November 19, 2023

Newfields faces pressure as protestors, Black community groups demand details on CEO departure


A protest outside Newfields Sunday afternoon swelled calls for transparency and criticism from the community. - WFYI/Jill Sheridan

A protest outside Newfields Sunday afternoon swelled calls for transparency and criticism from the community.

WFYI/Jill Sheridan

Pressure mounted on Newfields Sunday as protestors and more than a dozen Black community groups demanded transparency after the art museum announced earlier this month that its President and CEO Colette Burnette, “will depart.”

Sunday was the opening of Newfields Winterlights, the museum’s popular outdoor holiday light display. But those attending, saw dozens of protestors outside the doors of the museum.

The crowd chanted “Hey, hey, ho, ho. Tell us why you made her go.”

Wildstyle Paschall, artist and community advocate, said Burnette had just started the important work of building bridges.

“[She was] very involved in the community, having real discussions, making real change at Newfields, which is something we’d never seen before,” Paschall said.

At the time of this publication, Newfields has not given a reason for Burnette’s departure.

Mary Huebner is a docent at the museum. She said she was excited about the future of the museum under Burnette’s leadership. With the abrupt change, she thinks an explanation is due. 

“It would help,” Huebner said.

Burnette is not the only leader to depart. Recently, three Newfields board members also exited the organization. Board member Adrienne Sims resigned on Nov. 17. Otto Frenzel IV, a four-year board member, resigned a month ago, and Gary Hirschberg, a five-year board member, resigned as Burnette stepped away.

Burnette left just 15 months into the job. She replaced the former Newfields CEO Charles Venable. He resigned after public outcry over a job post that sought to maintain the organization's "traditional, core, white art audience" while increasing the diversity of Newfields visitors. 

On the same night as the protest, the African American Coalition of Indianapolis and 18 other Black organizations signed on to the call for transparency. The coalition said it has "profound concern" and seeks clarity" on Pierce Burnette's departure from Newfields.

"It is incumbent upon Newfields’ Board of Trustees to not only reflect on the implications of the decision but to also undertake concrete actions that rebuild trust with the Black community—a trust that currently stands fractured," the letter reads.

The Indianapolis Liberation Center helped organize Sunday night’s protest, which brought out about 50 people. Librarian and activist Stephen Lane spoke at the gathering. Lane joined the Indianapolis Public Library Board after accusations of racism resulted in leadership changes

“We fight together, it’s not always what the boards want, it’s not always what that tiny minority of individuals that make up these boards for our education and cultural institutions [want],” said Lane. “It’s about what we want.”

In an email obtained by WFYI reporting partner the Indianapolis Recorder, former board member Adrienne Sims said she hopes future HR decisions will be more inclusive and respectful.

“As a seasoned HR executive, I believe in the importance of strong HR practices, collaborative decision-making and adherence to proper governance procedures for the well-being of the organization. Recent leadership decisions were not made in an inclusive and consultative manner, which has been disheartening,” she said.

Last week two Indianapolis organizations called for greater transparency about Burnette’s departure. The Indiana Black Expo and the Indianapolis Urban League issued a statement Thursday about the “negative perceptions” attached to Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette’s exit from the art museum. The most recent call from local organizations said the move sets the museum back. 

“The situation compels us to consider if the outcome would have been different had the racial dynamics at play been otherwise. These questions are not just conjecture; they stem from a discernible pattern in Indianapolis where Black professionals seldom see long tenures in executive roles. This trend contradicts our collective mission for a thriving African American community represented robustly at every leadership level,” the release said.

The Newfields Board appointed Michael Kubacki, a former trustee and outgoing chair of Lake City Bank, as interim President and CEO of Newfields.

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