Four members of Newfields’ associate board resign in wake of CEO’s departure

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Four people, including GangGang co-founder Malina Simone Bacon and Visit Indy executive Chris Gahl, resigned Monday as members of the Newfields board of governors, an associate board established by the art museum and gardens in 2018 to function as a pipeline for prospective leaders on the institution’s decision-making board of trustees.

In addition to Bacon and Gahl, New City Development Partners CEO Isaac Bamgbose and Wormser Legal principal attorney Barry Wormser resigned from the board of governors.

The resignations confirmed by the IBJ follow the Nov. 10 announcement of the departure of Newfields CEO Colette Pierce Burnette. The institution provided no explanation for Burnette’s exit, citing a policy of not discussing the details of internal employment matters.

Bacon referred to recent turmoil at Newfields, which has included the resignation of three board of trustees members in the weeks before and after Burnette’s departure, when discussing her resignation.

“I am a founding member of the board of governors at Newfields,” Bacon told the IBJ. “In this season, I’m not able to lead as we designed. That’s the reason for me stepping away.”

Chris Gahl
Chris Gahl

Gahl, executive vice president & chief marketing officer for Visit Indy, said the board of trustees oversees operations of Newfields while the board of governors focuses on community advocacy. Gahl said he resigned because the board of trustees has a poor track record of communicating with the board of governors, which he joined in 2020.

“My decision is being driven by the board of trustees repeatedly not engaging the board of governors in critical decision-making within our collective board work,” Gahl told the IBJ. “This siloed approach to board governance goes well beyond the recent personnel decision and includes no alignment on budget operations or any strategic decision-making.”

Board of trustees members Otto Frenzel IV and Gary Hirschberg stepped down on Oct. 9 and Nov. 10, respectively. The resignations of Frenzel and Hirschberg preceded the announcement of Burnette’s departure.

Adrienne Sims resigned from the board of trustees on Nov. 17. Frenzel, Hirschberg and Sims have offered no public comment on their resignations.

When reporting Sims’ resignation from the board, The Indianapolis Recorder published what the newspaper described as a resignation email sent by Sims—who has served as IU Health’s chief human resources officer since 2022.

“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,” Sims wrote. “Recent leadership decisions were not made in an inclusive and consultative manner, which has been disheartening.”

Attempts to reach former CEO Burnette for comment have been unsuccessful.

Newfields representatives have declined to be interviewed.

Bacon, whose cultural firm GangGang served as curator for a recent yearlong exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, said Burnette brought value and trust to Newfields.

The institution had been rocked by a race-related controversy involving Burnette’s predecessor, Charles Venable. In February 2021, Newfields issued a job posting referencing 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 became the first Black top executive at Newfields, an organization initially founded as the Art Association of Indianapolis in 1883. She served as CEO from August 2022 to November 2023.

The Newfields board of trustees appointed Michael Kubacki, a former trustee and chairman of Lake City Bank, as interim president and CEO.

News of Burnette’s exit arrived the same week that Belinda Tate began her tenure as 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. Tate manages IMA day-to-day operations ranging from exhibitions and art acquisitions to public programs and community outreach.

Gahl praised Burnette’s work at Newfields.

“The board of governors was engaged in a new, refreshing and authentic way over the last 12 months, tied directly to Dr. Burnette and our new board chair, Doug Singleton [principal of retail real estate-focused Singleton Companies],” Gahl said. “We were being engaged in new ways and helping the institution think about growing, specifically through the lens of community advocacy.”

Gahl said Visit Indy’s marketing of Newfields has not stopped and will continue.

“It’s a cultural institution a visitor seeks,” he said.

Malina Simone Bacon
GangGang co-founder Malina Simone Bacon is pictured at September’s Butter fine art fair at the Stutz, 1060 N. Capitol Ave. (Photo provided by GangGang)

Bacon said trust in Newfields is eroding because so little information has been shared about recent changes in leadership.

“If you were to see a relationship play out in public and one end of the relationship is asking questions and the other end isn’t willing or able to answer, that’s when trust can be shaken within any relationship,” she said. “That’s what we’re seeing on a broad scale: Trust is lost, and after that value is lost.”

The CEO of Newfields reports to the board of trustees, which presently is made up of 27 members after the resignations of Frenzel, Hirschberg and Sims. Darrianne Christian has served as board chair since May 2021 and is the first Black woman to hold the position.

On Nov. 21, the board of trustees said in a statement that Newfields is not altering its “strategy, mission and values” and the not-for-profit institution remains dedicated to inclusivity and diversity.

“Newfields has been working hard to earn the community’s trust,” the board said in the statement. “We are grateful to our staff, volunteers, boards, partner organizations and funders for helping to deliver on our commitment to being an inclusive organization. Together, we have made progress but understand important work remains.”

The board of governors was founded with 10 members in 2018 and grew to 22 members before the resignations of Bacon, Gahl, Bamgbose and Wormser. Bamgbose joined the board this year, while Wormser was a founding member in 2018.

Following the exits of Bacon and Wormser, two board of governors members have been part of the group for all five years of its existence: philanthropist Helmi Banta and artist Greta Krueger.

Two founding members of the board of governors are presently members of the Newfields board of trustees: architect Lily Pai and banker Jason Noyan.

GangGang, the cultural firm founded by Bacon and her husband, Alan Bacon, served as curator for “We. The Culture: Works by the Eighteen Art Collective.” The exhibition on display from September 2022 to September 2023 showcased the work of 18 artists who painted the “Black Lives Matter” mural on Indiana Avenue in 2020.

Bacon summarized GangGang’s mission as making beauty, culture and equity the center of its work. She said events such as GangGang’s annual Butter fine art fair represent a different way to support artists and a community.

“It feels to me that [Newfields] leadership is now in front of this institution versus within it,” she said. “I encourage it and my community and my city and my nation to notice a lopsided, grand overreliance on institutions as society’s primary output for creative innovation.”

Correction: The year when Chris Gahl joined the Newfields board of governors—2020—has been corrected in this story. See more corrections here.

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23 thoughts on “Four members of Newfields’ associate board resign in wake of CEO’s departure

  1. I think Ms. Bacon is correct – GangGang and others don’t need Newfields to promote art and inclusion. The longer their self-inflicted PR scenario unfolds, the more distrust this sows, the more the institution will suffer and innocent employees will be caught in the middle. The adage “perception is reality” comes to mind, and the perception that the decision-makers have pushed out others that may be different than the “core, white audience” sure does seem to be what actually is going on.

    1. Newfields seemed to be doing well until the DEI people took charge and
      made everything all about race.

    2. The Board of Trustees’ Chairperson is a Black woman. The Board of Trustees has two other Black woman, three Black men, and an Asian woman as members. And, the newly hired Director of the art museum is also a Black woman. The overall employee body is also diverse. For whatever reason, and perhaps purely as a result of private personal reasons, Dr. Burnette left. But, given the remaining diverse leadership of Newfields, I hardly think the message is the museum is only for a “core, white audience.”

    3. A correction to my comments: There are actually four Black men on the Board of Trustees, not three. And, there are two Asian women on the Board, not one.

    4. In other words, you will never be able to capitalized the letter “b” enough, nor bring in enough different skin tones, nor jump through any number of hoops, to appease the perpetually aggrieved.

      LOL–it’s so hard not to hide Schadenfreude as the diversity deanlets get hoisted by their own petards. It’s sad that this is doing so much damage to venerated institutions all across the country, but that was the intent all along. The perpetually aggrieved are less interested in equity and inclusion and more committed to drag everything down to their level.

  2. It’s a pity that they were so “knee-jerk” at the very beginning of this mess. The job posting was not very worded very well, but I have a hunch it was never meant to offend anyone. And yet, here we are.

  3. The reality is that some (but certainly not all) of the financial terms of Dr.Burnette’s departure must be disclosed on a Schedule J attached to Newfields tax Form 990. That is a public document for all to see. So, at least her severance arrangement will become public knowledge as soon as this year’s Form 990 is filed.

    1. Except, it does *not* have to be labeled as severance. It will merely be listed as whatever she was paid for the year as compensation, so there is no way to determine from the tax filing if she was let go or voluntarily left.

      And, even if she voluntarily left, she may have still negotiated in her contract that she was entitled to receive a part or all of her annual bonus or some other separation payment—this is common with many executive employment contracts.

    2. Question 4a of Schedule J Form 990 specifically asks if she received a severance payment and if answered yes, the Schedule must include name and the amount of the severance payment. So, while the reasons for severance are not disclosed, the amounts related to it must be separately disclosed.

  4. The Newfields board has 27 members *remaining* after multiple resignations? That’s a legislature, not a board. But mainly: If the IMA had never gone down the DEI-driven “whiteness = wrongness” path, none of this mess would have occurred. The job posting that started this whole kerfuffle had nothing wrong with it at all. Never apologize to people who seek your destruction.

    1. The Board of Governors is *not* the Board of Trustees. There were two resignations from Board of Trustees. These recent four resignations are from the Board of Governors.

      The Trustees are the legal fiduciaries of the organization who oversee the operation & policy of Newfields and who hire key executives.

      The Board of Governors are an advisory board that acts as a liaison to the community & assists with fundraising, as well as provides a “training ground” for potential Trustees.

  5. This “DEI business” at the museum was/is about including those who had not been included.

    Anyone – anyone! – who has actually been a regular visitor at the museum over the years knows that, while we have fantastic collections, art from large populations of the world and our own country were not included. Probably not on purpose but simply due to the personal preferences of those who collected and donated. This needs to be corrected for us to be better informed.

    None of us here knows why the former CEO of the campus was fired or resigned. Petty politics, personal reasons, or valid disagreement? We don’t know. Whether or not we believe some people are protesting prematurely, the fact remains that the IMA/Newfields has a PR nightmare that is affecting fundraising and reputation, both locally and nationally.

    I’m shocked that a local crisis PR firm has apparently not been engaged to handle this.

  6. This “DEI business” at the museum was/is about including those who previously had not been included.

    Anyone – anyone! – who has actually been a regular visitor at the museum over the years knows that, while we have fantastic collections, art from large populations of the world and our own country were not included. Probably not on purpose but simply due to the personal preferences of those who collected and donated. This needs to be corrected for us to be better informed.

    None of us here knows why the former CEO of the campus was fired or resigned. Petty politics, personal reasons, or valid disagreement? We don’t know. Whether or not we believe some people are protesting prematurely, the fact remains that the IMA/Newfields has a PR nightmare that is affecting fundraising and reputation, both locally and nationally.

    I’m shocked that a local crisis PR firm has apparently not been engaged to handle this.

  7. 27 trustees and 22 governors?! No wonder there’s chaos…. Too many cooks in the kitchen.

    Come on Newfields! Get your act together, and take care of our beloved center of art, and all things beautiful except obviously, the humans who are running it.

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