UPDATE: Martin president resigns from Newfields board in response to CEO departure

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Sean Huddleston
Sean Huddleston began his tenure as president of Martin University in 2019. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Former Newfields board of trustees member Sean Huddleston said he can’t talk about the circumstances surrounding last month’s unexpected departure of the art museum and gardens CEO, but he described Colette Pierce Burnette as “a great catalyst” for connecting with Indianapolis residents when the institution needed someone in that role.

Newfields announced the departure of CEO Burnette on Nov. 10. Huddleston, president of Martin University, told IBJ on Wednesday that he resigned from the board of trustees on Nov. 20.

On Thursday, Newfields disclosed that Sherron Rogers, CFO of Florida-based Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, recently resigned from the board of trustees. When contacted by the IBJ earlier this week, Rogers referred any questions to the art museum and gardens, 4000 Michigan Road.

Huddleston, who served as chair of Newfields’ community advisory committee, and Rogers are the fourth and fifth members of the board of trustees to resign in the weeks before and after Burnette’s departure.

During a Wednesday interview, Huddleston linked his decision to step down to work he wanted to do at Martin and a lack of interest in pursuing a second term on the Newfields board after his three-year term ends in May 2024.

“I serve on a lot of boards and do a lot of work,” said Huddleston, whose board commitments include the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and Red Cross Indiana Region. “I just need to be focused on Martin and how we can advance.”

On Thursday, after this initial report published, a Martin spokesperson clarified Huddleston’s statement on his resignation.

“While his term on the Newfields board ends in May, he left the board early due to Dr. Pierce Burnette’s departure,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “Given the current climate, her departure represents an unfortunate setback to the progress our community has made.”

When asked if Burnette made the choice to depart her CEO role, Huddleston referred the question to Newfields.

On Nov. 10, Newfields provided no explanation for Burnette’s exit, citing a policy of not discussing the details of internal employment matters.

Newfields representatives have declined to be interviewed.

Attempts to reach Burnette for comment have been unsuccessful.

“I joined the board of Newfields in 2021 because, in many ways, it was an extension of what we do at Martin University every day,” Huddleston told the IBJ, referring to the predominantly Black school that serves adult learners. “I saw [the Newfields board] as an opportunity to help people see themselves in a space that they didn’t know was for them, accepting of them and supportive of their interests. For Martin, that’s people who have not felt embraced by higher education. For Newfields, at the time, it certainly was the museum and the gardens.”

Before the resignations of Huddleston and Rogers (who joined the board earlier this year), fellow board of trustees members Otto Frenzel IV, Gary Hirschberg and Adrienne Sims stepped down on Oct. 9, Nov. 10 and Nov. 17, respectively.

Frenzel, Hirschberg and Sims have offered no public comment on their resignations.

The CEO of Newfields reports to the board of trustees, which presently is made up of 25 members after the resignations of Frenzel, Hirschberg, Sims, Huddleston and Rogers. Darrianne Christian has served as board chair since May 2021 and is the first Black woman to hold the position.

Burnette became the first Black top executive at Newfields following a race-related controversy involving her 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.

A year before Burnette began her 15-month tenure at Newfields in August 2022, the art museum and gardens launched an initiative titled “Newfields Together.” The community advisory committee led by Huddleston was established as part of the initiative.

Newfields expressed a commitment to become an “empathetic, multicultural and anti-racist institution that embraces diversity, equity, inclusion and access.”

During the first year of “Newfields Together,” the institution distributed 25,000 free tickets to increase access to the Newfields campus. To date, more than 120,000 free tickets have been distributed through the initiative.

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.”

Reflecting on his work with the community advocacy committee, Huddleston said he was happy to see a plan for outreach when he joined the board of trustees.

“We were going to continue to build on that plan and carry it out,” Huddleston said. “I’m not sure we, as a committee, achieved everything that we hoped to achieve. But I would say Dr. Burnette certainly was a great catalyst for the work that needed to be done.”

Huddleston said Burnette eventually served as co-chair of the community advocacy committee.

“Dr. Burnette certainly helped to make very considerable advances with the community at Newfields,” Huddleston said. “I think many have indicated the strong presence she had in the community, and the work she was doing was very, very effective.”

On Monday, four members of the Newfields board of governors—an associate board established in 2018 to function as a pipeline for prospective board of trustees members—resigned. GangGang co-founder Malina Simone Bacon, Visit Indy executive Chris Gahl, New City Development Partners CEO Isaac Bamgbose and Wormser Legal principal attorney Barry Wormser stepped down from the 22-member board.

Following Burnette’s departure, the Newfields board of trustees appointed Michael Kubacki, a former trustee and former chair of Lake City Bank, as interim president and CEO.

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8 thoughts on “UPDATE: Martin president resigns from Newfields board in response to CEO departure

  1. The Newfields drama continues…sadly. Perhaps, for me, the most telling elements of recent events would be the resignation of members of the Board of Governors. Different from the Board of Directors, who carry the responsibility of oversight of the museum operation and the CEO, the Board of Governors are the group that oversee and advise and ENSURE, the Board of Directors are acting in accordance with their responsibilities.
    When notable members of the Board of Governors start resigning stating what some have described as a “lack of transparency” by the Board of Directors, then Newfields has entered a new and dangerous territory of governance.
    While there is, for me a certain understanding of “not being able to state the reasons” for the departure of CEO Burnette, the Board of Directors, by NOT sharing those reasons with the Board of Governors is unacceptable.
    Individuals serving in these capacities of trust and confidentiality are expected and held to account for breaches of that trust. Simply refusing to share the facts of this matter with the Board of Governors only exacerbates the already heavy veil of mistrust that is now surrounding a very weakened and ineffective Newfields Board.
    With four (4) members of the Board of Governors having resigned, it is now clear that the Board of Directors sees their leadership as being omnipotent. Very sad.

  2. One needs to refer to the articles, by-laws, rules and regulations that govern the bodies to understand the relationship. The members of the bodies have the right to leave if they desire. Use a base of facts for the comments rather than hype. This organization started small many years ago and has evolved. Just like the Zoo.

    1. Not sure where the “hype” is, necessarily. I certainly don’t dispute (nor would I) any members of the bodies having a right to leave. I respond more to their stated reasons for leaving which cause me concern. Reasons like “lack of transparency”. Those are the reasons provided (in some cases). Not hype…just facts.

  3. The best solution to this dumpster fire would be to bring back Dr. Burnette and the resignation of the Newfields Board Chair. Reading the tea leaves indicates the Chair is responsible for this and where all this started. This is doing serious damage to the institution.

  4. Has it become public information yet that the black chair of the board fired the black CEO without the authority to do so which triggered her massive severance clause? And they are too embarrassed to admit this publicly which is why the board keeps resigning until Darrianne resigns?

    Newfields should just throw her under the bus, rebuild the board, and we can all move on

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