Burnette leaving abruptly as CEO of Newfields after 15 months

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Colette Pierce Burnette
Colette Pierce Burnette began her tenure as Newfields CEO on Aug. 1, 2022. (Photo provided by Newfields)

A little more than 15 months after being hired in part to ease a race-related controversy involving her predecessor, Colette Pierce Burnette is leaving her post as CEO of Newfields.

The art museum and gardens abruptly announced her departure in a press release late Friday afternoon that offered no explanation for the move. The Newfields Board of Trustees has appointed Michael Kubacki, a former trustee and chairman of Lake City Bank, as interim president and CEO, the press release said.

“We thank Dr. Burnette for her service to Newfields,” Newfields Board of Trustees Chair Darrianne Christian said in written remarks. “She helped deepen our relationships with the community and championed the transformative powers of art and nature. We are grateful for her work on behalf of Newfields and wish her well in her future endeavors.”

A Newfields spokesperson told the IBJ that the organization adheres to a policy of not discussing the details of internal employment matters.

Indy Arts Council CEO Julie Goodman characterized Burnette’s exit as a surprise.

“I am utterly shocked and devastated by this news,” said Goodman, whose organization promotes arts organization and administers financial grants. “Dr. Burnette has been a lightning rod of hope and healing and progress at Newfields, which has extended across our entire arts and cultural community. She has made more progress in her early tenure than many make in an entire career. I don’t understand this at all, and I will be asking a lot of questions.”

Burnette took the leadership role at Newfields on Aug. 1, 2022, after being chosen from more than 230 applicants after a 14-month CEO search.

She succeeded controversial former CEO Charles Venable after the organization was rocked in February 2021 by a race-related controversy in which a job posting referenced the need to maintain “the museum’s traditional, core, white art audience” while attempting to attract guests from all backgrounds. Venable resigned after more than 85 Newfields employees and affiliates signed a letter calling for his ouster.

Burnette was the first Black top executive at Newfields, an organization initially founded as the Art Association of Indianapolis in 1883.  She also was the first woman hired for the role, though artist and curator Anna Hasselman served as interim director from 1926 to 1929.

News of Burnette’s exit came the same week that Belinda Tate began her tenure as the new director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields. Burnette led the process to hire Tate, executive director at Michigan’s Kalamazoo Institute of Arts since 2014. In her new role, Tate will manage IMA day-to-day operations ranging from exhibitions and art acquisitions to public programs and community outreach.

At the time of Burnette’s hiring at Newfields, she was hailed as a clear standout among an impressive list of applicants and as a humble leader with an immense amount of respect and empathy for everyone she encounters.

Burnette previously was president of historically Black college Huston-Tillotson in Austin, Texas. She was named the 2021 Austinite of the Year by the city’s Chamber of Commerce, which cited Burnette’s commitment to education and her work as co-chair for the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities. She is credited with helping grow Huston-Tillotson’s endowment by 55% during her tenure.

On Nov. 7, Indiana Minority Business Magazine awarded Burnette the “Breaking Barriers” award as part of the publication’s 2024 Champions of Diversity Awards.

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29 thoughts on “Burnette leaving abruptly as CEO of Newfields after 15 months

    1. She should have never been hired in the first place. Had zero experience running an art museum. she was only hired to make the board feel good about themselves for getting rid of the guy who really transformed IMA into the outstanding institution it is now.

    2. Rhea, you are another person who did not understand Dr. Burnette’s role. As CEO, she needed *no* art museum experience. Her role was to be an executive making business management decisions, not making curatorial art decisions or art related policy choices. She has *significant* large organization management experience and that is what the CEO job requires.

      Belinda Tate is the new museum director and she appropriately has an extensive art background. There is a reason the museum director and CEO positions are two DIFFERENT roles.

    3. Christopher–

      Perhaps you can help us clarify these title differences. I was no big fan of Venable, who I thought was instrumental in dumbing-down the museum and giving it more of a theme park vibe to compete with–um, well, the Children’s Museum I guess.

      But Venable was Director and CEO. Dr. Burnette was hired only as CEO. Why only one hat? Is it because she had no museum curation experience to become a viable director? I mean, she still got to live in the IMA–ahem, *Newfields*–supported house. She may not have been responsible for the decision, but under her tenure Newfields had some of the shortest operating hours of any museum I had ever heard of. It was like they engineered it so that a person couldn’t possibly see the whole museum in one day.

      Anyway, now she’s gone and we’re going to get a person who apparently has art museum experience. But it seems that CEO and museum director were made two different roles exclusively to create a justification for bringing in Burnette. It’s looking more likely that her entire involvement was a PR move to save face.

    4. Lauren- The more read and the more I hear the more I feel your view is probably a closely accurate account of matters. Hopefully this reset will be a learning moment. Hiring the most qualified should be priority one.

    1. The museum was free for years and years – it was just fine. It survived on special exhibits, donors, its endowment, and all the normal mechanisms that keep museums open. Many cities across the country have art museums as good as our art museum (or often better) that are free.

    2. Robert. Read the annual update.

      It was not fine. It was literally bleeding to death and the endowment had about 7.5 years left until it was extinguished.

      Pay your fair share instead of relying on those who work hard and donate to the museum.

    3. Robert, almost all museums that are “free” are only “free” to residents or other limited groups AND they receive *significant direct local taxpayer funding*, which IMA does not, so they can be “free.”

      For example, the St. Louis Museum of art collected $23.4 MILLION from a special property tax assessment in 2022.

      So, how about this deal? You convince the Indiana General Assembly to allow the city to impose a special arts tax assessment, you convince the City-County Council to vote to approve it, you convince all the residents of Marion County to be happy with their taxes increasing, then you and everyone else pay the extra tax so the IMA can be “free” again?

  1. Wow! This says a lot about the Newfields leadership. I’m sure there is more to this and we (the community) will get to the bottom of it. Dr Burnette has been a beacon of hope and has done so much for Newfields in her short tenure. SHAME ON YOU NEWFIELDS!!!!!

    1. She left with zero notice and zero transition plan from what we are told…. Extremely unprofessional

    2. Shame on Newfields? Nothing indicates she was involuntarily separated. Sometimes individuals have personal reasons that require them to leave a job.

      Newfields in a short amount of time appointed a Black woman Chairperson, a Black woman CEO, a Black woman museum Director, made a major multi-million commitment to purchase and display art by Black artists and people of color and other historically underrepresented groups, and the organization has invested heavily in the past couple of years building bridges with the community, including increasing access to the museum by low-income individuals and residents of the surrounding neighborhoods.

    3. Basically it seems like Dr. Burnette’s accomplishment was bringing hard-core identity politics to the museum.

      Given that it is helping to corrupt every other institution in the West, I guess it’s no surprise that IMA should get the same treatment.

      I remember her telling us last year just how many challenges she faced in life as a black woman–that was her big press release after accepting the position. Challenges? Really? You do realize, Dr. Burdette, that you, in possession of a Ph. D, are being placed in the leadership of one of the nation’s biggest art museums, given a home to live in, and a salary that would put you in the top 1-2% of income earners in this very wealthy country? Do you really think that the vast majority of cis-het white protestant males are doing better in life than this? Really?!

    1. Well – there is likely a difference between someone being accused of being racist while in a position of power then being subsequently fired and someone voluntarily separating from an organization….

  2. Rhea perhaps has expert perceptual insight regarding hiring qualifications and rationale for those she deems inappropriate, despite her having no expertise in in hiring, personnel development, or staffing. Certainly, Newfields erred in not having consulted her in seeking leadership positions.

    1. For all his faults, Venable was Director/CEO. So was the top-notch Maxwell Anderson. Both had extensive art museum experience.

      Burnette had none, and was hired only as CEO. Was Newfields director-less for the last 16+ months?

      Perhaps you can help answer the questions that mere peasants like Rhea and I keep asking.

    2. Laura B: the change to split the executive structure into 3 parts was initiated under Venable. 1) President/CEO, 2) Director of the gardens and park, and 3) director of the IMA. The job description put out for the director of the IMA is what lead Venable’s firing. Dr. Burnette was President/CEO. Jonathan Wright, who has been at the museum for several years, is the director of the gardens and park. Belinda Tate just started as director the IMA in the past couple of weeks.

  3. Substitute the word Black for white in “retain white core” in the advertisement for CEO. What’s wrong with this? If a primarily Black institution reaches out for more diversity and wishes to retain their core Black core, is this somehow any different?

    This applies to all of the Black events in town. What if a white event were held? Reverse discrimination is a real problem.