Protestors call for reinstatement of Burnette as Newfields CEO

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Newfields demonstration
About 40 demonstrators gathered Sunday at the intersection of 38th Street and Michigan Road to call for the reinstatement of Colette Pierce Burnette as CEO of Newfields art museum and gardens. On Nov. 10, Newfields announced Burnette’s departure from the role without providing additional details. (IBJ photo/Dave Lindquist)

About 40 demonstrators gathered outside Newfields art museum and gardens Sunday to call for the reinstatement of Colette Pierce Burnette as the organization’s CEO in a protest that coincided with opening night of the site’s popular “Winterlights” attraction.

On Nov. 10, Newfields announced Burnette’s departure from the role she held for 15 months without providing an explanation for the exit. A spokesperson told IBJ the organization adheres to a policy of not discussing the details of internal employment matters. Burnette was the first Black top executive at Newfields, an organization initially founded as the Art Association of Indianapolis in 1883.

Protestors lining the sidewalk Sunday near the large letters that spell “Newfields” at the intersection of 38th Street and Michigan Road chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, tell us why you made her go.” The demonstration’s participants included state Sen. Andrea Hunley.

Activist Keith “Wildstyle” Paschall, one of a handful of people who spoke on microphone during the 4:30 to 6 p.m. demonstration, said the Newfields Board of Trustees should supply details about circumstances surrounding Burnette’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.”

As part of an initiative titled “Newfields Together,” the organization formed the community advisory committee that enlisted Paschall as a member. Newfields expressed a commitment to become an “empathetic, multicultural and anti-racist institution that embraces diversity, equity, inclusion and access.”

Sunday’s protestors marched from the corner of 38th Street and Michigan Road to the Newfields entrance along 38th Street. The march briefly blocked vehicles entering the grounds for “Winterlights,” but law enforcement representatives arrived in siren-blaring cars to persuade protestors to clear the road in a matter of moments.

Signs carried by protestors included messages such as, “What happened to Dr. Burnette?” and “Twinkling lights can’t cover up your racism.”

“Dr. Burnette has had such a positive influence on the city, getting very involved in the community and having real discussions,” Paschall said. “She was making real change at Newfields, which is something we’d never seen before. For her to be summarily dismissed like that was really upsetting. I felt like that’s a fight against progress in the city.”

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.

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 Newfields board appointed Michael Kubacki, a former trustee and outgoing chair of Lake City Bank, as interim CEO.

On Sunday, The Indianapolis Recorder reported that another member of the Newfields Board of Trustees resigned on Friday.

Adrienne Sims, IU Health’s chief human resources officer since 2022, exited the Newfields board one week after the announcement of Burnette’s departure, the news outlet reported. A Newfields spokesperson on site Sunday said the organization could not confirm The Recorder’s report.

IBJ previously reported the resignations of board members Otto Frenzel IV and Gary Hirschberg, who stepped down on Oct. 9 and Nov. 10, respectively. The resignations of Frenzel and Hirschberg preceded the announcement of Burnette’s departure.

The CEO of Newfields reports to the board of trustees, which presently is made up of 27 members after the resignations of Sims, Frenzel and Hirschberg. Darrianne Christian has served as board chair since May 2021 and is the first Black woman to hold the position.

Paschall criticized the way information has been disseminated by Newfields.

“When members of the press have to track down whether board members resigned or not, and they can’t get the word from the board leadership, that is fraud by deception and it needs to stop,” he said.

Also on Sunday, the African American Coalition of Indianapolis issued a joint statement with 18 Black-led organizations calling for transparency related to Burnette’s exit.

“The communication from Newfields’ board of trustees does not suffice to explain the reasons behind the exit of a leader who has endeavored to rebuild the institution’s reputation and foster meaningful connections with Indianapolis’ marginalized communities,” the organizations said as part of the statement.

The roster of organizations included the Indy Black Chamber of Commerce and The Indianapolis Recorder as well as Indiana Black Expo Inc. and the Indianapolis Urban League—two entities that issued a similar statement on Thursday.

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36 thoughts on “Protestors call for reinstatement of Burnette as Newfields CEO

    1. She may not be able to if she signed a severance agreement prohibiting her from doing so. Current board members can’t (shouldn’t) independently comment per their fiduciary requirements/responsibilities. Lawyers for both parties may be advising silence if there is any kind of investigation happening that could result in civil litigation or criminal charges. The board could also be honoring requests she has made regarding the circumstances of her departure. In the absence of any additional statement from Newfields, it’s really hard to know what is going on. I hope the board seriously considered all the potential community ramifications of both the personnel change and how they are choosing to handle it.

    1. First, nothing indicates she was terminated. She departed suddenly, which could have been purely for personal reasons she does not wish discussed. Second, if she asked not to have her reason as for leaving discussed, legally the museum may not comment. Which means you can withhold donations from now until the end of time, but you will *never* get any further information.

  1. Now that a library-like mob has formed to demand more race-based personnel decisions at the museum that formerly had “Indianapolis” in its name, surely the Central Indiana Community Foundation cannot be far behind, withholding funds unless someone with the wrong skin color (hint: it’s white) is smeared and railroaded out of their job. It’s all about race, after all – unless you are CICF itself, which just appointed another white person as top executive. Social justice for thee, but not so much for meeee!

  2. I don’t disagree that the museum needs to come clean about what is going on, but none of these protestors are in any position to evaluate whether Burnette’s departure was warranted or not, much less call for reinstatement. Multiple board resignations would seem to indicate some kind of institutional crisis – likely financial – so the question is who screwed up.

  3. It certainly is a puzzle. As a member, I it was a real pleasure seeing LOTS of people hanging out at the museum, especially on Thursday and Friday nites. The place had a whole new positive vibe! And, previously, I had FOREVER been protesting Venable!

  4. The ‘community’ has shown time and again that a ‘seat at the table’ ie inclusion, isn’t really enough. Satisfaction doesn’t come to true fruition until the ‘community’ takes the table, the house, the property and anyone else’s culture and influence. Equality has shown to be dominance and a new version of ‘exclusivity’. The INDIANAPOLIS MUSEUM of ART would better serve everyone and the city by relocating at the old City Hall building downtown as part of the proposed redevelopment.

    1. Why in the world would they give up a campus they invested hundreds of millions of dollars in to spend hundreds of millions more money to move to a *smaller* facility *not* designed to display or store art? Also, the Old City Hall building already gas a redevelopment plan with a private investor to use it as the lobby for a new high rise hotel.

    1. Exactly. Maybe it is something personal and she doesn’t want to share it. Newfield is under no obligation to share personal information either. What is wrong with these people?

  5. BSR, you are the epitome of what’s wrong with the world. The statement “Anyone else’s culture and influence” tells me all I need to know about you”. Get rid of your polarizing lenses that keep telling you that all men and women were created equal. Expand your base and you might find that people who don’t look like you could actually make your life better….

  6. So….the great unwashed mob is making demands to reinstate a person even though they have no idea if she was fired for embezzling thousands of dollars, making purely racist decisions, or hiring incompetent people.
    Is that how this works now?

    1. Sadly it is. They don’t use any common sense or wait to hear what the real issue might have been. Instead, reinstate and ask questions later all under the guise of equality/equity!

  7. After reading the article and all the statements, im still just as confused as ever about the entire situation. It’s clear that someone doesn’t want the truth out and lots of people behind closed doors truly don’t want change, whatever that is and its always subjective depending whom you ask….

  8. The neon-colored protest signs are from the Indy Liberation Center. It is a hub for activists groups including the Party for Socialism and Liberation. This is a Marxists organization using the pre-tense of social justice in order to push their totalitarian ideology. Look at their web site and you will see they are anti-police and anti-semitic.

  9. Seems to me that the departure of the CEO of any organization isn’t an HR issue. HR tends to be under the supervision of the CEO. If a CEO leaves that position it is the responsibility of the Directors of that organization to provide a clear explanation of that departure to their stakeholders!

    1. You do not understand HR matters. The CEO is an *employee*. All the HR rules and procedure apply to the CEO, just like any other employee. Employee matters are generally kept confidential except in limited and rare circumstances, and generally if it is a voluntary departure and the employee does not want matters discussed, they are not discussed. Involuntary departures are typically kept confidential, too, except in limited circumstances.

  10. To the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields Trustees: You richly deserve this soap opera chaos. In 2021, you yielded to the woke mob, just scores of people and many from far away trending on Twitter (now X), and ignoring the vast majority of the museum’s patrons of all races. Now you are reaping the results because the woke will eat the woke…enough is never enough. The chair of the IMA Trustees is a Black woman and the newly-hired Director of operations is a Black woman. But according to the 45 protesters on Sunday (out of the city’s 882,000 people) the IMA is currently engaging in “systemic racism” over the departure of Dr. Burnette. Rubbish. We do not know the reason for her departure. It is an internal personnel issue and not necessarily subject to public disclosure. The handful of protesters are fringe in their comments. What in the world is the Indy Liberation Center anyway? How sad to see one of the nation’s largest and oldest (1883) art museums come to this low point.