highway, the land was abandoned and nature slowly reclaimed it, turning cleared fields into a woodland. The landscape of 100 Acres is thus distinctive in reflecting the give and take between natural and man-made interventions.

The 1970s were marked by a reawakening of interest in the value of parks and parkways to the quality of life in Indianapolis. In 1972, as part of that trend, 96 acres of White River floodplain were given to the Museum by the firm Huber, Hunt and Nichols, which had operated the quarry there. In the mid-1980s, the IMA’s Horticultural Society initiated the creation of a master plan for the landscape of the Museum campus, created by Sasaki Associates. While the land and gardens immediately adjoining the main Museum building and Lilly House were the initial focus of development, in 1996 the IMA’s strategic plan called for a sculpture park, which would capitalize on the expanse of land that had not yet been fully utilized by the Museum up to that point. This paralleled the development of the city’s greenways plan, and the IMA joined with Indy Parks Greenways and the Indianapolis Water Company to form a partnership to develop a nature trail and an art and nature park.

Atelier Van Lieshout, Funky Bones, 2010. Click to enlarge.

In reconceiving the vision of the park, the future The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: 100 Acres, the Museum sought to find a way to not only offer residents of the city a space in the urban landscape where they could experience the pleasure of being immersed in nature and art, but to also offer a new paradigm for what an art and nature park could be. While there are many outdoor art parks worldwide that have sprung up over the past several decades, they typically focus on inserting large-scale sculptures into a cultivated landscape. For the Park at the IMA, the untamed landscape itself would be a primary focus of the visitor’s experience. To this end, landscape architect Edward L. Blake Jr., founding principal of The Landscape Studio in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, was brought in to carve out pathways that would allow visitors to explore the variety of natural beauty that could be found there. Architect Marlon Blackwell’s visitor center offers a unique experience of the Park as well, with its architecture embracing the environment around it in unique ways. With its environmentally responsible LEED-certified design, it also serves as a model of thoughtful building practices.

Nature has long provided inspiration to artists, and the natural environment is a refuge and space for discovery, relaxation, and inspiration for many people as a part of everyday experience. In the unique way that it brings together art and nature, the Park is meant to provoke a visceral, sensory response. It provides a space for looking at art and also for experiencing it in relation to the distinctive environment in which it is inextricably enmeshed.


Betsy Dustman, Bren and Mel Simon, Dan and Kate Appel, Edgar and Dorothy Fehnel, Elizabeth McLain, Friends of Bret Waller, IMA Horticultural Society, Jack and Susanne Sogard, Juanita Smith, Melvin and Bren Simon Charitable Foundation Number One, Meredith Hull, Michelle and Perry Griffith, Mr. Frank C. Springer Jr., Mrs. Jane H. Fortune, Mrs. Jeannette E. Winters, Mrs. Macy G. Simmons, Mrs. Ruth Lilly, Myrta Pulliam, Nancy C. and James W. Smith, Nicholas Georgakopoulos, Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, Sandra Hardee, The Indianapolis Foundation, a CICF Affiliate, The Pulliam Family, W.C. Griffith Foundation Trust.