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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Newfields owes the Black community an explanation

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Here we go again.

Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, the now-former CEO of Newfields, was unceremoniously let go from the city’s most prominent art institution last week.

Brought in after the hurt and chaos wrought by the previous CEO, who wanted to maintain a “core white art audience,” Dr. Burnette has been the leader our community needed to move Newfields forward.

Membership was up.

Attendance was up.

Black organizations were hosting events at Newfields. Black art was featured at Newfields. Dr. Burnette even repatriated stolen African art back to Africa. 

And Dr. Burnette was in our community. She attended our events. She listened and spoke at our events at Newfields.

We welcomed Dr. Burnette because she is excellent and did the work. She was and is part of our community.

We gave Newfields a chance partly because of what Dr. Burnette represented—an effort to start over and a clear signal to our community that leadership sought change.

And then they offered a press release that didn’t even bother to note if Dr. Burnette was fired or if she resigned.

The community has questions.

Why is Dr. Burnette no longer at Newfields?

What fireable offense did she commit? While I understand HR issues are kept confidential from all accounts, this exit came out of nowhere.

If there were HR issues, did Dr. Burnette get a chance to defend herself? If they were related to employees, did the problems get investigated—if there were any real issues?

Was the entire board consulted on the removal of the CEO?

The community has also asked what would have happened to a white CEO. We’ve seen several announcements about CEOs stepping down and getting a chance to frame their exit.

And this is just for starters.

In her short 15 months, Dr. Burnette has done more for Newfields and our community than any other CEO I can recall in the last 20 years.

The board reached out to Black organizations to move the institution forward. Black leaders engaged when Newfields had no credibility with our community. They leverage the social capital of our Black organizations, including the Black arts organizations, to get us to get over their transgressions and actual long neglect of our community.

They put Black people on the board.

Then they did this.

Black leaders are upset and feel like they have been blindsided. The Black community is shocked and asking the questions I mentioned and more.

Does Newfields think that this is just going to go away? For some reason, at the time of writing, I can’t even find the Newfields board on their website.

But this speaks to a more significant issue regarding Black people in leadership positions at predominantly white institutions. There are too many stories about Black executives—especially Black women—being maltreated and leaving quietly.

I’ve noted before that we have an issue with Black talent being recognized in this city. I believe our community needs to build its own table. We have to create our own institutions. We also need to hold institutions accountable for how they treat us.

Situations like this put downward pressure on Black employee ambitions. This ultimately hurts our entire community.  

Newfields needs to provide answers. And we need to build our own institutions so we can hire and promote our own.

But in the meantime, Newfields owes the Black community answers.

For more news on Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette’s departure from Newfields courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, click here. To read a joint statement from the Indiana Black Expo and Indianapolis Urban League on Newfields’ announcement, click here. For ongoing information regarding civil rights issues in Indianapolis, visit the NAACP.

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