New CEO says Newfields has a role to play in cultural renaissance

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Colette Pierce Burnette is the new president and CEO at Newfields art museum and gardens. (Photo courtesy of Newfields)

Colette Pierce Burnette sees her hiring as the new president and CEO of Newfields as an example of the difference between equality and the more modern progress toward equity, or the practice of providing fair access and opportunities.

“I didn’t see a Black director of a large cultural institution when I was growing up,” said Pierce Burnette, who began her tenure at the art museum and gardens on Aug. 1. “I was exposed to the museum, but I didn’t see myself anywhere in the leadership or the behind-the-scenes positions. It’s very rare.

“So equality means that you can’t discriminate against putting people in those positions. Equity means that you create opportunities for those people to be in the position.”

Pierce Burnette said she likely wouldn’t have her new job without the race-related controversy that led to the February 2021 exit of her predecessor, Charles Venable. After Newfields advertised a job that described a need to attract a more diverse set of patrons while “maintaining the museum’s traditional, core, white art audience,” Venable resigned.

Most recently the CEO of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, Pierce Burnette arrived at Newfields in time for the opening of the 139-year-old institution’s first exhibition devoted to a group of Black artists from Indiana: “We. The Culture: Works by the Eighteen Art Collective,” a show that will be on display until Sept. 24, 2023.

“That was just the beginning,” Pierce Burnette said during an IBJ interview. “It was like a crack in the door with a little sun shining through it.”

During your remarks at the opening reception for “We. The Culture” on Sept. 22, you mentioned a renaissance. I think people can feel and observe the momentum of change, but how would you describe what’s happening?

A renaissance is a time of reckoning and a time of renewal, colliding all at the same time. I do believe we’re all living in a time of renaissance. And it’s a choice whether we actually make this something that will be remembered in history in a positive way or whether it’s going to be remembered in history just as a moment of pain.

I feel very strongly that we’re living in a time renaissance, and it’s personally rewarding to be at Newfields in this time in its history and the role we can play to make that renaissance be remembered. … I want it to be a time where we met this tension of a reckoning and a renewal at the same time.

What does it mean for “We. The Culture” to be the first Newfields exhibition to open during your tenure as Newfields CEO?

It’s super rewarding for me because I’m at the helm of this moment of such opportunity. …

I did not live here, so I don’t know. But it’s my impression that if someone were to say, “What’s the institution in Indianapolis that opens its doors equitably to all?” people would not have said, “Newfields.”

The incident with the position description was just the spark. It’s so much deeper than that. That actually was the gift for me, from my perspective, in a bad, twisted way, like the silver lining around the cloud. Because that’s how I got here. That was the moment of pain and opportunity all in one, where it’s very painful for Newfields and the people who work here.

There was a guidepost established before you were hired: It’s Newfields’ goal to be an empathetic, multicultural and anti-racist institution. What’s your assessment of how that’s going and what needs to be done?

I think it’s going well, but I think it’s going well from Aug. 1 until today. So that’s my 60-day assessment. But … I didn’t work here before.

But the reason I comfortably say I think it’s going well is because of the energy I feel here at Newfields. It’s the same kind of energy we felt [at the “We. The Culture” opening]. I feel this sense of hope and this sense of belonging and engagement.

I did an exercise in my first all-staff meeting where we asked people to write down what they love about Newfields. On the other side, we asked them to write down the greatest opportunity Newfields has. And then I created a word cloud from the transcription of all of the responses. And the word “community” was by far the largest. It was all about what we can do to serve our communities.

It was all about taking the beauty of Newfields and using it to enrich people’s lives. It was people really honing in on the mission, and I was very pleased about that.

It’s so much bigger than diversity, equity, inclusion and access training. It’s about changing people’s hearts.

I want people to create public programming that’s inclusive for all—and “all” doesn’t mean exclusion of any. All means all. I want people to think through their programming because it’s the right thing to do to get us to excellence.

Ironically, people think it’s going to push us away from excellence. Actually, it does what we’re supposed to be doing, which is protecting the heritage of art—our collection, which is extraordinary—and then growing it and evolving it. …

That is so much bigger than DEIA. That’s a component of it, but I don’t want Newfields to think that we do DEIA training and then we’ve checked a box. “We’re anti-racist.” That’s unrealistic.

Do you have any updates on the search for the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art?

Yes, we’ve engaged the search firm. and I’m anticipating that we should have a public announcement out with a position description in the very near future.

We do want to do a global search because I’m in this pursuit of excellence. We have to keep the door wide open and have the perfect position description for what it is we’re looking for.

Everybody brings their A game to the interview. But we want to dig deeper and make sure that we’re not just getting A game at the interview, but that we bring someone to Newfields who’s a catalyst for excellence.

Can I rewind the timeline of when you announced you were going to leave Huston-Tillotson to when this job emerged on your radar?

A friend of mine asked me to go to dinner after I had announced my retirement. During dinner, she asked me, “What are you going to do? I know you’re not going to ‘retire’ retire.” I said, “No, I’m not going to retire.
I want to do something.”

And then I was stumbling over my words, and I realized I didn’t have a plan for me. So she offered to have a colleague friend of hers sit down and have a conversation with me about what my passions were. And that person works at Korn Ferry [the consulting firm that worked with Newfields on the president and CEO search]. We talked, and about two weeks later I got a phone call from a different person she had given my resume to. And she thought I would be a potential match.

I saw the Newfields description, and I said, “That’s not me.” But they were persistent in painting what Newfields was looking for. In fact, in the interviews, I kept saying, “Well, I’m an art lover, but I’m not an art aficionado.” I was doing the classic thing of talking my way out of it. That’s fear, like protecting myself from the rejection moment.

At one point, Darrianne Christian, who I think is a wonderful board chair and a wonderful human, said, “Dr. Burnette, we know what you’ve told us. We’re not looking for an art aficionado. We have a position for that. We’re looking for a leader for change.”

It makes me weepy when I think about it. That was a turning point for me because I really wanted this job.•

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24 thoughts on “New CEO says Newfields has a role to play in cultural renaissance

  1. Let’s not be so naive to think equity is a good thing. In fact, it is very dangerous.

    We learned long ago, communism/Marxism (aka “equity”) is destructive system. Read about the history on Wikipedia if you don’t already know.

    Don’t be duped into believing “equity” is a good thing. It’s a value system designed to get equal resources to all people, regardless of effort, skill or merit.

    Do we really want to disincentive our most talented, hardest working, and most deserving people from earning the most or being given the spotlight to affect change in the world?

    To those who have it rough in life, that’s why there is family, community, charity, and the church.

    1. Indianapolis is the second hardest city in America to move up the socio economic ladder…. Perhaps we should strive that all citizens have a semi equal chance? Is that such a bad thing to strive for?

    2. There is a big difference between communism and making sure that people the same opportunities are available to all people.

    3. Murray – it is on both the mayors website and the Indy Chamber website – and if you have ever gone to a single event about making the city better it is continuously noted and sourced….

      But I would guess your civic engagements ends at the “post comment” button

    4. So you’re source are two dubious sources, both of which are known for making exaggerated statements. Particularly the Mayor’s office. Got it.

      If I stopped today and you lived another 60 years, you still wouldn’t catch up to me in regard to civic engagement whether it be time, participation or financial contribution.

  2. I agree with you. Every one should have equal opportunity under the law.

    Help me understand what you mean by “semi equal” chance? Is that equity? Semi equal is another way of saying unequal right ?

    I think we’d all move forward faster by idolizing hard work, excellence, perseverance, courage, etc. And our preoccupation with one’s identity a confusing and counterproductive focus for our young people’s minds.

  3. Also, why are we promoting “anti-racism”… isn’t that an inherently racist thing want?

    How oblivious (or afraid) is everyone to not be speaking out against this nonsense “anti-racism” stuff?

    Use some common sense for crying out loud.

    1. Donnie W. —

      Agreed with your comments completely. We are settling for average when we
      need to strive for competitive excellence.

      The very people that scream for DEI would NEVER settle for that in our
      college and professional sports.

  4. +1 with everything Donnie has said. This stuff is getting out of control. Of course racism is bad but shoving this DEI and “anti-racism” rhetoric down our throats with every single place or organization is ridiculous, and in many cases creating more division and racism. I saw a commercial the other day for a phone that has a more “inclusive” camera on it. Total nonsense.

    1. I love to see people’s opinions on the internet about things they’ve never experienced and also never understood.

      Did you also give lectures on how redlining was to keep the good neighborhoods good during segregation?

    2. JJ Frankie – Bear with us! Most of us are very stupid, and many of us are just trying to become the best racists we can, but we need help from people who think about race 25 hours a day in order to achieve our goals. Since this describes you, can you help us out? Can you explain to us how redlining is something that should be more than a vestigial consideration in 2022? What about the two-fifths voting rule? Is that still important today because you say it is? Is it important for a once-respectable art museum to focus on redlining and racial justice, because these are the only things that inform artistic expression in 2022?

      This new director is her race first and her role as a leader second. The outcome will be predictable.

    3. So it’s not only OK for phone cameras to take worse photos of people with darker skin, it’s racist to advertise that yours won’t?

      Nice take there, I could almost hear it over the dog whistles.

    1. I donate the equivalent of your annual income to my favorite charities…. your voice has no impact in the community 🙂

    2. JJ is probably a mid 20s Caucasian meathead attempting to convey himself as some minority – all in order to satisfy some demented urge to be victimized. He probably sells cell phone and struggles to clear 30K.

  5. Slow news day … a story posted last Friday makes its way into Eight@8 four days later. Huh?

    Newfields embracing of postmodernist Critical Theory is an embarrassing and desperate attempt to be relevant to the political left. Its philosophical roots lie in the intent to destroy the conclusions of The Enlightenment — the ultimate political expression of which is our Declaration of Independence with its focus on EQUALITY … not the bogus destructive concept of “equity” based on grievance, guilt, shame, victimhood and individuals sorted into identity silos. Regular people are right to be outraged at this phony political philosophy. Corporations and giant philanthropic institutions that have bought into this anti-intellectual tripe should be ashamed; you have taken a first class arts institution into the abyss. When Newfields fails it will be your fault.

  6. I am very excited for a wonderful leader such as Colette Pierce Burnette to join our community and take the helm of our very important arts organization!!

  7. Charles – your comment about apparently being offended about cameras “taking worse photos of people with darker skin” further emphasizes the head-spinning crazy world we live in. Thanks for making my point for me. And maybe get a better camera.

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