Charles Venable has resigned as director and CEO of Newfields, according to a statement from the board of trustees and the board of governors released on the Newfields website Wednesday.
Venable has served at the helm of the art museum campus, located on the northwest side of Indianapolis, since 2012.
The resignation comes one day after 85 Newfields employees and members of the Board of Governors circulated an open letter criticizing the wording in a job posting by the museum and called for Venable’s resignation.
The job posting sought a director who would be responsible for attracting a “broader and more diverse audience while maintaining the museum’s traditional, core, white audience”.
The boards' statement opens with the following words:
We are sorry. We have made mistakes. We have let you down. 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.
A viral post on social media
Dominic Senibaldi, executive director of Cat Head Press, took note of the words "traditional, core, white audience" in the employment listing. So he posted it on both Facebook and Instagram, according to The Indianapolis Star. The posting went viral on Feb. 12 generating numerous online accusations of racism against museum leadership.
The museum soon revised the language of the job description to read “traditional core audience” and pushed an apology out to social media the next day.
“I deeply regret that the choice of language clearly has not worked out to mirror our overall intention of building our core art audience by welcoming more people in the door,” he told The Times’ Sarah Bahr, who is based in Indianapolis.
However, any attempts by the museum to explain by this point were in vain.
A petition addressing “artists, cultural leaders, advocates, and allies against racism” began circulating on Feb. 14, calling for signatures. The petition stated that the wording of the job description “blatantly detailed the way in which systemic racism permeated” Indianapolis.
Among the demands of the petition — just like the open letter from the group of Newfields staff and board members — was for Venable’s resignation. By 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 17, there were 2031 signatures on the petition.
According to the Feb. 17 statement from the Newfields boards, Chief Financial Officer Jerry Wise will become interim president of Newfields.
The museum will create an independent committee to review all Newfields’ staff and board positions “with the goal of inclusively representing our community and its full diversity. The admission policy will also be reviewed “to include additional free or reduced fee days to increase access to Newfields and to insure Newfields is accessible to all members of our community.”
Newfields also committed to forming a city-wide advisory committee “consisting of artists, activists and members of communities of color whose primary function is to hold leadership accountable to these goals” while the museum’s curatorial programming will expand to include more representation “of/for/by Black, Latino/a/x, Indigenous, Women, People with Disabilities, LGBTQIA, and other marginalized identities.”
All staff, boards, Newfields “full staff” and volunteers, according to the statement, will take part in anti-racist training.
The open letter from concerned Newfields staff
While acknowledging Venable’s work to “financially stabilize” the Newfields campus, the Feb. 16 open letter from Newfields staff also justified its call for his immediate resignation, marking it as their priority demand.
“[His] work enabled us to weather the impacts of the COVID 19 pandemic without sacrificing employees to stay afloat,” the letter read. “However, this stabilization means very little if we continue to fail our community. We, Newfields staff, are nonprofit employees in the cultural heritage sector because we care about arts and culture work. We assert this work must be done for and in partnership with our community.”
The letter went on to say that actions and words by senior leadership hampered staff efforts towards community engagement in order to create a more inclusive Newfields campus: “We are tired, we are frustrated, and we have been grappling with the July 2020 departure of our colleague Dr. Kelli Morgan — all while striving to continue serving our community and pushing to make Newfields better.”
Morgan was a curator who had been recruited by the museum in the summer of 2018 to bring a more inclusive array of artists and artists’ works to Newfields’ collections and exhibitions.When she left, she called the Newfields work environment “toxic” and discriminatory.
The open letter from staff also revealed that the exact wording of the job posting had been a matter of heated contention internally at the museum. The letter asserts that, at an all-staff meeting in January, Venable and Laura McGrew, Senior Director for Guest Experience & Human Resources, had defended the job posting’s language.
“Furthermore,” the letter read, “Dr. Venable’s continued gaslighting of the staff and refusal to take responsibility for any of the events leading up to Dr. Morgan’s departure silenced staff members due to fear of retribution, even in summer/fall 2020 meetings with our DEAI consultant, which were intended to be “open and honest.”
The Arts Council of Indianapolis released a statement in the wake of Venable’s resignation, thanking the Newfields Board of Trustees and Board of Governors for "listening to the staff and community [...] The Arts Council is committed to supporting our sector in the deep work that must take place to be the inclusive and anti-racist arts and cultural community we believe is possible. We want Newfields to succeed and thrive.”
Urban planner Danicia Monét, who had edited and circulated the petition calling for Venable's removal, wrote the following on Facebook:
This is progress but there’s still more work to do towards building a truly equitable and inclusive city.
Let us not forget the demands for accountability with Funders and legacy institutions who embolden the type of discriminatory behaviors and policies experienced at @newfieldstoday and many many other organizations across the @cityofindianapolis.
2,000+ artists, cultural leaders, advocates, and allies are still calling for systematic change.