Grounds crews carefully attached light strands to still-leaved trees around the gardens of Newfields, the home of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
On a sunny autumn day, it was difficult at first to imagine the glow of countless tiny bulbs. But with plans for specially curated sound effects, professionally designed displays and choreographed lights that dance and shift, it will be easy to get into that holiday spirit.
“We want you to be totally immersed in light,” said Jonathan Wright, the Ruth Lilly Deputy Director for Horticulture and Natural Resources at Newfields. “I want people to see this garden in a different way. This is one of the great gardens in North America. I don’t want you just drive through here; I want you to be in it.”
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Central Indiana’s newest cultural holiday attraction aims to immerse people in light. Winterlights will feature more than 1 million bulbs, transforming the grounds of Newfields.
In keeping with the institution’s artistic mission, the displays have been curated with music, visual effects and other surprises to create an experience beyond traditional Christmas light.
“You’re surrounded by light. It’s not just people throwing lights on trees; this was choreographed and really curated so that we’re highlighting what makes this garden special,” Wright said.
Starting Nov. 19, Winterlights shows will be offered at 5 and 7 p.m. every day except Mondays. Offering two different blocks to see the display will help control crowds and ensure that people are given the full experience, said Mattie Lindner, communications coordinator for Newfields.
“We expect the early show to be more family-oriented, with people bringing their kids out before they need to go to bed, then the later one will be for date night, that sort of thing,” she said.
Part of the effort to rebrand the campus of the Indianapolis Museum of Art into Newfields, officials have placed added emphasis on immersive experiences.
New features this year have included the planting of more than 250,000 tulips for the Spring Blooms exhibition, as well as the creation of a beer garden with curated food and beverage options that drew thousands of guests this spring, summer and fall.
Winterlights takes that concept to a more extreme level, Wright said.
“We thought about how do we shape that perception really quickly. An exhibition outside, at night — who thinks about that at an art museum?” he said.
Wright has planned the experience as an Indiana spin on some of the most famous holiday botanical displays in the world. He was hired to the Indianapolis Museum of Art about one year ago with the mission to transform the beautiful gardens that make it such an unique attraction.
“I really wanted to help the institution change the way people think of us, and broaden our institution to a wider audience, so that people think of us not just as an art museum, but with amazing gardens and an art and nature park, this place that has this breadth of experiences that are pretty rare in the world to have all in one place,” he said.
The Winterlights project is one museum leadership has been working on for two years.
Wright and his team traveled to some of the world’s most well-known holiday garden displays, including the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania and Liseberg Park in Sweden.
To goal was to see what worked at these attractions, as well as what could be adapted in Indianapolis for their own display.
One of the biggest things Wright noticed was that as people waited to get into the gardens, they were forced to stand outside in the cold weather.
“We tried to learn from all these great institutions that do these shows, but bring a Hoosier spin to it,” he said. “At a lot of these places, the worst part is standing outside in freezing December weather waiting to get in.”
Newfields planners decided to use its unique campus to its advantage. The experience will start inside the museum, where people will be greeted by the Crystal Grove.
Six 8-foot-tall evergreen trees, fully decorated in silver and red, hang from the towering ceiling. Crystal accents will then extend from the base of the trees while people walk underneath.
“We wanted it to be cozy right up front — very warm, with red and green and traditional colors. But then we want to highlight what’s special and unique here,” Wright said. “You go to a holiday show, you expect a tree. You don’t expect six of them to float magically overhead.”
The display itself was meticulously outlined by Tres Fromme and his company 3Fromme Designs. Fromme was the designer for Longwood Gardens and designed the holiday illuminations for Atlanta Botanical Garden and Cheekwood Estate and Gardens in Nashville, Tennessee.
Touring the Newfields grounds, he found inspiration in the scrolled ironwork featured in the iconic Woodstock bridge in the garden. Fromme worked that design into the entrance portal into the Winterlights display, as well as in hand-made snowflake decorations forming a canopy as people walk into the lights.
One of the central ideas behind the design was to incorporate the garden’s most unique aspects and transform it with light, Wright said.
Lights have been expertly wrapped around trunk and branches of old-growth trees, including American hornbeam trees, dawn redwoods and oaks. “Playtime in Indy,” the wildly colored 50-foot-tall tree of toys created by artist Karl Unnasch, will be set up in a new location surrounded by giant Whimsy Trees, lit in magenta, red, blue and other bright colors.
“Everything is zoned into different themed areas, so we can take advantage of the breadth of this beautiful garden. There are areas that are old-fashioned and iconic and historic, so we’re bringing that to life,” Wright said.
The centerpiece of the Newfields gardens is the stately Lilly House, with its wide open allée creating a breathtaking visual corridor. Winterlights designers have taken advantage of that, creating a French topiary garden out of light structures, all set to dance to the music of “The Nutcrackers.”
More than 300,000 lights have been strung on almost 500 custom-made metal racks. The entire choreographed show lasts 15 minutes, though people can walk around it while it’s going. The Lilly House itself will also be open, decorated in different floral arrangements and historic decor.
To go with the light show, guests can stop along the way to warm themselves by fire pits. They can sip on a cup of hot chocolate or cider, or even try Taxman Brewing Co.’s specially created Newfields beer.
Area Girl Scouts will be selling kits of s’more ingredients, so people can make their own around one of the fire pits.
“The whole idea is that this is something you do with friends and family. You don’t just come to see some lights,” Wright said. “What we want to do is create this multi-sensory tradition that you feel as comfortable going on a date at as you would bringing grandma and the kids. We want everyone to feel welcome and have a great time.”
What: A curated light experience created in the gardens and grounds of Newfields, the home of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Where: 4000 Michigan Ave., Indianapolis
When: Shows will be available at 5 and 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday from Nov. 19 to Jan. 7, including Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Tickets: $20 for adults, $12 for children ages 6 to 17, free for kids 5 and under. Member prices are $15 for adults and $8 for children. A 20 percent discount is offered for buying online.
Winterlights is the newest holiday experience at area cultural institutions, but the traditional attractions will also be available throughout the season. Here’s what’s coming up to get you in the spirit.
Christmas at the Zoo
Where: Indianapolis Zoo, 1200 W. Washington St.
What: Holiday lights and animal-themed surprises, including seals, sea lions, walrus, tigers, red panda and brown bears.
When: Nov. 24-26 and 29-30; Dec. 1-3, 6-10, 13-23 and 26-30.
Times: 5 to 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 5 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Cost: Included with zoo admission, which varies depending on day, from $9.95 to $14.45 for adults, and $7.70 to $10.95 for children.
Where: Eiteljorg Museum, 500 W. Washington St., Indianapolis
What: Nine model trains crisscross miniature landscapes that recreate downtown Indianapolis and the landmarks of the West, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore.
When: Nov. 19 to Jan. 15
Times: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday
Cost: Included with museum admission, $13 for adults, $11 for seniors, $7 for children ages 5 to 17, free for kids 4 and under
Where: Indiana State Museum, 650 W. Washington St., Indianapolis
What: The museum turns into a holiday wonderland, with Santa and Mrs. Claus seeing children, the sounds of bands, bell and vocal choirs and rides on the Santa Claus Express.
When: Nov. 24 through Jan. 7
Times: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $14.95 for adults, $13.95 for seniors age 60 and up, $12.95 for Indiana college or university students, $9.95 for children ages 3 to 17, free for kids under 3.
Lights at the Brickyard
Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 4790 W. 16th St.
What: More than 2 miles and 2.5 million lights are included in this driving tour of the speedway grounds.
When: Nov. 17 to Dec. 30
Times: 6 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 6 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Cost: Automobiles $25 Monday through Wednesday, $30 Thursday through Sunday; passenger vehicles, 15 people or more, $50. Speedy passes are also available to purchase online.