Newfields has released extensive plans to promote equity and inclusion within the organization and increase community outreach. The move comes just one month after former President Charles Venable came under fire for a racist job posting, citing one of the goals of a position to be to “maintain the museum’s traditional, core white audience.”
After the post went viral, several Black Indianapolis artists dropped out of an upcoming exhibit, “Drip: Indy’s #BlackLivesMatter Street Mural,” and exhibit curators Alan Bacon and Malina Simone Jeffers said they would no longer work with Newfields and asked the organization to issue an apology.
Venable resigned from his position Feb. 17 after 85 Newfields employees signed a petition calling for his resignation.
Interim President Jerry Wise said the plans, which include training for staff, a community advocacy board and a $20 million endowment for the acquisition of works by artists of color, was a result of listening to staff and the community.
“What we found throughout this process is that we want to really make sure we’re listening to our employees and make sure that they’re involved in this process and the plan itself,” Wise said. “We want our employees to feel valued and respected, as well as all members of the community.”
The job posting controversy, however, wasn’t the first time racism within the organization was highlighted. In July 2020, Kelli Morgan resigned from her post as associate curator of American art. In her resignation letter, Morgan described 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.
A month before her resignation, Morgan published an editorial in the Recorder, arguing these issues are not unique to Newfields, but rather a problem in the arts community nationwide.
“We know very well that art museums are some of the stronger 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.”
Wise and Darrianne Christian, a Newfields board of trustees member, said they have listened to their employees for the past 30 days to form these plans, but did not clarify why the organization didn’t take action following Morgan’s resignation.
Along with the $20 million endowment for acquisitions and newly “diversified” senior leadership — including the search for a diversity executive to oversee recruitment and hiring — Christian hopes the community is involved in what exhibits and programs come to Newfields.
“One of the things we’re doing is taking a look at the … culture of Newfields,” Christian said. “We would like to use this opportunity to engage the community to have a more diverse and collaborative approach, and this is a new process to do so.”
The community advisory committee, led by Martin University President Dr. Sean Huddleston, will help Newfields expand partnerships with local organizations. Previously, Newfields has worked with the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis, which did a “takeover” of the 2020 Winterlights program.
“We allowed the Federation to do a takeover … and build around some cultural elements to make it a night for and about that constituency,” Wise said. “We got really positive feedback because we really partnered with the organization and they were the curators so to speak for that event, and we’re looking to expand that to other partners.”
Newfields is also expanding its Free First Thursday program to include special programming.
The museum has offered free tickets on the first Thursday of every month since 2014, when Venable made the decision to begin charging $18 for admission. However, seasonal and special events, such as Winterlights, were not included in the free day. The new plan will expand what’s accessible for free on first Thursdays, and Wise expects to see an increase in the number of people who attend.
Wise and Christian hope the action plan helps the community see the organization is listening.
“We care, and you matter,” Christian said when asked what she wants the community to know about the plan. “What you think matters, and what you want to see in the museum matters, and we would love for you to engage with us so we can have programming that you would enjoy.”
Wise notes there is more work to do and said he will continue to work with Indianapolis artists and residents.
“We are committed to change, and we understand this is a first step, and we’re looking forward to executing this plan and to continue listening to our community,” he said.
To learn more about the plan, visit discovernewfields.org/together.
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.