Earlier this month a job posting for Newfields (formerly Indianapolis Museum of Art) went viral. Newfields advertised a job opening by stating that the museum was looking to attract a more diverse audience while “maintaining the museum’s traditional, core, white art audience.” This social media post elicited a huge outcry from around the country. This centering of the white gaze as the priority is a real issue and speaks to white supremacy. During a time when many cultural institutions nationwide are being pressed to diversify their collections and staff, this statement illustrates how the leadership lacks a basic understanding of real DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion). For several days the leadership of Newfields stood pat on their stance that the original post was simply a misunderstanding. A petition was signed by approximately 500 cultural workers from the community, demanding immediate change and not hollow apologies. (To be transparent, I was one of the signers of that petition.) A letter was also created and signed by 100 employees of Newfields, demanding the resignation of the CEO Charles Venable.
The toxic culture and lack of awareness in the arts regarding the necessity of anti-racism was highlighted by resignations in the last few years of several diverse staffers. Dr. Kelli Morgan’s open resignation letter in July 2020 brought the most attention to the atmosphere of inequity and discrimination. At the time of her resignation, Morgan’s concerns did not appear to have been addressed by the CEO or the board.
Incidents (and environments) such as this are not new to Indianapolis or the United States. The esteemed poet, playwright and civic leader Mari Evans, who lived in Indianapolis from 1947 till her death in 2017, spoke about the atmosphere of the city. Evans wrote an essay that was part of a book “Where We Live” published in 1988 for the Indiana Humanities Council. It was in that essay she stated, “What we find is that racism, in this up-South city at the end of the twentieth century, is like a steel strand encased in nylon then covered in some luxurious fabric. The intent is to avoid, if possible, blatant offenses, to soothe, mollify, if necessary, dissemble — while racism, the steel strand, still effectively does the job.” Unfortunately for residents of color that quote still rings very true. This atmosphere is not isolated to museums but at most organizations in the city.
You might be asking yourself, “Why do these issues matter?” They matter because fair and equitable treatment matter. The extra burden that is heaped upon individuals who are forced to navigate these dangerous waters contributes to physical and mental illness in these individuals. That affects the city as a whole. We cannot continue with business as usual.
Morgan confirmed this in her piece, “To Bear Witness,” that was printed in this paper on June 23, 2020. “I realized that no matter where in the world we work, many of us are experiencing similar traumas and complete mental exhaustion from navigating and twisting and strategizing and contorting ourselves around abhorrent manifestations of white supremacy in museums and the art world at large.”
Jason Reynolds, co-author of “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” stated that it would be wise to check in with employees of color. Most of them are having a very different experience than the majority groups. Oftentimes that experience is not a positive one. Reynolds also mentions that it’s important to listen to women of color who are working in their organizations. Women of color have been fighting for civil rights for everyone in our society for hundreds of years.
In summary, racism exists in all aspects of society. As a nation we need to be vigilant and work against it. Everyone has skin in the game, not just the ones who are being openly oppressed.
It is important for us to stand up for what is right and not allow bullies to win and cripple organizations and, more importantly, individuals, with toxic behavior. A few of the warning signs of white supremacy at work are perfectionism, (false) urgency and quantity over quality. “If not now, when? If not us, who?” first century BCE Hillel the Elder. #WeAreStrongerTogether
Nichelle M. Hayes, who holds a Master of Public Administration and Master of Library Science, is a third-generation Indianapolis resident and vice president of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, www.bcala.org.