Newfields at a crossroads

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Newfields, an integral part of Indianapolis’ cultural fabric, continues facing significant challenges. The Board of Trustees continues hemorrhaging members. On January 3, Jason Noyan became the sixth Board member to resign since the Board abruptly and without explanation either fired or forced the resignation of CEO and president Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette. Although Burnette only served 15 months, she was broadly popular and, by all metrics, wildly successful.

Four members of the associate Board of Governors have also resigned in the last several months.

The seat that Noyan, who works at J.P. Morgan Private Bank as an executive director, left empty was filled by another banker: Robert Scheele, a vice president at Merrill Lynch.

The crux of the matter

These concerning trends including abruptly getting rid of a broadly popular CEO and filling open positions on the Board with yet another banking executive reflects recent similar challenges at the Indianapolis Public Library (IndyPL) and points to a critical moment of reevaluation and potential transformation for both institutions. Last year, the IndyPL Board of Trustees offered Gabriel Morley, a white man from New Orleans, the position of CEO over Nichelle M. Hayes, a Black woman who successfully served as interim CEO. Now, IndyPL is run by an appointed CEO, Greg Hill. The Board’s President is Hope Tribble, who earned a degree in business administration and finance and has zero library experience.

Similarly, Newfields’ Board is composed primarily of businessmen with either no or relatively insignificant artistic experience. For many, this is the root of the problem with Newfields: the absence of artistic representation.

As artist and student organizer Johnny W. told the Indianapolis Liberator, “the environment that Newfields and its leadership perpetuate serves as a barrier for free artistic expression rather than a beacon. As an institution, it will serve as a gatekeeping entity no matter who sits on the board.” For this young artist, the key issue is that what should be a community resource, “is motivated by profit, exclusivity, and appropriation, evident by the glaring absence of diversity in Newfields’ collections.”

Newfields’ storied history dates back to 1883, when it was founded by May Wright Sewall. The first shift came with the introduction of a paid admission policy and a focus on commercially-oriented exhibits. This evolution from traditional art to commercial ventures represents a significant pivot in Newfields’ mission and identity, stirring conversations about its commitment to its foundational artistic principles.

A collective call for change

As evidenced by a protest held outside Newfields’ annual Winterlights opening, the community’s robust sense of ownership and desire for inclusive governance are more pronounced than ever. As local artists seek to showcase their work, more are bypassing Newfields, finding other avenues to distribute their art through collaborations with organizations like Arte Mexicano en Indiana, Big Car, the Harrison Center, and others.

The recent transformations at Newfields go beyond mere administrative changes; they signal the community’s aspiration for an institution that not only preserves its artistic and public roots but also adapts to the cultural contours of Indianapolis.

The wave of resignations from Newfields’ Board of Trustees and Board of Governors following CEO Colette Pierce Burnette’s unexplained exit has sent shockwaves through the cultural community. Figures like Sean Huddleston and Sherron Rogers have departed for various reasons, some citing the need to focus on their institutions or expressing concerns about Newfields’ direction. These departures have sparked discussions about the future course of Newfields and the essential need for a board that is diverse, engaged, accountable, and aligned with the community’s expectations. Taken together, they underscore the growing disconnect between its leadership and stakeholders.

Forging a new path: A people and art-centered institution

The institution’s reluctance to openly address these departures, particularly with its funders, signals a critical juncture where acknowledging and taking action to address the criticisms expressed by artists and community members could play a decisive role in shaping its future direction and community trust. We need educational, cultural, and artistic institutions that root out racism, especially in its leadership, and push to engage the community and cultural workers. This period of transformation is more than a series of challenges; it’s a pivotal opportunity to redefine the role of cultural institutions in reflecting and enhancing the community’s rich tapestry.

Reflecting on the broader artistic community, Johnny W. ended our interview with these words: “But in the end, it is up to the artists to join one another in solidarity and to realize without us they are nothing but white walls.”