Dozens of Newfields employees sign letter calling for ouster of Venable

Newfields
The Newfields campus at 4000 Michigan Road.

Dozens of Newfields employees have signed a public letter calling for the resignation of President Charles Venable in the wake of a controversial job listing in which the Indianapolis art museum and nature center described a need to diversify its patrons while “maintaining the museum’s traditional, core, white art audience.”

At least 85 employees and affiliates of Newfields signed the letter, dated Tuesday, calling for Venable’s ouster, including members of the organization’s board of governors and several departments. IBJ has confirmed the identities of the signatories as Newfields employees. Signatories signed anonymously under the singular name “Change Newfields” out of fear of retribution.

The letter said staff members spent four hours Monday “listening to members of senior leadership attempt to explain themselves, their actions, and their plans” after the controversial job posting for a new director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art became public.

Staff members “only feel more distrustful and confused about our future” after the meeting, the letter said.

After an uproar over the letter, Newfields removed “white” from the posting and issued a statement Saturday expressing “deep regret” for the language.

The group said signees include representatives from advancement; the board of governors; collections support; conservation; culinary arts/events/hospitality; curatorial; design; interpretation; media and publishing, education; exhibitions and rights & reproductions; guest experience, volunteerism and community engagement; horticulture; library and archives; marketing and communications; public programs; registration; retail services; security and technology.

The letter makes multiple demands, including the cancellation of Newfields’ job contract with search firm m/Oppenheim; the restructuring of human resources so it is an independent unit within Newfields; and a reevaluation and expansion of the boards of trustees and governors to make them more representative of the community and include representatives from Indianapolis Public Schools, nearby neighborhoods and other arts organizations.

“We assert that in order to effectively move forward, large and sweeping changes are necessary,” the letter said. We endeavor to continue and accelerate staff efforts that have been historically hindered by leadership. At the present time, we do not see a way forward if Dr. Charles Venable remains at the helm of our institution.”

The letter also indicates language in the job posting was discussed at length during a January staff meeting, before it was published—and was defended by Venable and Laura McGrew, senior director for guest experience and human resources.

“We have no chance of hiring the kind of Director for the IMA we need without a serious reckoning of the Board of Trustees and Dr. Venable’s immediate removal,” the letter said.

The staff letter calling for Venable to step down also mentions former associate curator Kelli Morgan, a Black woman who was hired to diversity the museum’s galleries, but resigned over the summer citing a toxic and discriminatory work environment.

The staff indicated Venable engaged in “continued gaslighting of the staff” after Morgan’s departure, and refused to take responsibility for events leading up to her exit.

The call for Venable to step down has amplified over the past few days. Nearly 1,600 Indianapolis residents have signed a separate letter calling for Venable to resign and for permanent changes to how Newfields interfaces with Black artists and staff members.

And Malina Simone Jeffers and Alan Bacon, founders of cultural development firm GangGang, said Saturday they were withdrawing as guest curators for upcoming art exhibition, “DRIP: Indy’s #BlackLivesMatter Street Mural.” GangGang called for the art organization to cancel the exhibition and apologize to participating artists. The firm also indicated it plans to move forward with a Black-led art exposition of its own this summer.

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40 thoughts on “Dozens of Newfields employees sign letter calling for ouster of Venable

    1. Absolutely. I can’t in all honesty believe someone put that phrase “traditional, core, white audience” in any publicly seen advertisement let alone amongst themselves to even think it, to begin with. It sounds like it could only come from someone that comes from the left or someone that thinks along those lines of reasoning. People are going to have to come to their senses at some point. If we don’t, this city and state and indeed the country are going to rip themselves to pieces. We have to care about each other and each others welfare. People; all people, are too valuable to not to care about.

  1. Welcome to the new Land of Cupcakes.
    Can’t use Snowflakes anymore, too triggering.

    As the Greatest Generation dies off, we’ve raised the Weakest Generation.

    Ugh.

    1. Greatest generation? The one that got us into endless wars, racked up debt like there is no tomorrow, made education and healthcare unaffordable, failed to raise the minimum wage to match inflation, caused the housing and dot-com bubbles, and spread lies about the most recent election? Step aside, let us young folk take it from here.

    2. Grant S – irrespective of the impact of those things, appears you’re one-off on most of that list – your beef is with the Baby Boomers. The Greatest Generation fought in WWII, and were born from turn of 20th Cent to ~1930) The last Greatest Generation President was Bush ’41, who truncated the the Gulf War. Those other issues have by enlarged developed over last 20 years.

      Afghanistan/Iraq, Federal Debt was on track to be eliminated toward end of Clinton admin, but housing bubble seeded / dotcom burst at the same time, min wage not increased, etc. and obviously last election are primarily boomer-based, to the extent those labels matter.

    3. Grant S. – Your examples of the failures of the the Greatest Generation expose your ignorance of history. People of that generation were not of an age to be instrumental in the dot com bubble and certainly not what you call, the housing bubble (There have been a number of housing bubbles in history. I think you are referring to the sub-prime mortgage crisis).

      In any event, the Greatest Generation is generally defined as people born from 1901 to 1927. That means the youngest people from that generation are 94 years old today. They grew up during the Great Depression and were the primary participants in WWII. They were in their late teens and early twenties when they defeated totalitarian Nazi Germany, fascists Italy and imperialist Japan. If you don’t know what totalitarianism, fascism and imperialism is, it would do you well to learn about those forms of government and why it is said that the Greatest Generation “saved the world” by their willingness to put others before self and to serve and sacrifice. The reputation of that generation’s unselfishness and humility is something that stands out compared to subsequent generations.

      I am confident that there are “young folk” who are capable leaders for our future. But, it is frightening to think that someone with your lack of knowledge of recent events and historical context could be one of them.

    4. John L’s reply to Grant S’s post about Bernard L’s observation is well-stated. Spot-on, John L.

    1. Interesting that my post last evening recommending that Grant S’s post be taken down for possibly making fun of Michael Q’s last name was deleted…but Grant’s insulting post remains, suggesting that Michael Q. is Michael QAnon. Ridiculous and inexcusable. What more evidence can there be of IBJ’s moderator being left-leaning for leaving a potentially personal insulting post “up?” As our country’s dementia-addled puppet leader would say, “C’Mon, man!”

    2. It’s ok, Bob. I have pretty tough skin and someone of Grant’s ilk are akin to a small gnat I flick off my arm.

  2. Newfields, as a nationally recognized art museum that has expanded its cultural foot print in the city under the current leadership, is a treasure for the state and our community. It’s aggressive efforts to diversify, both in its exhibits and institutional leadership/employment is laudable. Such changes do not happen quickly and mistakes will inevitably be made along the way. The private support, leadership talent and governance that got Newfields where it is today should not be taken for granted. Rebuilding or reshaping such an institution will inevitably come with a cost. We must tread carefully here.

  3. Too much “wokeness” in the world. You can’t move forward if everyone is afraid to make a mistake or is crucified for any perceived slight. These types of actions will further “Balkanize” this country. Exhibit some tolerance and forgiveness!

    1. Richard W., it’s easy to be an apologist and complain about people making a stand. It’s also cowardly and, in this case, racist.

    2. Randy how is stating the facts racist? I would love to see how many donors of money to Newfields are of any other race besides white people. Screaming they want more free stuff has gotten old in a hurry. Who is going to pay for all this free stuff?

  4. The wording does raise an eyebrow, but I don’t see the issue in stating plainly that you are seeking to diversify. Looking at it from a marketing segmentation perspective and seeking to expand and bring diversity to your audience should be viewed as a positive. Corporations state very plainly that they want more diversity and ensure it in their interviews and leadership choices. Poor wording, yes. Poor review and editing, yes. Bad intent, I am not convinced.

  5. The IMA/Newfields is a treasure and Indianapolis is beyond fortunate to have such an exceptional organization, and it is a cultural asset the ENTIRE community should be proud of and feel invested in. The museum’s old-money, conservative management and governorship need to reflect the caliber of the institution and respect the community to which the museum belongs. Inclusivity and diversity are not just buzz-words to be sprinkled about to appease grant makers and public funding agencies. I hope this incident serves as a wake-up call to the museum’s Board and management to change the way they think of the museum’s audience and how the organization interacts with the community.

    That said, I realize there is no possibility for change if people are not allowed to make mistakes, AND to make amends for them. You have to give people and organizations the opportunity to demonstrate they can be accountable. The truth is that many of the individuals and institutions proclaiming outrage about the Newfields posting have their own blind spots that help perpetuate systemic racism. I would like to see people step up and offer to help make change at the museum instead of just asking for someone to be punished.

    Also, while I appreciate the position of the DRIP/BLM Ganggang organization in deciding they would step back as co-curators of the upcoming exhibit scheduled for April 16 -October 13th, I think having the exhibit move forward is more important than ever. The 18 contemporary artists featured in the exhibit are extremely talented, committed effecting positive change, and they have an important message that needs to be heard. These artists deserve the opportunity to showcase their work in a nationally recognized museum, and the IMA should be that place. The recent controversy over the job listing at the IMA could even be incorporated into the exhibit, and it would offer one small, but significant step toward healing and change.

    Furthermore, I do think it is important to recognize the truth that while there are individuals of all backgrounds, ethnicities, races, and cultural who enjoy Newfields and the art at the IMA, the majority of the museum’s patrons are white, and generally older and wealthier. The statement “tradition, core, white audience” was accurate, but how and why it was mentioned in the job listing bullet point demonstrated a troubling mindset about diversity. Recognizing who is your current audience is NOT a problem, but framing your organization’s efforts to become more inclusive and welcoming to a broader and more diverse audience as being somehow in competition with serving your current audience IS a problem. Inclusivity is NOT a zero-sum game–there is not a limited pie. No one has to lose when you open up any organization to a broader group of individuals, and in fact, everyone should benefit from being exposed to diverse opinions and perspectives. Individuals specifically attend museums in order to see and hear different perspectives, ideas, cultures, and histories–the more voices heard, the more powerful and interesting is the museum experience.

    1. Agree. Very well stated Christopher B. I believe that leadership change at Newfields/IMA may be necessary, but I wish that Ganggang would take a stronger position and continue their work toward the completion of the DRIP/BLM exhibition. Making positive steps toward change is difficult. It seems to me (a white man and long time member of the IMA and the arts community) that stepping back from this moment of adversity is an easier solution than perseverance – a perseverance which will bring success, achievement and positive growth against the issues of racial inequity that Indianapolis faces. In addition to the talented artists curated for this exhibit, there are many hard-working and well-intentioned employees at Newfields and thousands of community members who need to experience this work.

  6. Exchange “black” for “white” and no one would bat an eye. Take a gander at the last sentence in this article: “The firm also indicated it plans to move forward with a White-led art exposition of its own this summer.” Switch one word, and cue the outrage! This contrived ordeal is vain and pathetic.

    1. Do enlighten me, Randy. Using the word white is somehow racist in the context of the job description. How does my response circumvent the argument at hand?

    2. Bingo Brian G. Ganggang wants to go do a black led art exhibit this summer. Apparently that isn’t racist. Can you imagine the outrage if someone wanted to do a white led exhibit. The hypocrisy is just mind bending. This notion that racism is all pointed in one direction is simply pushed by people with blinders and agendas. There is no room for any racism in this country. Calling everything racist is starting to be like crying wolf. We know how that story ended.

    3. Brian and Larry… The one group of people in America who have never suffered from systemic racism are white people. White people have traditionally dominated American culture across all industries. The reason there are Black exhibits, and it isn’t racist to have them, is because Blacks have been traditionally marginalized in society. No one wants to pay reparations to the families of slaves or victims of Jim Crow laws, so propping up the Black community in different aspects of society is the next best thing. Giving Black students more opportunities than whites to scholarships is also a good thing. Your logic is vain and pathetic.

    4. Wesley, it’s the language used in the job description that is allegedly on trial; I’m not, and I don’t believe anyone else in this thread is arguing about history, cultural exhibits, etc. To distill things down, I’m simply arguing that prejudiced auditing of, and censoring the use of racial adjectives is counterproductive to the end goal of equality. There must be equality in language. Different sets of language rules can’t lead to equality. It categorically leads to the segregation of thought patterns and speech.

      Do you disagree and believe that it is taboo for humans belonging to one category of skin color — one they no choice over — to use an adjective to describe themselves and their interactions with society in all its domains? If yes, and if I’m interpreting your response correctly, would this be due to the judgment that because they have a perceived privilege in society, it should preclude them from speaking about their affairs in a manner afforded to other classes of people who are perceived as less privileged? If you disagree, please clarify.

    5. Wesley H, it’s wonderful that the African-American community has people like you there to white-knight for them. Without you, they would no doubt be completely adrift in the world. Because nothing says progress like treating minorities like disabled puppies. It’s the duty of white people, in checking their privilege, to “lift those up” who are “historically marginalized”. We might even say it’s the white man’s burden. Yes, this moral stance–while deliberately disadvantaging others for no other reason than their race (a pre-existing condition if there ever was one)–will truly help eliminate the scourge of systemic racism, while achieving diversity, inclusion, and equity. There’s absolutely zero chance that it will foster resentment and humiliation and widen the racial divide. Nope. Not gonna happen. So keep wagging your finger, Wesley. It’s the only way these Hoosier knuckleheads will ever learn from someone who “got out” to a westcoast multiculti paradise and became enlightened like you did.

    6. Wesley, no one is stopping you from giving reparations out of your own pocket. I won’t hold my breath….

  7. Wesley H. – Ask an Italian, Irish or Eastern European immigrant how they were received when they came to the US. I don’t think they were welcomed with open arms. I do have a question about when and what is enough propping up? Using racism to fight racism is inherently wrong. There needs to be an end game. The best way to end racism is to remove racial terms from how we describe the world. If you are always emphasizing race, racism is just perpetuated.

    1. Um, Richard W., all the ethnic peoples you mention came here willingly. Blacks were brought here as slaves. Sort of a huge difference, no? Also, it took maybe 1-2 generations for those earlier groups to be largely accepted by “Americans”. It’s taken 400 years and Blacks are still face systematic discrimination. There’s you answer, and it belies you racism. After all, those other groups and largely considered white.

    1. Do you care to explain what exactly you find “ignorant?” Or, what any of this has to do with the economy? Speaking of ignorant, unless you are posting about dirt resistant clothing, this is how you spell “non-sustainable.”

  8. Charles Venable has been critical to transforming a static indoor art museum into a year round activity center. Newfields is now more that just a building with paintings on the walls and pretty, well groomed grounds. He should be lauded for everything he has brought to a somewhat staid institution. Cancel culture will always look for its next victim and its next pretext to ruin someone. Do not give in to the mob, because it will never be satisfied. The posting, while possibly including the unnecessary word “white” , actually shows an institution searching for a new director to do exactly what the mob claims it wants. I am sure that everyone of the mob, and the signers of the petition have each said or posted multiple things that (could be taken out of context) are much more offensive . All of their past statements must now be vetted for purity–right? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

  9. If the museum and its board gives in to the crybullies, it would be a strategic mistake and a roadmap for future shakedowns. People could legitimately take issue with Venable’s long term planning or the wisdom of a 10 year contract extension granted in 2016, but this particular issue is all smoke. Interesting to see how many organizations and people are circling like vultures in the hopes of using the IMA’s platform and resources for their own profit, all under the guise of inclusivity and representation.

    No doubt the outcome is a slate of signatories will get grants/funding out of this for their own projects that ultimately have minimal impact, but have the dual benefit of making the grantors look good politically and providing the grantees some income and the appearance of being innovative people. But both outcomes have a short half life in the end.

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