Community leaders respond to Newfields: What comes next?

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A protest outside Newfields Sunday afternoon swelled calls for transparency and criticism from the community. (Photo provided/Jill Sheridan via WFYI)

In the wake of Newfields’ former CEO and three board members resigning from the institution, community leaders are speaking out and demanding answers.

On Nov. 10, Newfields — formerly known as the Indianapolis Museum of Art — announced its CEO Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette had departed. The institution did not provide reasoning for Burnette’s sudden departure but stated Michael Kubacki would take over as Interim President and CEO.

“We thank Dr. Burnette for her service to Newfields,” Darrianne Christian, chair of Newfields’ board of trustees, said in the statement. “She helped deepen our relationships with the community and championed the transformative powers of art and nature. We are grateful for her work on behalf of Newfields and wish her well in her future endeavors.”

The news came as a shock to the community, as Burnette only held the position for 15 months. Burnette’s path to Newfields was unusual, as the former president of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, she said she applied for the position without knowledge of Newfields’ history and the controversy surrounding the racist job posting, which indicated the museum’s preference to “maintain a traditional, core white art audience.”

Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette and Walter Lobyn Hamilton at the Installation view of Walter Lobyn Hamilton "What I Have You Have" in The Gerald and Dorit Paul Galleries, which runs from Aug. 26, 2023–May 19, 2024.
Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette and Walter Lobyn Hamilton at the Installation view of Walter Lobyn Hamilton “What I Have You Have” in The Gerald and Dorit Paul Galleries, which runs from Aug. 26, 2023–May 19, 2024. (Photo provided/Newfields)

However, in an interview with Burnette in October 2022, she told the Recorder the controversy made her want the job even more and “showed me that there’s an opportunity for me to become a part of a template … of like a renaissance moment of really affecting change in the positive.”

Board members resign

Prior to the announcement, board members Otto Frenzel IV and Gary Hirschberg, resigned. A third board member, Adrienne Sims, announced her resignation on Nov. 17.

“Recent leadership decisions were not made in an inclusive and consultative manner, which has been disheartening,” Sims wrote in an email obtained by the Recorder. “I hope that in the future, decisions of this nature will be approached with integrity and demonstrate a commitment to diversity, inclusion and respect for all.”

Community response

The community was quick to respond to the news, and the Indiana Black Expo (IBE) and the Indianapolis Urban League (IUL) released a joint statement on Nov. 16. The statement expressed that during her tenure, Burnette had generated excitement around her leadership of the institution and “opened the Newfields doors to many African American organizations and the entire community.”

Now, Indiana Black Expo and Indianapolis Urban League announced they are halting their partnerships with the institution.

“Due to the nature of the announcement and the negative perception it has created, the Newfields board leadership owes the community an explanation about the resignation of Dr. Colette Burnette,” IBE and IUL said in the statement. “When a stellar executive ‘abruptly resigns’, one must wonder again, are we seriously committed to Black talent recruitment and retention in Indiana?”

A following statement released by the African American Coalition of Indianapolis (AACI), and signed by 18 local Black organizations, was released on Nov. 19. This statement raised concerns over lack of transparency and sudden changes in leadership.

D. Del Reverda-Jennings, local artist and curator of FLAVA FRESH !, told the Recorder in an email that questions are circulating in the community surrounding the true nature of Burnette’s departure. 

“People in the community are deeply perturbed due to the intentional disrespect that the museum has shown to area artists of color as well as community members for decades,” Del Reverda-Jennings said. “The visceral feeling that results from what has happened is a natural reaction to years of disregard and irreverence.”

Del Reverda-Jennings stated the news “smells fishy,” considering how diligently Burnette worked to open the doors of Newfields to artists of color, supported local efforts and even returned 18 “Vigango” sculptural artifacts Newfields had in its possession back to their ancestral homeland of the Mijikenda people along the coast in Kenya, East Africa.

“As I see it there are undoubtedly many layers, conflict and complexities involved but whether she was fired or driven to resign, there is no pretense of reconciliation that will glaze over this blunder, there is no apology in this world that would make it ok,” Del Reverda-Jennings added.

Stephen Lane, a board member for the Indianapolis Public Library and member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, told the Recorder it is upsetting to see Black women struggle to hold on to positions of leadership, especially when they, like Burnette, have done the work and have skills to back them up.

Burnette was named a 2024 Champion of Diversity and awarded the Breaking Barriers Award through the Indiana Minority Business Magazine and Minority Business Review one week before her resignation was announced, and Lane said it was “all very surprising and upsetting to see that this is still happening in our cultural and educational institutions here in Indianapolis.”

“I feel like the work that she was doing for minority artists, marginalized artists was so important to give us a platform to feature our work,” Lane said. “Now, it feels like those opportunities are going away or dying, especially when you see that they replaced Dr. Burnette with an old, white banker who has no experience running an arts organization.”

Julie Goodman, president and CEO of the Indy Arts Council, said the news was heartbreaking and artists and community members alike are experiencing grief from Burnette’s sudden departure. Newfields made bold commitments and were making progress, and Burnette was an important part of that progress, she said. 

“Dr. Burnette has been a lightning rod of hope, healing and progress at Newfields, which has extended across our entire arts and cultural community,” Goodman told the Indiana Business Journal and the Recorder. “She made more progress in her early tenure than many make in an entire career. I don’t understand this at all and will be asking a lot of questions.” 

Goodman said she felt Newfields underappreciated what it meant to the community to have Burnette in that role spearheading the change — because it was not just about her specifically, it was about having a bridge to connect the community and invite them in.

“She was doing exactly what she was hired to do,” Goodman said. “We were starting to really see that potential be realized, and so I think it’s just … it’s a huge setback. There’s no way around it. It’s a huge, huge setback and incredibly sad and disappointing.”

Newfields’ response 

A statement from Newfields’ board of trustees on Nov. 21 stated the institution was “unable to provide additional details around the current leadership transition” but wanted to assure the community there would be no change in their strategy, mission or values.

“Our focused efforts to recruit and retain diverse talent at every level of our organization will not cease,” the statement said. “Newfields’ commitment to providing exceptional experiences with art and nature — for generations to come — is steadfast.”

According to the statement, Newfields will continue working to maintain the community’s trust through growing its programming, which “extend our reach to communities statewide.”

 “At Newfields, we value respectful and constructive dialogue with the community about all that we do and all that we aspire to be,” the statement continued. “We appreciate all who have helped shape our journey so far, and invite others to join us as we move forward.”

However, Belinda Tate started in her position as director of IMA just days before Burnette’s resignation. Goodman expressed hope in Tate and said she should be given a chance to do good work for IMA before the community makes its decision about the institution.

“I think it’s obviously complicating her [Tate’s] introduction to the community,” Goodman said. “But she is also an incredible talent, and so we should all be concerned about her role and the work that she has been brought here to do … Belinda deserves a chance also.”

Contact staff writer Chloe McGowan at 317-762-7848 or chloegm@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @chloe_mcgowanxx.