It is May 27, 2023, nine months into Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette’s tenure, and the gallery is bustling with a noticeably more diverse crowd. There is light music, but the musicians are heavy hitters and spoken word poetry. Dr. Burnette opens the American Galleries new exhibition entitled “Work in Progress: Conversations about American Art” by stating, “Newfields is Indianapolis’s cultural institution.” Is it? A poignant question. A more sentient question: Was Newfields ready for the change they sought?
Remember Dr. Burnette was hired to clean up Newfields’ mess, created by her predecessor, Charles Venable, in 2021. In an effort to separate the duties of CEO and Museum Director, Venable intentionally advertised an ideal candidate that could incubate “a more diverse set of patrons” while “maintaining the museum’s traditional, core, white art audience.” The six-page job description left “white moderates silent,” but caused an uproar in everyone else.
The idea of transparency led to the EXACT language Venable carefully considered and used to display the museum’s wants. His words were a dog whistle to the museum’s core; they were assured in the job description that they would not be forsaken in the efforts to diversify (and they saw nothing wrong with it). It was the public that was horrified and pursued change.
The American Gallery opening night may have been a tell-tell sign of the changes Newfields wanted, but the change Newfields would not accept. To the untrained eye, the American Galleries opening night was looked to be a success. But those of us who have worked in or surrounding the bowels of white supremacy know its’ stench.
Arriving early, I asked the information desk about the opening reception and was greeted with, “We don’t know what’s going on; they don’t tell us anything.” Mulling through the exhibit, you saw “core constituents” carefully examining the Black American Artists with notepads and note cards. One piece, “Red Handed,” by Eighteen Collective Artist Kyng Rhodes, stirred surmounted attention, and right on cue, Interpretation Planner Maggie Orden states, “The exhibit may see a ‘refresher’ in October, or it may change in 18 months.” However, it was initially slated to show for three to five years. There was also a sound engineer, with an iPad in hand, lowering the volume on anything he deemed inappropriate by the poets. There was a dramatic shift in sound when Butler Professor Manon Voice said the word “Black” in a poem. Evaluating those actions and the untimely resignation makes one wonder if the Board finalized or altered Dr. Burnette’s role, duties, and power.
Newfields asked for disruption(s) but may have wanted privilege pacing.
Dr. Burnette, like Tate (Belinda Tate, the new Melvin & Bren Simon Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art) and Christian (Darrianne Christian, the new chair of the Board of Trustees), are all Black women. Brought on or voted in during Newfield’s most racially trying times to be “clean- up women” or “fixers.” Taking nothing away from their brilliance, qualifications, and wherewithal to complete the task given. One wonders who or what determines when the task is complete or what type of pushback, insubordination, or apathy each had to endure or impel to do their jobs effectively.
Now that Dr. Burnette has removed herself from the trilogy, one wonders what really happened and why. We know Dr. Burnette is qualified (overqualified) for the work; she has a successful track record instituting change. We know she can raise capital; she increased the endowment by over 55% at her last appointment. So, what was it?
I contacted Mattie Wethington, Newfields Public Relations manager, for answers. I requested the Board of Trustees meeting minutes in hopes of finding the truth. There could have been some clarity from reading what the board had to say about Dr. Burnette, possible changes to the job duties, and the changes the community has witnessed over the last 15 months. But Wethington did not respond to the request.
From a distance, this looks like corporate colonialism. Colonialism (or lynching) has never ended but morphed into new forms. When corporations hire you under the guise of one job (with said job description), then proceed to pilfer parts of the job and its power (natural resources) but suggest you keep the title. Then, subjugate you to speaking points or make you act as the face of said corporation when in trouble, it is colonialism.
Martin Luther King Jr., in his letter from the Birmingham City Jail, said, “That the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom was not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’…by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”
Is Newfields asking to go slow? Is Newfields more comfortable with the status quo rather than pursuing the demands of change? How many more Black executives must experience this type of scrutiny to do their jobs efficiently and effectively? Maybe it is time for deeper conversations.
For more news on Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette’s departure from Newfields courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, click here.