Indianapolis art and nature center Newfields issued a statement Saturday in which it expressed “deep regret” for a job posting in which it described a need to diversify its patrons while “maintaining the museum’s traditional, core, white art audience.”
The museum said the description—part of a post seeking a new director for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which is part of the complex—comes out of an effort by Newfields to be “truly inclusive.”
However, it said the wording was “divisive rather than inclusive.” It has since updated the wording in the ad.
The museum posted its statement Saturday, after criticism of the job description exploded on social media.
— Newfields (@NewfieldsToday) February 13, 2021
The Arts Council of Indianapolis was among the critics, posting on Twitter that the group was “deeply disappointed and concerned by Newfields’ original job description.”
“The declaration of interest in maintaining their ‘traditional core, white art audience’ served to undermine their stated value of inclusivity and desire to ‘attract a broader and more diverse audience’ made in other parts of the description,” the council said. “Unfortunately we know this is not an isolated situation among our arts institutions locally or nationally.”
A statement from the Indianapolis Arts Council: pic.twitter.com/JibBVCK9cn
— Arts Council of Indianapolis (@artscouncilindy) February 13, 2021
The position—the Melvin & Bren Simon director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art— was created as part of a reorganization of Newfields’ executive structure. The revamp moved Charles Venable, who has led the IMA and Newfields since arriving in 2012, into a newly established position called president of Newfields, with authority to appoint the new art museum director.
A Newfields spokeswoman referred IBJ’s questions to the organization’s statement. “We have nothing more at this time,” Mattie Wethington said an email.
But Venable told The New York Times that the use of the word “white” was intentional to indicate that the museum intended to continue to serve its existing audience, while also “building our core art audience by welcoming more people in the door.”
“We were trying to be transparent about the fact that anybody who is going to apply for this job really needs to be committed to [diversity, equity and inclusion] efforts in all parts of the museum,” Venable told The Times.
When Newfields announced the leadership restructuring on Feb. 3, it said the IMA director would “manage the day-to-day operations of one of the oldest and largest art museums in the country, including its exhibitions, public programs, art acquisitions and community outreach.”
Newfields hired mOppenheim, an executive search firm specializing in not-for-profit organizations, to help it find the art museum’s new director. The job description is posted on the mOppenheim website.
The controversy comes about six months after an Indianapolis Museum of Art curator—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.
“I’m doing the work, and, like, nothing’s coming of it in terms of what the institution says it wants and says it wants to do and has this ‘core value of inclusivity,’” IndyStar quoted Morgan, an African American art specialist, saying.
Venable said then that, “I too wish an institution like Newfields could move more quickly, especially on such important matters, but in my 30-plus-year career I have seldom seen that happen,” he wrote.
Recently, Venable told IBJ that he has 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 Winter Lights and a new Harvest festival have 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.”
“And that’s because art museums often are off putting to the average individual who don’t think they know enough about art to really enjoy those experiences or feel welcome in those experiences,” he said.