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.