Newfields board issues first statement since Nov. 10 announcement of CEO’s departure

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Newfields exterior
Newfields art museum and gardens, 4000 Michigan Road, announced Nov. 10 that Colette Pierce Burnette was no longer the organization’s CEO. No explanation for the leadership change was offered. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

The Newfields board of trustees said in a statement Tuesday that a change in the leadership of the museum and gardens does not reflect a “change in our strategy, mission and values” and that Newfields remains dedicated to inclusivity and diversity.

The four-paragraph statement is the first the Newfields board has released since the exit of CEO Colette Pierce Burnette, which the organization announced on Nov. 10 without explanation for the change. Burnette’s departure—and the lack of clarity about the reasons for it—have sparked a protest and statements from several organizations demanding answers.

In addition, three Newfields board members have resigned since Oct. 9.

The statement the remaining board released Tuesday did not shed light on Burnette’s departure.

“While we are unable to provide additional details around the current leadership transition at Newfields, we want to assure the community there is no change in our strategy, mission and values,” the statement said.

A Newfields spokesperson has told IBJ that the organization adheres to a policy of not discussing the details of internal employment matters. IBJ’s attempts to reach Burnette for comment have been unsuccessful.

The Newfields board appointed Michael Kubacki, a former trustee and outgoing chair of Lake City Bank, as interim CEO.

Burnette was hired in part to ease a race-related controversy involving her predecessor, Charles Venable. Newfields was rocked in February 2021 when it 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.

In May 2021, Darrianne Christian was elected as the first Black woman to be chair of the Newfields board of trustees.

While seeking Venable’s successor, the organization launched an initiative titled “Newfields Together” and a commitment to become an “empathetic, multicultural and anti-racist institution that embraces diversity, equity, inclusion and access.”

In its statement on Tuesday, the board—which Christian continues to chair—reflected the sentiment of “Newfields Together.”

“Newfields has been working hard to earn the community’s trust,” the statement reads. “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.”

Burnette took the leadership role at Newfields on Aug. 1, 2022, after being chosen from more than 230 applicants in a 14-month CEO search. She was the first Black top executive at Newfields, an organization initially founded as the Art Association of Indianapolis in 1883.

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. Tate is a Black woman who previously served as executive director at Michigan’s Kalamazoo Institute of Arts.

The board said in its statement that it will continue its diversity efforts, both in hiring and outreach.

“We will continue growing the programs which extend our reach to communities statewide,” the statement said. “Our focused efforts to recruit and retain diverse talent at every level of our organization will not cease. Newfields’ commitment to providing exceptional experiences with art and nature— for generations to come—is steadfast.”

Two of the board members who resigned in recent weeks—Otto Frenzel IV and Gary Hirschberg—have not said publicly whether their decisions were related to the leadership change.

But while Adrienne Sims, IU Health’s chief human resources officer since 2022, didn’t mention Burnette specifically in a resignation email obtained by The Indianapolis Recorder, she did refer to leadership changes.

“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 said in the email one week after Burnette exited the organization. “Recent leadership decisions were not made in an inclusive and consultative manner, which has been disheartening.”

On Sunday, about 40 demonstrators gathered outside Newfields to call for the reinstatement of Burnette in a protest that coincided with opening night of the site’s popular “Winterlights” attraction.

Activist Keith “Wildstyle” Paschall, one of a handful of people who spoke on microphone during the demonstration, said the Newfields board should supply details related to the CEO’s exit.

“It looks bad for my community, and I was on the community advisory committee,” Paschall said. “I put my reputation out there to say, ‘Newfields was making changes, that they’re doing things differently now,’ and then this situation happens.”

The Newfields board concluded its statement saying it would “work hard to earn and maintain the community’s trust.”

“At Newfields, we value respectful and constructive dialogue with the community about all that we do and all that we aspire to be,” it said. “We appreciate all who have helped shape our journey so far, and invite others to join us as we move forward.”

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14 thoughts on “Newfields board issues first statement since Nov. 10 announcement of CEO’s departure

  1. HR people making C suite decisions is a terrible idea and a great way to ruin an organization or company.

    “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 said.

  2. How it all began:
    DEI to IMA: “Let’s have a conversation about race.”
    IMA: “Sure, we’re good-hearted folks who want to do the right thing, and we assume you are, too.”
    DEI: “Great. So, what is it you want to do?”
    IMA: “We’d love to get more blacks in here, but we also want to keep all our whites.”
    DEI 1: “Did they just say something positive about white people?”
    DEI 2: “Yes, and they didn’t capitalize ‘Black’ while leaving ‘white’ in lower-case!”
    DEI 1 and 2: “Racism! Fire a white person!”

    1. LOL, totally accurate. DEI is just a resentment-driven ideology at its core, has nothing to do with fairness.

    2. “Burnette was hired in part to ease a race-related controversy involving her predecessor,…..” Can u say this? Isn’t this why the dude got fired. By half of the world’s definition….this comment is racist….i think you need to throw yourself on the ground and apologize…..

  3. Does anyone find it curious that Burnette hasn’t appeared in public to trump the race card and raise holy hell? Could it be that she has personally accepted the circumstances of her departure and has no basis to raise the issue? I get that other board members resigning adds to the intrigue, but maybe she just sucked at her job.

    1. I’m guessing that part of Burnette’s exit involved an agreement not to speak about it? Like everyone else, I don’t know what happened and can only guess. As a long-time IMA member, what I find most disappointing is that it seems every major decision they make is opaque to the public. Refusing to discuss matters like this in any form whatsoever invites everything from misinformation to conspiracy theories, right?

  4. When another arts organization in town released a new CEO after a short employment time, no one got worked up and shouted “transparency”. Guess what, that guy was white.

  5. I am guessing that the resignations that have taken place thus far are just as likely to be …..get me out of here….i didn’t sign on for this….i want my life back….who knows….

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