In its own kind of masterpiece, sunlight filters through hops plants climbing along the trellis.
Light plays off of the effervescence of a pint of beer. Flavors of salty grilled pretzels dance with spicy Bavarian mustard. The cacophony of acoustic music and conversation melds with the birds, bugs and other natural sounds of the summertime.
“This will serve as almost an exhibition for the museum, where we’re curating food and beverage experiences. For me, this is my way to answer the question, ‘What does a museum do with culinary art and food culture?'” said Josh Ratliff, director of hospitality for the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Consuming art will take on a whole new meaning this summer at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, if Ratliff has any say in it. That starts with a newly created beer garden, one of five new gardens created on the museum grounds as part of the “Spring Blooms: Celebrations of Color” feature starting March 31.
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“I want to be the best at what I can be the best at. That little space can be one of the best outdoor food-and-beverage experiences I can think of, just because of the breadth and beauty around you,” Ratliff said.
“Spring Blooms: Celebration of Color” will feature more than 250,000 blooms throughout the spring, featuring tulip, daffodils, hyacinths, irises and pansies. In addition, the gardens will spotlight rare flowers such as the Himalayan blue poppy, which were started from seed in Alaska for the museum.
A new path has been created to connect guests through the new and old gardens around the museum. The horticultural staff and volunteers helped shape the new and old natural spaces to make for a more brilliant spring.
“The whole idea of ‘Spring Blooms’ as an experience is to stroll or walk through the gardens,” said Stephanie Perry, spokesperson for the Indianapolis Museum of Art. “You’ll be weaving back in these gardens where people don’t normally go. We have all of these gardens back here that people don’t normally know about. It’ll be a great way to experience the gardens in a new way.”
The beer garden is Ratliff’s creation, though.
The Columbus resident came to the museum to be the director of hospitality, essentially handling all of the food, beverages and guest services events hosted at the institution.
He moved from a similar position in corporate hospitality with Cummins. Prior to that, he had been immersed in restaurant operation and fine dining for most of his adult life.
As one of Indiana’s few certified sommeliers, he has always been interested in how people approach food and wine.
When one of the vice presidents at Cummins asked Ratliff to spearhead a dining event for the the senior leadership of the museum’s board, he became more involved with the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
After serving as a volunteer with the museum’s event planning, Ratliff was offered a permanent position by museum director and CEO Charles Venable.
“There’s the possibility of building something. I loved that idea,” Ratliff said. “I’ve always wanted to open a restaurant and have creative control over something like that, and there’s going to be an enormous amount of new things here in the next three years.”
Most of the plans for future food and beverage events at the museum are still being developed. But looking at a place to start, Ratliff gravitated towards a beer garden.
“We don’t know what form these ideas about culinary art can take. But we want to have everyone over for a beer first to figure it out, see what they want,” Ratliff said.
Such a gathering place would simple to establish: find a good location, create the proper atmosphere and offer a few different options for beverages.
Plus, it felt like the right place to introduce Ratliff’s work to the community.
“I’m new to Indianapolis. Being a good neighbor, the first thing you do is have a beer on the back porch with your new neighbors and say hi. Our back porch is 150 acres of gardens, so sharing a brewed beverage with Indy is something I really like the idea of,” he said.
The new beer garden has been constructed outside the existing Elder Greenhouse. People will come into the greenhouse to order their beverage, then take a seat out underneath the cedar pergola to wait to be served.
Slatted tables that were formerly used to store plants have been raised up to create long, communal tables. Cascade hops have been planted and will bloom throughout the season, and Edison lights are strung overhead.
Guests will have to take about a four-minute walk to get to the location, giving the beer garden an air of the unknown as you’re approaching it for the first time.
“It’s out there. There’s this sense that you found something when you get out there. People like being able to discover something, and rewarding people for finding it,” Ratliff said.
A special menu has been planned for the garden. Sun King Brewery has created a unique brew called Among the Leaves, a farmhouse ale with a hazy color and a light, crisp taste. The beer will only be available at the museum.
Root beer brewed by Triton Brewery will serve as a locally made non-alcoholic option. A Riesling wine will also be on tap. Beverages can be enjoyed in the beer garden, or taken to go so that people can take in the rest of the museum’s grounds.
“There’s a growing trend of wines on tap. I love it because it removes the pretension of wine. There’s a lot of anxiety about picking a wine in bottles,” Ratliff said. “I’m obsessed with this idea of Hoosiers coming together to ask, ‘What’s on tap?'”
Other beers and non-alcoholic options will also be available. Tables can share pots of tea or coffee by way of a pour-over method. Part of the theme Ratliff wanted to convey was the sense of community that comes from “drinking from the same vessel,” he said.
“I like this idea of sharing in it together,” he said.
To play off of the different beverage options, pretzels from local company Pat’s Philly Pretzel will be served on recycled slate plates, accompanied with dollops of specially made mustard and beer cheese.
Before “Spring Blooms” closes at the end of May, the beer garden will host live music for featured special events, and game nights will be held every Friday in May.
The hope is to take advantage of the museum’s well-manicured grounds to attract new people.
“Everyone thinks of a museum as cold, old and boring. If you’ve been to (the IMA), that’s not true. Everything is activated. But we want to keep combating that image more,” Ratliff said.
Besides its new beer garden, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Ave., will unveil a series of new exhibitions starting March 31.
Here is a breakdown of what is going on:
“Spring Blooms: Celebration of Color”
What: A new living display of 250,000 blooms planted around the museum’s outdoor grounds
When: April 1 through May 31
Where: Oldfields-Lilly House and gardens
What: A specially created outdoor space where guests can get specially brewed beer, wine on tap and local root beer.
When: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday March 31 to May 31
Where: Outside the Elder Greenhouse
“Paula McCartney: Birdwatching”
What: An exhibition of 18 prints from artist Paula McCartney, in which she photographed real landscapes with fake craft-store birds set up as if to look natural.
When: March 31 to Oct. 8
Where: McCormack Forefront Galleries
“Audubon: Drawn to Nature”
What: A collection of lifelike drawings of North American birds from John James Audubon, the famed naturalist and ornithologist.
When: April 1 to July 30
Where: Clowes Special Exhibition Gallery
Museum and garden hours will be 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday
All exhibitions will be included in museum admission, which is $18 for adults, $10 for children ages 6 to 17 and free for kids 5 and under.