Newfield fires Dr. Burnette, making city’s systemic racism transparent

Late in the day on November 10 the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newsfields quietly yet abruptly and unexpectedly announced a “transition in leadership.” The Newfields’ Board of Trustees hired the now-former CEO, Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, only 15 months ago. In a clear indication this was not her choice, they gave no explanation for the “transition” in their news release. They didn’t mention whether she was “transitioning” to a better job or include anything about her future trajectory. Whether she was fired or forced to resign explicitly or through bullying and harassment, creating a toxic and racist work environment, this is another instance of a pattern of racist, capitalist, and patriarchal structures that fundamentally organize our city’s institutions.

Their news release barely mentions Dr. Burnette or the reason for replacing the highly competent, overqualified, and well-respected Black woman who was specifically hired to clean up the mess left by the former white CEO. The first Black CEO of Newfields, Dr. Burnette had a proven track record that the first Black woman to serve as Board Chair, Darrianne Christian, highlighted when announcing her appointment, calling her “a clear standout:”

“Her extensive professional achievements reflect her ability to deliver on her passion to innovate and advance the arts, education and green spaces. She is lauded by her staff, peers and the communities she served for being a humble leader with an immense amount of respect and empathy for everyone she encounters.”

The hiring of Dr. Burnette followed community outrage over a 2021 job posting approved by the then-museum director and then-CEO, Charles Venable. That posting announced Newfields’ desire for a new director who could maintain “innovative ways that attract a broader and more diverse audience while maintaining the Museum’s traditional, core, white art audience.” The racially insensitive phrase (to phrase it most generously), or what was really a racist dog-whistle, was included in the ad as a larger bullet point, under “other responsibilities.”

Instead, the overwhelming majority of the press release focuses on her replacement… a former member of their own Board of Trustees, Michael Kubacki, who has never led a museum or cultural institution and is, thus, far less (if at all) qualified for the position.

The Indiana Business Journal reported two board members resigned recently. Otto Frenzel IV resigned a month ago, but after serving five years on the Board, Gary Hirschberg resigned the same day the “leadership transfer” was announced.

Burnette increases membership and attendance, but Board prioritizes “core” white audience

Kubacki is a white banker who is currently Chairman of Lake City Bank as well as its owner, Lakeland Financial Corporation, which, according to the Museum’s press release, “is a $6.5 billion community bank.” Interestingly, their press release announcing Dr. Burnette’s “departure” doesn’t include any of Kubacki’s credentials that would be relevant to the position, only the profits he helped the ultra-right, like himself, make.

During her 15 months of leadership, Dr. Burnette increased both membership and attendance at Newfields. As Robert Shegog wrote in the Indianapolis Recorder:

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.

Shegog wants an explanation and correctly asserts we deserve one. So does Julie Goodman, the President and CEO of the Indy Arts Council who was on the search committee that hired Dr. Burnette. She wrote, “I don’t understand this at all and will be asking a lot of questions.”

Other key Black institutions and leaders, including the Indiana Black Expo and Indianapolis Urban League, demand answers and transparency.

We and those organizing Sunday’s protest also want transparency. However, as we have seen again and again, transparency amounts to a series of contradictory “explanations,” or excuses and lies. Transparency is a starting point, but to even get that we need organized action.

More importantly, we must ask if we need transparency or if we already have it. Hasn’t the Board’s actions spoken for themselves? Isn’t their white supremacy and capitalist mindset transparent?

Ultimately, and again through organized action, we need to win the structural change necessary to prevent these routine actions.

The broader community wants, and is fighting, for Dr. Brunette

So, too, do others in the artistic and political community. The Indianapolis Liberator attempted to reach out to several local artists for comment and received answers that the threat of retaliation or being blacklisted from being contracted at any gallery is the reality for many artists.

The Mayor’s $1.56 billion 2024 budget allocated only $1.2 million to the arts, intentionally or unintentionally creating unnecessary competition between and divisions within the local artist community for contract work. This is yet another divide-and-conquer strategy we must resist.

One artist decided to release a statement anonymously:

We, artists in Indianapolis, are anonymous because we don’t want to be blacklisted by the donors and board members that also are not being listed because you all aren’t being transparent of who you are and why you made the decision to sack Dr. Burnette. So we can play the same game to protect ourselves against any retaliation that could further restrict our access to the crumbs of funding that they provide the arts…

Dr. Burnette created hope in the community to give opportunities for our daughters and sons to become artists in Indianapolis. I hope the board members and donors who passed Dr. Burnette’s resignation know that they are doing more damage to the institution than helping. And when people travel to other places, these artists will not promote Newfields as a place to show their work nor visit as Newfields board and donor leadership has lost the trust of the local community.

Anyone with their finger on, or anywhere near, the pulse of the community knows this feeling is widespread. They also know why artists are afraid to speak openly as individuals, given the scarce resources the city and state allocates to this fundamental area of human activity. The same is not true of the Newfields’ Board of Directors, however, who continue to remain silent.

Together with the Indianapolis Liberation Center, an informal group of community members and cultural workers are organizing a protest called “Lights Out at KluFields” for Nov. 19 at 4:30 pm. They will demand the reinstatement of Dr. Burnette and the removal of racist bankers from the Newfields’ Board.

Only the power of the people can reinstate Dr. Burnette

This is the second time in less than a year that they fired a Black woman who was hired to clean up the mess leftover by their previous racist white bosses. This is the second time in less than a year that a core community institution in Indianapolis betrayed the community’s wishes. This is the second time in less than a year that our city’s cornerstone institutions have exposed themselves, their governing structures, and their intentions for all to see.

On November 30, 2022, the two finalists of a national search for a new CEO for the Indianapolis Public Library delivered public presentations as part of the search’s final stages. The two finalists–Gabriel Morley, a white man from New Orleans who resigned in scandal after a news agencies uncovered he was in violation of residency laws–and Nichelle M. Hayes, a Black woman who worked her way up through the library’s ranks and was then serving as Interim CEO after the community kicked racist CEO Jackie Nytes out in 2021.

Both were allotted 15 minutes. Morley went on for 45 minutes in a barely coherent presentation that lacked any substance or clear vision. Hayes articulated a coherent and comprehensive vision rooted in the past and present of the library in under 15 minutes. There was no doubt Hayes was the superior candidate.

Yet the Board extended the offer to Morley. Fortunately, because the community responded to the absurdity of Morley’s presentation accordingly, he turned down the offer in another people’s victory. Even after thousands signed a petition supporting Hayes, even though the Black Caucus of the American Library Association boycotted Indianapolis (where their July 2023 conference was scheduled to be held), even though there was no opposition to appointing Hayes, the Board has continued to refuse to appoint her to her rightful place.

That struggle continues, but it demonstrates that we, the people, have the power to change our city. For over a year, the library Board’s routine corruption and the dictatorial-style rule of Board President Hope Tribble was spotlighted in the media for all to see. We kept Morley out of our city, we forced numerous Board resignations, we raised consciousness about police brutality, and we even got a former worker elected to the Board!

We will use that power beginning on Nov. 19 because it is us, the working and poor people of this city, that make it run.

Photo: Composite of Dr. Burnette (left) and her replacement, banker Mike Kubacki