0
Social Alchemy: Utopia in Indiana

Social Alchemy: Utopia in Indiana

We’re fascinated by people who strive for utopia and by intentional communities: Past, present, and future. Our overarching goal for the Cruft Street Commons project in Garfield Park is to develop an arts-focused, socially cohesive block. And a key inspiration is the southwestern Indiana town, New Harmony — location of multiple and varied utopian experiments.

The site of Missipiean Indian burial mounds and two utopian experiments in the 1800s, New Harmony had a huge cultural and political influence not just on Indiana but the nation. First built by German religious separatists led by pastor and alchemist George Rapp in 1814, this tidy town was the home of the hard-working (and celibate) Harmonist Society until they sold it in 1825 to Welsh industrialist and social reformer, Robert Owen.

The Harmonists moved back to Pennsylvania and Owen launched an experiment into a secular, rationalist utopia that allowed its citizens many choices and freedoms — including how much they wanted to work. Turns out most didn’t want to work at all. Two years later, the experiment failed. But the community — under Rapp and Owen alike — made many important contributions to American society. Its prominent citizens during the Owen days included his sons: Robert Dale Owen, a congressman for Indiana who sponsored legislation to create the Smithsonian Institution and Richard Owen, Indiana state geologist, Indiana University professor, and the first president of Purdue University.

Hoosier writer Marguerite Young (pictured above in New Harmony) teased out the magic of New Harmony in her experimental 1945 novel, Angel in the Forest. And, in the 1940s-80s, town leader Jane Blaffer Owen — linked by marriage to the Robert Owen family — envisioned New Harmony’s built environment as a mix of historic Hoosier and ultra modern buildings. And she brought world-renowned artists and architects and their work to town for its “Third Experiment.”

Today, New Harmony brims with art, history, architecture, and a strong sense of place. The impact of past and current efforts within this community have created a town that continues to represent the universal human condition. If Indianapolis is the head of the body of Indiana, New Harmony is its soul.

What can we in urban Indianapolis learn from rural New Harmony’s social alchemy? Tons. With support of Indiana Humanities and the Efroymson Family fund and our partners — The University of Southern Indiana, Indiana State Museum, Historic New Harmony, Workingmen’s Institute, and lots of individuals –– we will explore, learn and share how the pursuit of utopia forms places and pursuits.

OUR PROGRAM

This idea started with visits by Big Car/Tube Factory curator, Shauta Marsh, and artist and writer Jim Walker, to New Harmony over the past several years and conversations with artist, writer, and philanthropist Jeremy Efroymson — who lives, part-time, in New Harmony — and New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art director Garry Holstein.

What we’re doing:

• An interdisciplinary exhibition at the New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art focused on New Harmony’s visionary civic leader and preservationist Jane Owen (1915–2010).

• An exhibition at the Tube Factory about the history and art of New Harmony (designed to travel), with emphasis on Angel in the Forest and visual interpretations of this lyrical text.

• A film series of documentaries (At Home in Utopia, 2008; The Last Angel

In History, 1996) and feature films (Afronauts, 2014) related to placemaking experiments.

• Community meals, one in New Harmony and one in Garfield Park.

• A two-day symposium in October 2020 in New Harmony to include philosophers, writers, historians, designers, architects, placemakers, urban and rural city planners, politicians, and community organizers.

• Two Tube Factory exhibitions by Native American artists Elisa Harkins (in 2021) and Wendy Red Star (in 2022): both creative responses to their peoples’ forced dystopias, with ideas for cultural renewal.

THE IMPACT

This project explores historical and contemporary examples of utopian experiments, fictional utopias and dystopias, and social design projects. It offers a deeper understanding of the relationship between the built environment and social good.

QUICK HISTORY 

New Harmony Pop. 763 (as of 2017)

THE MISSISSIPPIANS: From 1100 to 1450, the Mississippian Indians maintained a complex, productive community, including earthen mounds built for ceremonial and cosmological purposes.

THE RAPPITES: German farmer George Rapp and 400 followers arrived in New Harmony in 1815, creating a community based on productivity, worker-owned industries, and shared resources.

THE OWENITES: The Rappites sold the land in 1825 to Robert Owen, a Welsh socialist. At its height, 1,000 Owenites were part of a “Village of Unity and Mutual Cooperation” prioritizing worker rights, scientific research, and artistic expression.

JANE BLAFFER OWEN: For nearly seven decades, Jane Blaffer Owen was the driving force behind the restoration and revitalization of the town of New Harmony, Indiana. Owen had a vision for the town, bringing in and commissioning renowned architects, visual artists, musicians, and writers. Her time there is often referred to as the town’s “third utopia.”

WHO WAS MARGUERITE YOUNG?

A book that has shaped our thinking for this project is Indiana-born Marguerite Young’s (1908-1995) Angel in the Forest: A Fairy Tale of Two Utopias (1944). It’s a non-fiction work with a surrealist style: a lyrical, magical take on the New Harmony true-life fable. Born in Indianapolis, Young studied at Butler University and taught Kurt Vonnegut at Shortridge High School before joining New York’s Greenwich Village literary scene in the mid-1940s. Some believed her work was every bit as groundbreaking and masterful as James Joyce’s. Young once said, ‘I believe all my work explores the human desire or obsession for utopia, and the structure of all my works is the search for utopias lost and rediscovered. But the beauty of it is that you nevertheless go on, walking towards utopia, which may not exist, on a bridge which might end before you reach the other side.”

Project Partners

UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN INDIANA: As the administrator of both Historic New Harmony and the New Harmony Gallery, USI is encouraging staff, professors, and students to participate in the project.

HISTORIC NEW HARMONY: HNH will host programs, help to develop the exhibitions, and help travel the New Harmony exhibition about after its Indianapolis debut.

NEW HARMONY GALLERY OF CONTEMPORARY ART: Gallery Director Garry Holstein is our main partner on the ground in New Harmony, and the gallery will host the Jane Owen exhibition.

WORKING MEN’S INSTITUTE: This library/museum will help with historical research and lend artifacts for exhibitions

INDIANA STATE MUSEUM: The museum will be assisting with research, and help with didactics.

1