Newfields president resigns amid staff, community pushback

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Charles Venable (IBJ photo)

The president of Newfields resigned from his position Wednesday amid mounting staff and community criticism over a controversial job listing for the Indianapolis Museum of Art that described a need to attract a more diverse set of patrons while “maintaining the museum’s traditional, core, white art audience.”

“This morning, we accepted Dr. Charles Venable’s resignation as President of Newfields,” the board of trustees and board of governors of Newfields said in a statement. “We thank him for his service and agree that his resignation is necessary for Newfields to become the cultural institution our community needs and deserves.”

Newfields said Chief Financial Officer Jerry Wise will serve as the interim president.

Venable, 60, has faced mounting pressure to step aside since the job posting for a new director of the museum went viral on social media on Friday. More than 85 Newfields staffers and stakeholders signed a public letter Tuesday calling for his ouster. That followed a similar, open letter signed by more than 1,800 people, including patrons and members of the local and national arts community.

Newfields officials declined to conduct interviews on Wednesday but apologized in a long statement that promised changes.

“We are sorry. We have made mistakes. We have let you down,” the statement said. “We are ashamed of Newfields’ leadership and of ourselves. We have ignored, excluded, and disappointed members of our community and staff. We pledge to do better. For those expressing outrage and frustration—we are listening.”

In the statement, the officials said they would:

  • engage an independent committee to conduct a thorough review of Newfields’ leadership, culture and its board of trustees and board of governors, with the goal of inclusively representing the community and its full diversity;
  • review and expand the current admission policy to include additional free or reduced-fee days to ensure that Newfields is accessible to all members of the community;
  • form a city-wide community advisory committee consisting of artists, activists and members of communities of color whose primary function is to hold leadership accountable to these goals;
  • expand curatorial representations of exhibitions and programming “of/for/by Black, Latino/a/x, Indigenous, Women, People with Disabilities, LGBTQIA, and other marginalized identities.”

The statement also said the boards, full staff and volunteers would participate in “ongoing anti-racist training using a developmental approach and assessment.”

Venable was originally hired in 2012 as the Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, replacing Maxwell Anderson, who left the IMA to become director of the Dallas Museum of Art.

In 2015, he oversaw the rebranding of the museum and its spacious gardens and grounds as Newfields, which was intended to heighten the profile of its outdoor amenities. Under Venable’s watch, the facility created new annual events that took advantage of the grounds, such as Winterlights.

In 2016, he signed a 10-year contract extension. He was paid a base salary of $753,667 in 2019 with bonuses of $30,935.

On Feb. 3 of this year, he took on the role of president of Newfields as part of an executive reorganization that created a separate role for a new museum director.

Venable’s role as president focused on mid- and long-term planning, along with fundraising and management of organization’s finances, operations, marketing and advancement departments. Additionally, Venable was expected to oversee “important diversity, equity, inclusivity and accessibility efforts.”

Newfields was in the midst of searching for the new museum director when the job listing came under fire over the weekend for expressing the goal of maintaining a core “white” audience, even while working to attract more diverse patrons.

The museum, which on Saturday issued a statement expressing “deep regret” for the language, said the original job description came out of an effort to be “truly inclusive.”

The Tuesday letter signed by at least 85 Newfields staffers and stakeholders alleged some employees pushed back on the wording during an all-staff meeting in January, before it was posted publicly. The letter claims Venable and Laura McGrew, senior director for guest experience and human resources, defended the language.

In the letter, staff members said they spent four hours Monday “listening to members of senior leadership attempt to explain themselves, their actions, and their plans” but that staffers only felt “more distrustful and confused” about their future in the wake of that meeting.

In addition to asking Venable to step down, the letter had other demands, including the cancellation of Newfields’ job contract with search firm mOppenheim; the restructuring of human resources to make it 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.

Venable recent told IBJ that he had been working with the Newfields board “to figure out ways how to broaden and diversify the audience for Newfields, as well as how we can do our share in terms of the city to make Indianapolis more of a tourist attraction than perhaps it’s been in the past.”

Events like Winterlights and a new Harvest festival were been part of that effort. But he said that “it has been harder to figure out new ways to try to attract more people and more diverse people into the art museum itself.”

Recent efforts to feature more work from artists of color took a blow after the job posting went viral. Malina Simone Jeffers and Alan Bacon, co-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 Newfields 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.

Shamira Wilson, one of the artists commissioned for the DRIP exhibition, told IBJ on Wednesday the artists associated with the exhibit had collectively decided to withdraw from the showcase.

“As a group, we’re not participating until [community] demands have been met,” she said. “Personally, I don’t plan to participate either, so I’m focusing on some other products that I have coming up, and as a group, we’re redirecting our focus and moving forward.”

The controversy over the job posting comes about six months after an Indianapolis Museum of Art curator—a Black woman who was recruited to help diversify the museum’s collection—resigned and accused the museum of discrimination.

Kelli Morgan, who held the title “associate curator of American art,” called the museum’s culture “toxic,” according to a story in The Indianapolis Star posted July 18.

Newfields did not provide any details on when it plans to begin searching for a new president—or the steps that will be taken in drafting a job description for the posting.

Venable had his share of supporters and critics during a tenure in which he made significant changes. When he arrived in 2012, the museum was free to the general public (excepting special exhibitions, some programs and parking), as it had been for all but one of the previous 65 years.

However, Venable—who previously served as director of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville—believed the model was unsustainable, in part because the museum was annually drawing down about 8 percent of its endowment, which had fallen from $393 million before the recession to $266 million when he arrived.

Venable’s boldest effort to rebalance the books was instituting an $18 admission fee in April 2015, which included blocking most of the upper campus grounds to non-payers and funneling visitors through the main building.

He also changed the museum behind the scenes. Following his hire came a management shakeup, staff layoffs and an exodus of curators—including Lisa Freiman, chairwoman of the Contemporary Art Department, who largely crafted the 100 Acres Nature Park collection; and Sarah Urist Green, curator of contemporary art, who went on to create “The Art Assignment” for PBS.

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34 thoughts on “Newfields president resigns amid staff, community pushback

    1. The exact details would be confidential, but since his contract ran through 2026, I assume he will be paid out in full on the remaining portion. He was probably given the option of resigning in lieu of termination. But, since few, if any, executive employment contracts would list “public relations disaster” as just cause for termination, and to avoid an ugly legal fight adding to the drama, I assume Newfields accepted his full payout as the cost of cleaning house and rebuilding public trust.

      Obviously, neither Venable, nor the Board, expected the condemnation to be so swift, sustained, or widespread (it made even international news). I find it interesting Venable’s resignation followed the Board’s meeting the day before with a representative from the Lilly Endowment. The Endowment probably realized they would not be able to justify continuing to support the museum in light of the widespread and sustained public condemnation and informed the Board of this. The Board saw one of their major and most prominent funders say “bye, bye” and heard about all the membership cancellation requests, and realized they had no choice but to ask for Venable’s resignation. Furthermore, Venable has long been held in contempt by the members of the professional art world community who find what they view as his profit over mission focus offensive and threatening—they have long wanted him banished from the art world, and they got the perfect opportunity to push for it. So, it goes.

      I believe the job listing was a big mistake and indicative of a systemic problem with the management and governance of Newfields, but I did not think on its face it justified Venable’s termination. However, when an organization loses the confidence of its community and all the other major stakeholders, i.e. its employees, its donors, etc., then the leadership has to go. No organization can function if there is no confidence in its leadership.

    2. 1200 people and 85 employees sign a petition or letter out of a metro area of 1.3 million. Totally ridiculous

    3. Rhea P. Newfields employs 300 people, so 85 employees is almost 1/3 of the workforce. If a third of the employees of any organization signed a letter asking for the CEO’s resignation, it would be a major problem. Also, the petition had over 2,000 signatures before Venable resigned, and many of the people who signed the petition were prominent individuals in the national and local museum and arts and culture field. Newfields was also publicly condemned by the Arts Council of Indianapolis, the Central Indiana Community Foundation, the Indianapolis Chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and other prominent organizations. So, it is not just quantity, but the quality of the people and organizations who condemned Newfields’ statements and actions. Moreover, there was no groundswell of support for Venable coming from the rest of the metropolitan region. So, there you go. Whether you think the outcry was “ridiculous” or not is a moot point–Venable is gone, and others in a similar position would do well to learn from his unfortunate example.

    1. You seriously see advertising for someone to keep “white art” patrons is ok. It is not cancel culture it is a choice. I do not wish to spend my money in donations, patronage or with companies that would think a “white” designation or reference on anything was acceptable.

  1. This is the world that has been created by everybody being labeled according to what group they are a part of.
    All in an effort to gain power over people. Let’s enjoy it together.

    1. The party that said they want to “unify now” has been nothing but the party of division for decades…that’s how they exert control and increasing power for their latest flavor: #acidRain, #nextIceAge, #GlobalWarming, #ClimateChange #meToo #BLM #coronavirus #woke

      Constraint distractions, no real progress. Only for more power.

      But don’t worry I bet the next Newfields CEO will be a non-gendered adjective soup thing.

  2. Don’t blame him for resigning. He had been marked for elimination by the mob. And so begins the death spiral of another institution. Get woke, go broke. Perhaps they should stage a performance art piece reenacting the riots of the spring and summer through the hallways? Allow “artists” to spray paint the walls and over “toxic” old masters pieces? A few ritual fires set? A symbolic book burning? An installation of shattered windows and a study of the way light plays off of the shards of glass? That would certainly attract more visitors and donors.

  3. People in his position are held to a higher standard for their behavior. Even if he didn’t write the job posting himself, anything that happens within that organization ultimately fell back on him.

    They should have been able to foresee how the language would be interpreted and not include it. Because they didn’t, someone must be held responsible. We as a country are just now acknowledging that we are far from perfect, and taking steps like this helps us to establish a clearer view with which to tackle social issues. The only way to avoid similar situations from happening in the future is to correct them in the present. I commend Venable for stepping down without issue and hope the future for Newfields is prosperous and equitable.

    1. “… some employees pushed back on the wording during an all-staff meeting in January, before it was posted publicly. The letter claims Venable and Laura McGrew, senior director for guest experience and human resources, defended the language.” So there you go – the problem with the wording was brought to their attention before its release and they blew it, Buh-bye!

  4. I don’t know how someone can justify going from having a museum that was free to everyone (with the exception of special exhibits) to a museum that charges $18 per person admission. Art should be accessible to EVERYONE at ALL TIMES and that price point puts it out of reach of many in our community. How can the IMA / Newfields justify a salary of $1M??? And, what has dropping the IMA and changing to Newfields done to attendance at the museum? I don’t recall seeing a campaign to help the community understand and embrace the new brand. How about “Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields”?

    The museum used to be one of my favorite places to visit, going several times a year, taking in the Tiffany window which always took my breath away, teaching my nieces about pointillism and impressionism. But, with the pricing structure, it’s gone from being one of my simple pleasures and something that inspired me to something that I miss but isn’t in the budget.

    1. Yes, and art museums shouldn’t have to pay for building and grounds maintenance, utilities, employees, etc. It should all be free! While we’re at it, everything should be free! What sort of Shangri-La do you live in?

    2. David S, How much do you think the next Newfields’ President will make? Less? I doubt it. Endowments are rarely used to supplement operations. How much do you think it should cost to attend a first-class art museum? Same as a H.S. basketball game? What you think the museums in Chicago cost to attend? If it’s important to you that admission to Newfields be subsidized, then I suggest you begin raising an endowment for that specific purpose. Otherwise, it costs money to operate and maintain Newfields and it’s childish to think someone should subsidize your attendance.

  5. The Board should have held firm. Everyone is scared. It will be interesting to see what the Board of Governor’s does now to raise enough money to keep the place going. I think the people who sustain the museum through their donations and volunteerism should be the ones deciding on the direction they take.

  6. I love people crying about cancel culture when it is a pure example of capitalism at work. The market rewards what it likes and cancels what it doesn’t. The economics is weighed by both the producer and the customer and the market decides what succeeds and what doesn’t. This guy would not have been removed if the museum felt it would hurt their business more than it would help.

  7. I am driven to pass judgement on the comments above. It’s one of the pleasures of weighing in later in the “news cycle”. Christopher B has posted the most well written and positioned response(s). There are others, too, of course, but Christopher B. articulates exceptionally well and his points are reasoned and direct. He has clear knowledge of the dynamics of how art functions (or should function) in our society while navigating the landscape of inclusion and diversity.

    Those who make statements about “cancel culture” and infer sarcastically that “why not make everything free” really don’t get it. Their comments are intentional distractions.

    Our museum’s fiscal integrity as it meets the traditional audience needs and, while working to ensure diversity and inclusion, should be highly achievable goals. Both can and should exist. Reasonable people know that nothing is “free” and even our most beloved Lilly Endowment (for which we are all grateful), along with virtually ever other benefactor, black or white, can trace their wealth back to a man or woman who has worked hard to ensure their family’s needs are met and that people like Venable can make nearly $1M a year. (Oh…it is a nice house, too!) And it is because of those hard working men and women that ALL of us who benefit from their hard work should have enough empathy to understand that, yes, they may simply be unable to afford the ticket to entry. But to also consider…..they have paid their dues.

    Can you imagine (or do you even want to?) an underserved member of our community visiting the museum and being inspired in a way that is life changing. That is what art is and that is the impact it can have. We should ALL want everyone who would want to have the ability to visit an institution like Newfields (but can’t because of the “cost of entry”) to have that barrier taken away. And we should want that in the hope that the beauty and peace represented in art brings new or renewed hope for them while feeding their soul. That is good for our community and for our world.

  8. I would note that St. Louis has a really fine art museum in Forest Park that is free to all. Yes they charge for parking but there is plenty of free parking as well. A few years ago I attended the exhibition by Kehinde Wiley, a contemporary black artist. The exhibition featured larger than life size paintings of black St. Louis residents, posed similarly to famous paintings from various time periods in the galleries, but rendered in contemporary clothing and very colorful backgrounds. It was a fabulous exhibit and very popular. It was just a little while since the Ferguson events around Michael Brown’s death by police, so this was a timely attempt by the institution to help the community heal. I think this is one of the things art can do for a community, but at Newfields there was always too much controversy for it to be effective in this role.

    1. Mary, St. Louis does indeed have a fine art museum and it is TAXPAYER-supported by a property tax that applies not just to the City of St. Louis, but to all the surrounding suburbs in St. Louis County. If Indianapolis wants a free admission art museum, then the citizens of the Indianapolis metropolitan area can decide to tax themselves to pay for it. I think it would be a good idea, and I support tax revenue supporting arts and culture. Also, since Indianapolis metropolitan area residents seem to have no problem paying an additional sales tax to support the billionaire Colts owners by paying for their football stadium, I would think they should not object to paying a more modest tax to provide free access to what is an exceptional art collection.

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