2021 Newsmaker: Darrianne Christian, Newfields board chair

(IBJ file photo)

Darrianne Christian was “on vacation and completely unplugged” in February when one word in an otherwise innocuous Newfields job posting for a new art director set the stage for a massive staff backlash and the resignation of a president and CEO.

That word was “white,” as in a job description asking director candidates to “attract a broader and more diverse audience while maintaining the Museum’s traditional, core, white art audience.”

Christian was a member of the boardat Newfields, home of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. And as her family’s cruise was getting closer to land at the end of her vacation, “my cell phone reception picked up and my phone just started going off with tons and tons of text messages and missed calls,” she told IBJ.

Newfields and its CEO, Charles Venable, were under fire. The museum tweaked its wording and put out an apology, but the damage was done.

Venable resigned and, over the next several weeks, Christian emerged as a key leader in the museum campus’s response and strategy for moving forward.

In March, Newfields released an action plan based on engagement with staff, volunteers, donors and community members, including local artists.

Then, in May, the board elected Christian its new chair, making her the first Black woman chosen for the position.

“I’ve watched Darrianne pour her heart and soul into making Newfields a truly diverse and inclusive institution,” the outgoing chair, Katie Betley, said after Christian’s selection. “She has had my support with every step, and I look forward to championing and celebrating that work in every way I can.”

Christian, who was born and raised in Gary, is now leading the organization’s efforts to rebuild trust with staff and community members.

“We knew that damage had been done by the job posting, and we wanted to understand that damage,” she said. “We also wanted to understand what we could do to make it better.”

It’s not Christian’s first foray into diversity issues. She and her husband, the CEO and founder of BCforward Corp., donated $1 million for the creation of DePauw University’s Justin and Darrianne Christian Center for Diversity and Inclusion, which opened in 2017. The center houses the school’s Association of African American Students and the Dorothy Brown Cultural Resource Center.

She also serves on the boards of the Central Indiana Community Foundation and Lake City Bank.

At Newfields, a six-month status report released in September detailed some of the organization’s progress: offering anti-racism training for all implementing diversity, equity, inclusion and access training for trustees, governing board members and senior leadership creating an intercultural development inventory revamping its Project Champion Team working on a formal affinity network for non-white staff.

The organization also created a Community Advisory Committee as a direct link between its audience and its trustees, expanded its admission and membership policies, and brought in an external team for a culture review of leadership and Newfields more broadly, according to the report.

And Newfields said it’s boosting representation of artists who are Black, Indigenous or otherwise underrepresented using a $20 million endowment; pushing for more diverse leadership; and stepping up engagement, with “listening hours” and a new speaker series.

“I believe that we are going in the right direction, and the community has responded well to that,” Christian said in May. “But we’re never going to rest on our laurels or have the position that we are doing everything that we should be doing. We are an institution that—going forward—will always challenge itself to ensure we are doing all we can do.”•

Check out more 2021 Newsmakers.

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