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.”