Newfields hires university president as new chief executive

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Newfields exterior
Newfields, 4000 N. Michigan Road, will raise its admission price this summer. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Burnette Newfields
Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette will become president and CEO of Newfields on Aug. 1.

Newfields’ 14-month search for a successor to controversial former CEO Charles Venable is complete. The art museum and gardens announced Tuesday the hiring of Colette Pierce Burnette, the president of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas.

Burnette, 65, is scheduled to take the position on Aug. 1.

More than 230 applicants were considered for the job of president and CEO of Newfields, which in February 2021 was rocked by a race-related controversy in which a job posting referenced 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.

Chief Financial Officer Jerry Wise has served as the interim president since the departure of Venable.

Burnette will be the first Black top executive at Newfields, an organization initially founded as Art Association of Indianapolis in 1883. Burnette also will be the first woman hired for the role. From 1926 to 1929, artist and curator Anna Hasselman served as interim director.

Darrianne Christian, elected in May 2021 as the first Black woman to serve as chair of the Newfields board of trustees, described Burnette in a written statement as a humble leader with an immense amount of respect and empathy for everyone she encounters.

“Our search committee looked at leaders across the entire country, and Dr. Burnette was a clear standout amongst an impressive slate,” Christian said. “Her extensive professional achievements reflect her ability to deliver on her passion to innovate and advance the arts, education and green spaces.”

Cleveland native Burnette was hired as the president of historically Black college Huston-Tillotson in 2015. She announced plans in December to retire from the university on June 30.

She was named the 2021 Austinite of the Year by the city’s Chamber of Commerce, which cited Burnette’s commitment to education and her work as co-chair for the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities. She is credited with helping grow Huston-Tillotson’s endowment by 55% during her tenure.

“I’ve seen the nurturing and transformative power of cherished institutions like Newfields,” Burnette said in a written statement. “ I am thrilled to become part of a team driven to meet Newfields’ mission of enriching lives purposefully and intentionally through exceptional experiences with art and nature. I believe strongly in service, and I am excited to lead Newfields at this unique moment to make it a place every person in Indianapolis and beyond is excited to visit, and every team member is proud to work.”

Applicants seeking the president and CEO role were informed that “rebuilding trust and stronger relationships with the people of Indianapolis is a top priority and the organization recognizes that this will take time.”

Burnette graduated from Ohio State University with a bachelor’s degree in engineering in 1980. She earned a master’s degree in administration from Georgia College and a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Pennsylvania. She also graduated from the management development program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

In June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, Burnette wrote about her experiences with racism in a letter addressed to the Huston-Tillotson campus community:

“I am a woman whose great-grandparents were born into slavery. I am a woman whose grandparents were sharecroppers in Mississippi. I am a woman whose grandfather quit the Kansas City Monarchs Negro League Baseball team and worked in Cleveland’s factories because he refused to tolerate the humiliation of sleeping in cars and being spat on as they traveled from town to town to play. I am a woman whose father was run out of Lincoln County, Mississippi, as a teenager after defending his mother against a white man who kicked his mother (my grandmother) to the ground ‘like she was a dog.’ My journey is filled with stories of blatant and covert racism through today. On almost a weekly basis, despite my position as a college president, I encounter deep-seated biases and experience being treated less than because of the color of my skin and the institution where I work.”

Newfields welcomed 200,000 guests to The Lume, the immersive digital art exhibit that opened in July. The Lume’s initial show, an overview of Vincent Van Gogh’s career that closes this month, ranks as Newfields’ most popular indoor exhibition.

The permanent collection of artwork at Newfields includes 43,000 objects.

Newfields leadership through the years

The origin of Newfields, a campus that includes the Indianapolis Museum of Art at 4000 Michigan Road, dates to 1883 and the founding of the Art Association of Indianapolis. The John Herron Art Institute opened in 1902, and hired its first director in 1905. In 1967, the Indianapolis Art Association split the school and museum, transferring the school to IU’s control and moving the museum to its present location. A name change—to the Indianapolis Museum of Art—accompanied the move. The IMA was rebranded as Newfields in 2017.

John Herron Art Institute
William Henry Fox, director 1905-1910
Milton Matter, acting director, 1911-1912
Frederic Allen Whiting, director 1912-1913
Harold Haven Brown, director 1913-1922
J. Arthur MacLean, director 1923-1926
Anna Hasselman, interim director 1926-1929
Wilbur Peat, director 1929-1965
Indianapolis Museum of Art
Carl Weinhardt Jr., director 1966-1975
Robert A. Yassin, director 1975-1987
E. Kirk McKinney Jr., director 1987-1990
Bret Waller, director 1990-2001
Anthony G. Hirschel, director & CEO, 2001-2004
Lawrence J. O’Connor, interim director, 2004-2006
Maxwell Anderson, director & CEO, 2006-2012
Charles Venable, president & CEO 2012-2021
Jerry Wise, interim president, 2021-2022
Colette Pierce Burnette, president & CEO, 2022-

Source: “Every Way Possible: 125 Years of the Indianapolis Museum of Art,” by Anne P. Robinson and S.L. Berry (2008).

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24 thoughts on “Newfields hires university president as new chief executive

    1. All of the above information and that’s your focus? Sounds like a fantastic hire to me.

    2. Really? The last Texan made the changes that were helpful to the community’s regard for the museum. It was his successor that drove it down.

    3. No way can we overlook Mr. Venable’s shortcomings, but he did not drive it (IMA) down. He was responsible for bringing changes which have resulted in thousands more visits each year. Winter Lights, Lume, etc. on the negative side he would not be persuaded to change an idea he liked. He changed the name to Newfields and put out that horrible sign that should have been reason enough for termination of employment. However, I thought he was treated very badly by many who should have said, “thank you, but we want to make a change.”
      “That last Texan” didn’t handle budgets well, came off as snobbish to many people I know, but had encouraged taking on exhibits of real artistic consequence.
      I really reserve comment on “fantastic hire” when I don’t see any mention of art specific experience or education. Everyone has their shortcomings.
      Dr Burnette makes a compelling statement for the leadership she brings here and how it was formed by her life experiences. I really do wish her well, but I’m done with how Newfields has done things, even down to small details like the micro aggressions on the tags on paintings.

    4. Dr Burnette makes a compelling statement for the leadership she brings here and how it was formed by her life experiences. I really do wish her well.

    5. Mary D. you have your CEO’s switched.

      Charles Venable is a Texan. Max Anderson is a New Yorker, and after he left the IMA, he took over as the Director of the Dallas Art Museum.

    6. Christopher, thank you correcting, it seems you did get my message though. I thought Mr. V was from Kentucky, but that was by way of Texas?

    7. Hi Mary D., Charles Venable’s prior job before the IMA was at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, but he was born and raised in Houston, and graduated from Rice University with a BA in Art History before leaving Texas to pursue his graduate studies.

    1. She sounds pretty fixated on her melanin, which she claims has held her back, despite the fact that her educational attainment and leadership positions over the years would place her in the top .00001% of human achievement in our country’s history, let alone global history or let alone white male achievement. It’s so weird how this happens so routinely.

      If she isn’t simply the next step toward advancing the paradigm shift of this institution (a condition the IMA/Newfields/Naptown Wall Duds shares with most other similar flailing institutions in peer cities), I at least agree with Richard S: get rid of the name.

    2. Newfields split the position toward the end of Charles Venable term. Colette Pierce will be the new CEO, she will *not* be the museum director, so she does not need a lot of experience running an arts organization. She needs a lot of good management experience running a public institution, which she certainly has.

      The new museum director, who has yet to be hired, will be the individual overseeing the art collection and special exhibits.

  1. Job 1 is to get rid of the stupid new name. I can just imagine the focus group of marketing dullards who came up with “Newfields”: “Yeah, about the name ‘Indianapolis Museum of Art’ – we’re really not much into ‘Indianapolis’ or being a museum, and frankly we’re bored with ‘art’. Let’s find a name that sounds like a combination of a lawn-mowing company and a candy bar. Anybody?”

    1. Amen brother.

      When driving past do you think it’s

      A.) a boarding school
      B.) rehab center for rich people
      C.) gated community
      D.) senior living facility
      E.) all of the above

    2. That is the Job 1. The name? Who really gives a c*** what it is called? What is important is what the organization DOES. The fact some people are hung up on a name and not focused on the substantive issues is revealing.

      Also, the name, while not my favorite, does have historic precedent. The museum is located on the grounds of the old “Joe” and Ruth Lilly estate (their children donated the property to serve as the new home of the Art Museum), and the estate was called Oldfields, since it was farmland before its first residential occupant, Indianapolis Water Company executive Hugh Mckenna Landon, turned it into a country estate. The Lillys extensively remodeled the main residence, which is now owned and operated by the museum, and the improved the beautiful landscape grounds. Later, in 1939, the Lillys built a smaller residence on the grounds for their son (Josiah III) and his family that they affectionately called “Newfield” (it now houses the museum’s private scholar residence). In recent years, the museum decided to expand the visitor experience (whether people agree or not with that direction is another issue) beyond the walls of the art collection to the entire property, including the Virginia B. Fairbanks Arts Park. The art museum wanted to highlight the history of the grounds and the new mission so they adopted a slightly altered version of Josiah III’s home and renamed the organization “Newfields” to evoke this new mission.

    3. I’ll answer your *great* question, Christopher B. It is *I* who give a … oh my, I can’t bring myself to say such a word as you used.

    4. Richard, plus 1 – tacky name, tacky sign. It’s an art museum – call it as such.

    5. Definitely agree–“Newfields” is such a stupid name. If you’re from out of town, you have no idea what it is. And deriving “Newfields” from “Oldfields” is just an juvenile idea. And besides, how many people know about Oldfields? Like the confusing logos that some graphic designers come up with–if you have to explain it, it’s not doing its job.

    1. Private Schools do that all the time. A CEO with a business background (fundraiser) and. Provost for educational issues.

    2. Again, people seem to miss the fact that while Charles Venable was still leading the museum, the Board of Trustees decided to split his position between a CEO to run the organization and a museum director. Ms. Pierce is *not* the new museum director. She is the CEO of the organization, and she has extensive management experience with running public institutions. The CEO does not need an arts background. In fact, the interim CEO for the past 14 months since Venable stepped down has been the museums CFO, Jerry Wise who certainly does not have an arts background.

  2. It appears that the IBJ might have misunderstood that Ms.Pierce will be the CEO, not the museums director and the fact that these are very distinct positions.
    The opening paragraph is confusing in this regard and should be rewritten.

  3. Newfields is the name of the campus. The museum is still the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The museum is part of the Newfields campus, along with all the other stuff. It’s not that complicated.

    1. Actually, it is complicated – at least the public thinks so.
      Branding should never be complicated.

      Clearly, the name “Newfields” has been used far more frequently by the media than the IMA – even when describing things that occur within the IMA building. Google the Lume event (it’s not an exhibit) and you will see that it far more references “Newfields” than the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

      The effect of separating the IMA from the campus it once named has been to remove the active use of the city’s name of one of its most high profile national assets. “Where is Newfields,” a person in Boston might ask. Further, it treats the words “art” and “museum” as something that must not be said, for fear that it will turn off people.

      Winterlights, etc. have been wonderful additions. But it is a deep shame that it couldn’t have been associated with the Indianapolis Museum of Art rather than an anonymously-named event campus. The promotion of Art itself has purposely taken a back seat as seen in the new administration structure, the branding, and in the elimination of an entire floor of the building itself that has been given over to event space (the Lume) on an apparently-permanent basis (next up is the Monet Lume show).

      The IMA and the campus are great treasures of our city. We should all continue to support it (especially as it works to include previously overlooked people) even if we disagree on its nomenclature.