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Newfields president resigns amid scandal

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect Charles Venable’s resignation.

Charles Venable, CEO of Newfields, resigned from his post Feb. 17 following a job posting for the art museum which noted the desire to “maintain the museum’s traditional, core, white art audience.”

The Newfields board of trustees released a statement announcing Venable’s departure, saying:

“We thank him for his service and agree that his resignation is necessary for Newfields to become the cultural institution our community needs and deserves. Chief Financial Officer Jerry Wise will serve as the Interim President of Newfields.”

After the job posting went viral after being shared by Sarah Bahr, a local New York Times reporter, several local artists have dropped out of upcoming exhibits at the museum.

Alan Bacon and Malina Simone Jeffers, who were guest curators for the upcoming exhibit, Drip: Indy’s #BlackLivesMatter Street Mural, said they would no longer be working with Newfields and asked the museum to issue an apology.

A group of 85 Newfields employees released a letter Feb. 16 calling for Venable to step down.

“At the present time, we do not see a way forward if Dr. Charles Venable remains at the helm of our institution,” the letter reads.

Ess Mckee, one of the 18 artists who created the Black Lives Matter mural downtown, said in an Instagram post that she and the other artists stand in solidarity with the employees and their work will not be shown in the museum unless the demand is met.

“We want it known that we will continue previous plans to showcase the message of our cause at Newfields only after the aforementioned demands have been met,” Mckee wrote. “ … Once Newfields is under new leadership, and had redirected intentional and tangible efforts to make our city’s art museum accessible, enjoyable and representative of our community as a whole.”

Venable could not be reached for an interview.

Speaking to reporters at the Indianapolis Star, Venable said the wording in the job description was a misunderstanding.

“I think the fact you can read that one sentence and now reading it as a single sentence or a clause, I certainly can understand and regret that it could be taken that way,” Venable said. “It certainly was not the intent at all.”

Josiah McCruiston, a local musician, said many Black artists in Indianapolis were not surprised by Newfields’ rhetoric.

“This is not a one-time accident,” McCruiston said. “Places like [Newfields] only leeches the Black community, they don’t care about Black art, and they leave Black voices out of the conversation. … I wasn’t surprised because I know who they are.”

Representatives of the Arts Council of Indianapolis voiced their concerns in a statement Feb. 13.

“We are deeply disappointed and concerned by Newfields’ original job description for the IMA Director,” the statement published on social media, said. “The declaration of interest in maintaining their ‘traditional core, white art audience,’ served to undermine their stated value of inclusivity and desire to ‘attract a broader and more diverse audience’ made in other parts of the description. Unfortunately, we know this is not an isolated situation among our arts institutions locally or nationally. While we are working hard to make progress in racial equity and inclusion across our arts and culture sector, we are frequently reminded just how much work we have to do. We want to believe this isn’t who we are, but this is exactly where we are. And it has to change.”

This isn’t the first time the work environment at Newfields has made headlines.

In July 2020, Kelli Morgan resigned from her post as associate curator of American art. In her resignation letter, Morgan cited a “toxic” work environment, including what she described as a lack of training on implicit bias and anti-racism, and a lack of support for Black artists.

In an editorial published in the Recorder a month before her resignation, Morgan argued these problems are rampant in the arts community around the entire country.

“We know very well that art museums are some of the strongest cultural bastions of western colonization,” Morgan wrote. “Through very deliberately racist and sexist practices of acquisition, deaccession, exhibition and art historical analysis, museums have decisively produced the very state of exclusion that publicly engaged art historians and curators like me are currently working hard to dismantle.”

While McCruiston is happy Venable resigned, he doesn’t think it will change the culture of the museum.

“The CEO is just the head, and then there will be another head when he’s gone,” McCruiston said. “The poison is already in the body. You have to go down past the surface … and make communal change. You have to address the root situation before you can start picking at the fruit.”

 Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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