Two Newfields board members resigned before CEO’s departure was announced

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The Lume, an interactive exhibition space, opened at Newfields in 2021. (IBJ photo/Mickey Shuey)

Before the announcement of the departure of Newfields CEO Colette Pierce Burnette on Nov. 10, two members of the organization’s board of trustees resigned—one stepping down a month before Burnette’s exit and one on the day of the announcement.

A spokesperson for Newfields confirmed the resignations of Otto Frenzel IV, a four-year board member, and Gary Hirschberg, a five-year board member, but declined the opportunity to comment. Newfields has offered no explanation for Burnette’s exit, saying the organization adheres to a policy of not discussing the details of internal employment matters.

Frenzel resigned on Oct. 9. Hirschberg resigned the morning of Nov. 10, about eight hours before Newfields made the unexpected Burnette announcement.

IBJ obtained an email Hirschberg sent to fellow board members to announce his resignation.

Colette Pierce Burnette

“It is with great disappointment that recent events have forced my decision to tender my resignation from the board and as the chair of the finance committee,” Hirschberg wrote. “I do not believe I am able to serve any further in a fiduciary capacity that is up to the standards held by me personally and required by the state of Indiana in either role given the direction forced on us yesterday.”

IBJ contacted Hirschberg, who verified the authenticity of the email. He referred any questions to Newfields. Frenzel declined to comment on his decision to resign.

The mention of “direction forced on” the board on Nov. 9 joins a list of unknowns hovering above recent changes at Newfields.

Circumstances surrounding Burnette’s departure have not been publicly revealed. It’s unknown if Hirschberg’s resignation is related to Burnette’s exit, and the same uncertainty applies to Frenzel’s resignation.

Indiana Black Expo Inc., the Indianapolis Urban League and the Indy Arts Council publicly asked Newfields for more information related to Burnette’s departure.

On Thursday, Indiana Black Expo and the Indianapolis Urban League issued a joint statement, saying, “The Newfields board leadership owes the community an explanation.”

In an Indy Arts Council statement issued on Nov. 11, CEO Julie Goodman described the lack of information shared about Burnette’s exit as “callous and cold communication fueling a cycle of trauma and harm.”

IBJ’s attempts to reach Burnette have been unsuccessful.

The CEO of Newfields reports to the 28-member board of trustees. Darrianne Christian has served as board chair since May 2021.

The election of Christian made her the first Black woman selected for the position. Burnette, who began her tenure at Newfields on Aug. 1, 2022, was the first Black top executive at the organization initially founded as the Art Association of Indianapolis in 1883.

Burnette was hired in part to ease a race-related controversy involving her predecessor. She succeeded controversial former CEO Charles Venable after the organization was rocked in February 2021 by a 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.

Newfields was in the process of installing a new executive structure when Venable resigned. While Venable was hired as director and CEO in 2012, he was given a new title of Newfields president in 2021.

Two new roles, one devoted to managing day-to-day operations of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and one devoted to managing outdoor attractions at the Newfields campus, were created.

Jonathan Wright became the Ruth Lilly Director of The Garden and Fairbanks Park at Newfields.

The job of overseeing the art museum was filled this year. Belinda Tate started her tenure as the Melvin & Bren Simon Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields the same week that Burnette’s departure was announced.

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

Frenzel, who had served as the board’s vice chair, is part of a family that has long-running connections to Newfields. His late father, Otto “Nick” Frenzel III, served on the art museum’s board. The estate of Frenzel III donated $1.5 million to Newfields and helped to endow a conservation science lab position that’s known as the Otto N. Frenzel III Senior Conservation Scientist.

Frenzel IV, owner of Lebanon-based Kauffman Engineering, previously served as president of the Penrod Arts Fair that’s presented annually on the grounds of Newfields. A former U.S. Marine Corps officer and Wharton School of Business graduate, Frenzel IV is treasurer of the Riley Children’s Foundation and president of the Indiana War Memorials Foundation.

Hirschberg and his wife, Hannah, presented the first “Art in Bloom” festival on the grounds of Newfields in 2021. Hirschberg is CEO of Chicago-based Aaron Wealth Advisors, which opened an office in Carmel earlier this year.

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15 thoughts on “Two Newfields board members resigned before CEO’s departure was announced

  1. Frenzel’s family’s name has been associated with Indianapolis banking and commerce for six decades or more. A very respected businessperson. If he’s walking away….it’s bad.

    1. A well respected trust fund person…. Let’s not give credence to the son for the success of the father

  2. This is such a PR disaster. Stonewalling of information only leads to rumors, speculation and bad feelings. I am sorry the staff has to endure this. The board needs to step up and provide the public with some resonable explanation. Do your job!

    1. Kevin, only you can “shove it in your face all day and night” – it’s the media’s obligation to report on news of local importance.

    2. Might not be legal. Employment issues are confidential and in this case personal issues w Dr Burnette might also be in play.
      In short, while we all would like to know, it’s not really any if our business.
      Sad stuff for sure…and regrettable that the over stating and assumptions that the organization’s Board did anything other than something appropriate and relative to their governing responsibility is disappointing.
      Take a moment, public…yes, there have been problems at Newfields…this action may be related and might not.
      In any case, not a positive moment for anyone who cares about Indianapolis.

  3. The email from Mr. Hirschberg is rather silly. I have served on a few nonprofit boards in the past, and I currently serve on one now. The Board of Directors (or Trustees as in the case of Newfields) is the legal governing body of a nonprofit organization and it has the *final say* on all matters, except in the rare circumstance where a nonprofit organization has voting members/shareholders (similar to shareholders in a for-profit corporation) who elect Board members and vote on certain specific major issues, such as the dissolution of the organization. Newfields does not have any separate shareholders (you can verify this by reviewing its publicly available tax return filed with the IRS, Form 990).. So, no one would have “forced” a direction on the Board. I assume what Mr. Hirschberg means is he was displeased with some action taken by his fellow Board members–so drop the passive aggressive language and simply say you disagree with the decision of your fellow Board members.

  4. Several comments are accurate such as the legal and private concerns surrounding these events. The board may be constrained.

    That said, this is a very serious community matter that could easily become much larger. Just as the IMA/Newfields was beginning to overcome the serious issues presented a couple of years ago, perception by many has begun to burn that bridge. Right or wrong. This is a classic case of the need for a good crisis public relations firm to be engaged and deployed quickly. A narrative, within whatever constraints there are, needs to be provided soon.

    Those of us who love the museum hope that it can correctly deal with this so that it can get back to the main task of art.

  5. “Newfields has offered no explanation for Burnette’s exit”

    This may be odd, but perhaps ask Burnette? If she signed a non-disclosure, that was her choice and something she agreed to. So any speculation or whatnot is moot if she agreed to the separation terms. Otherwise, she can share why she left and shout it to the rooftop.

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