KluFields: Community protests racist firing of Newfields’ Black director

Over 50 people showed up for a protest on the evening of November 19 at the opening night of the annual Winterlights holiday light show at Newfields. The action, organized by the Indianapolis Liberation Center in collaboration with Wildstyle Paschall and other community leaders, was called “Lights Out at KluFields.” The various community members present were there to call out another Indianapolis institution for exposing their racism and demand they reinstate Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette.

The Board suddenly and without explanation announced Burnette’s “departure” from the key art museum in the city in a press release that barely mentioned her at all. Dr. Burnette held the position for 15 months. In her place steps a white man with no qualifications to run the museum, Michael Kubacki, the Executive Director of City Lake Bank.

Gathered in front of the Newfields’ sign on 38th St. and MLK St., the appreciation for Dr. Burnette’s leadership during her brief tenure was overwhelmingly evident. Many communicated that Dr. Burnette’s leadership brought them into Newfields for the first time ever. Stating the community has long lost trust in the art’s organization, community leader Wildstyle Paschall called for more transparency about the decision. Paschall made the initial call for a rally in support of Dr. Burnette and to bring attention to the “invisible empire” controlling this city’s cultural and educational institutions.

The Board, composed of 27 people, only one of whom is an artist, reveals the lack of transparency in the decision-making process. The other 26 are “philanthroposts,” lawyers, and bankers.

Dr. Burnette wasn’t only concerned with the bottom line as she engaged the surrounding local arts community to feature more of their work at Newfields through exhibitions like “We. The Culture: Works by the 18 Art Collective” and “Work in Progress: Conversations about American Art.” Dr. Burnette worked to repatriate stolen African art to their countries of origin to build positive international relationships with the arts. The issue reaches beyond transparency to community control over our institutions where local artists and community members can have a larger role on the Newfields’ Board that attracts and manages more dynamic and engaging leadership and less of the art that engages Newfields’ “core, white art audience,” which is a privileged minority in Indianapolis.

Kubacki’s bio on the Newfields website speaks to his business dealings, yet mentions no expertise in the arts. Kubacki is also a member of the corrupt Indiana Economic Development Corporation which is currently under investigation for giving millions of taxpayer dollars away to people and companies connected to individual board members, demonstrating that Kubacki helps his rich friends and their corrupt business interests. The mission of the IEDC states they support startup businesses and attract new businesses to Indiana. In reality, millions have gone to long-established companies like Cummins, Eli Lilly, and BioMet.

The forced departure of Dr. Burnette is evident with the resignation of now three Board members. The first came on Oct. 9 when Otto Frenzel IV of Camel, Indiana, who served for four years and works on the Defense Counsel for the United States Marine, resigned. The second, Gary Hirschberg, the founder of Aaron Wealth Advisors based in Chicago, Illinois and a former private wealth advisor for Goldman Sachs, came hours before the Board announced Dr. Burnette’s “transition” on November 10.

On Nov. 17, the latest resignation came from Adrienne Sims, the Human Resources Officer at IU Health. In an email obtained by the Indianapolis Recorder, Sims stated the following about her resignation:

“As a seasoned HR executive, I believe in the importance of strong HR practices, collaborative decision-making and adherence to proper governance procedures for the well-being of the organization. Recent leadership decisions were not made in an inclusive and consultative manner, which has been disheartening.”

Racist Board won’t stop the people

Many artists spoke anonymously about the ousting of Dr. Burnette at Newfields as concerning and some felt that opportunities at Newfields would begin to dry up for them as the Board shifted to maintain an antiquated status quo.

A local Latina artist and employee of the federal government spoke anonymously on Dr. Burnette’s dismissal, stated:

“I do know IMA has always catered to a white crowd. I even worked there for an internship years ago and felt out of place. It sucks that the new CEO left…. The art world and getting recognized as a true artist feels like a scam just to please rich white art lovers. They get to choose and pick who is to be internally known and some art that is trash is highly recognized as ‘modern art’ by these rich people which discourages other artists who do paint to convey a story or meaning that speaks to everyday people.” In essence, the bankers and lawyers hold the arts community back from developing beyond making a small few money.”

The crowd outside of Newfields chanted to reinstate Dr. Burnette and for the racist Board members to resign immediately. There were a number of speeches. In his speech at the rally, ANSWER Indiana Co-Coordinator and Indianapolis Liberation Center volunteer Noah Leininger, brought the fundamental issue to light:

The community response has been overwhelmingly in favor of the reinstatement of Dr. Burnette. It will take an organized community to push back against the apparent racist actions of the Board and the hostile work environment it creates for qualified Black leaders, and especially Black women, in this city.

Photo: Community members gathered outside of Newfields to protest the dismissal of Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette Credit: Indianapolis Liberator.