Winterlights At Newfields

A floating French “garden” of lights, a crystal grove of trees, hot chocolate spiked with peppermint schnapps: A new Indy holiday tradition is born this month at Newfields.
Christmas decorations go up earlier every year, but the Indianapolis Museum of Art—excuse us, Newfields—has most of us beat. For Winterlights, its new holiday experience that runs through January 7, workers began dangling strands the first week of September. They had to: Winterlights features more than 1.2 million bulbs across The Garden at Newfields, all arranged to conjure a frosted forest in the woods behind the museum, a twinkling French garden in the lawn of Lilly House—and, the museum hopes, a new city tradition. “This is an exhibition,” says IMA deputy director of horticulture Jonathan Wright. “We’re treating this the way we’d treat Matisse.” Well, maybe with more marshmallows.

Newfields has done its homework. Staffers spent years touring botanical havens such as the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Liseberg Park in Sweden, and Longwood Gardens outside Philadelphia, where Wright studied. “They’ve been doing a Christmas light show for going on 30 years,” he says. “When they started, winter was their slowest time. Now they get a third of their visitation for the entire year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.” The goal here is the same: Get people to the museum when it’s cold outside.

Know the nitty-gritty. Winterlights runs Tuesdays through Sundays (even on Christmas and New Year’s Day) and is a ticketed event, with walk-throughs starting at 5 and 7 p.m. There’s a 20 percent discount if you buy advance tickets.

Santa’s there on Tuesdays. Just in case, hypothetically, you need to convince anyone to be good.

Lights started to hang in September, but the underlying infrastructure got going last summer. “This was a historic garden that was built in the teens, ’20s and ’30s, so we didn’t have power to run any of this,” says Wright. “That was the No. 1 need. If you’re going to light an 80-foot tree, you need a lot of power.” Workers discreetly bored electrical lines underground to avoid tearing up gardens. And you won’t see giant generators or fat orange power cords, either—that stuff is inside the museum.

The lights are all programmed from a probably-not-that-festive command center in the museum. Newfields is using fancy RGBW lights, which can shine in any color and be manipulated remotely.

The famous 50-foot tree of toys is moving to a new spot. The stroll there includes a festive buffet of hot chocolate (spiked with peppermint schnapps, for extra warmth, of course), cider, a special Newfields beer from Taxman Brewing Company, cookies, and s’mores.

The walk begins at the museum’s lobby, where a “crystal grove” of 10-foot Christmas trees hovers above you. Glance up—the bases are decorated as reflections of the faux trees above, with glittering chandeliers, ornaments, and lights hanging below. Wright initially hoped to install Fraser firs, but it turns out the idea of lit Christmas trees in a museum full of art met some resistance.

Newfields is prepared for any Clark Griswold–style moments. If the lights don’t work? “We bring the lift out and we go back up,” says Wright. Many lights are outfitted with locking rubber gaskets to keep out the rain and snow; others are slathered in an electrical grease to repel water and prevent infuriating dead strands.

Winterlights is a pillar of the IMA’s vision for the future. It represents Newfields’s pivot to a focus on experiences and events—and, with a $2 million price tag over three years, it’s a heavy dice-roll to join the Zoo, Circle of Lights, and the Speedway as one of Indy’s marquee seasonal outings. “We’re not trying to compete,” says Wright. “But we do want to be part of the city’s holiday tradition.”