By now, just about everyone in Indy who follows the news has seen the employment listing for the new Newfields director position that went viral Friday night.
The sought-after director would be responsible for attracting a “broader and more diverse audience while maintaining the museum’s traditional, core, white audience”.
The choice of language quickly became a public relations nightmare for the museum over Valentine’s Day weekend.
“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.
The language of the job description was soon revised to “traditional core audience.”
When I first saw the wording for the job description, I thought back to the time when the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields seemed to be making progress towards creating a truly 21st-century museum.
It was July 2019. Kelli Morgan, the museum’s new associate curator, was taking me on a tour of the American galleries. She had just completed a partial rotation of artwork in the galleries. Her most striking choice was to place the painting “Knowledge of the Past is Key to the Future, St. Sebastian,” a work completed in 1986 by prominent African American artist Robert H. Colescott, among artworks from the Gilded Age.
The painting depicts a lynching in a highly expressionistic style. Across the gallery from the painting, Morgan asked these questions in her wall text: What happens when American art is interpreted through its multiple social and political contexts instead of its aesthetic and art historical merit?
During the Gilded Age, lynching — the killings of African Americans and others by torture and hanging — was common. These extrajudicial killings were perpetrated predominantly, though far from exclusively, in the Southern states. (3,446 Blacks were lynched between 1882 and 1968 in the U.S. according to the Tuskegee Institute.)
But you wouldn’t have seen any hint of this history, walking through the American Galleries, prior to Morgan’s placement of the Colescott painting. Morgan alluded to in this lack of historicity in the museum with the title of the aforementioned wall text; "America is hard to see". Morgan was planning more such rotations for the galleries, but I recall a Newfields staffer expressing his skepticism to me on the question of whether or not the museum's board was going to accept all of her proposed changes.
Almost exactly a year later, Morgan quit the museum, writing a resignation letter in which she called the museum’s culture “toxic” and discriminatory. For me, Morgan’s abrupt resignation echoed the controversy that had risen at the Indianapolis Art Center in the summer of 2020, when the Center’s board of directors appointed a white executive director, rather than conduct a thorough job search. She left during the height of the Black Lives Matter-led protests against the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, when she felt her own concerns about equity and diversity were not being taken seriously by the museum board.
A walk through the museum
When I took a walk through the museum on Dec. 6, 2020, the Colescott was no longer there. There was, however, a work by African American artist Thornton Dial on display on the main floor, with its plea for unity embedded in the title: “Don’t matter how raggly the flag, It still got to tie us together.”
It was my first time walking through the galleries in almost a year, but much of the museum galleries were closed for renovation. The most notable closing was the entire fourth floor; the entire contemporary wing of the museum. Starting in June, all 44,000 square ft. of that space will be dedicated to an experiential space featuring a multimedia light show that will allow patrons to walk through digital projections of Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portraiture, sunflowers, and starry nights. You will be able to sip Van Gogh themed cocktails while you take in scents of sunflowers spritzed into the air around you.
The museum, hopeful that COVID-19 will soon be brought under control, is bullish about The Lume as a way to attract new revenue. But what about patrons who want to see contemporary art at the museum? During the Oct. 7 press conference announcing The Lume I talked to Charles Venable, the director and CEO of Newfields. He told me that the contemporary work from the fourth floor will soon be integrated throughout the main floor, which houses the European and American galleries. “So you can make the older art go and dialogue with the new,” he said. In addition, there will be 10,000 square ft. of dedicated space for contemporary art elsewhere in the museum (in a space yet to be announced). Venable also mentioned to me the possibility of commissioning digital works of art to be shown in The Lume, although no such offerings are on the immediate horizon. The next digital production after the Van Gogh production will, he said, likely be focused on the Renaissance and the work of Michelangelo.
The Lume, brought to Indianapolis by Australia-based Grande Productions, will not exist in isolation in the Midwest. A new “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibition is slated to open in February in Chicago. While the production company, Lighthouse Immersive, is different, it’s the same kind of immersive experience that will be on offer. Notably, the venture will not be taking over existing museum gallery space.
For the record, I’m not opposed to such experiential exhibitions per se, as a recent ArtNet article implied by mislabelling me as one of the group of art “purists” pushing back against it. I’m simply opposed to the taking over of existing exhibition space. It’s a choice that makes me wonder about the museum’s commitment to contemporary art despite Venable’s assurances that the museum will continue to provide space for it.
There was no mention of the Chicagoland competitor at this press conference that featured Indianapolis mayor Joe Hogsett as a speaker and billed “the Lume” as a draw to attract tourists — and to draw back existing audiences, during the post-pandemic recovery.
Dan Hicks and The Brutish Museums
But I wasn’t at the museum to mourn the loss of the contemporary galleries. I went primarily to see a Benin bronze currently on display in the African galleries, having just read Dan Hicks’ new book The Brutish Museums, the Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence, and Cultural Restitution published by Pluto Books (2020), that references a work currently on display at Newfields.
Hicks argues in his book that, because the British looted these bronzes from Benin City, Nigeria during an 1897 naval attack — an attack that he painstakingly documents — the museums currently housing these artworks have no legitimate claim to them.
I approached the display case with the Benin bronze. It is one of 868 plaques — depicting the Royal Court of the Obas of Benin City, Nigeria — to show up in appendix 1 of The Brutish Museums as “A provisional list of the worldwide locations of Benin plaques looted in 1897.”
The plaque depicts a warrior, “an important military leader” according to the gallery text, with a spear in his right hand and a ceremonial sword in his left, wearing anklets, bracelets and beads. It dates from between the 16th and the 18th centuries. The gallery label also mentions who donated it, Harrison Eiteljorg — the namesake of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis — but it also leaves out the fact that it was one of the brass plaques plundered by the British.
Repatriation of such objects, according to Hicks, should be the priority of all the museums that hold them. I believe that repatriation of stolen artifacts should become a Newfields priority as well. There is now, in fact, a museum being planned for Benin City, which should be completed in five years’ time, to house repatriated bronzes and other objects
While walking through the gallery, I’m thinking of the concept of “Chronopolitics” that Dan Hicks discusses in The Brutish Museums. In the text, Hicks points to the Benin bronze holdings of the Pitt-Rivers Museum, in Oxford, England where he has worked as a curator for the past 13 years. Such displays, he writes, seem to exist in their own, twisted time continuum. “The effect was to show an ancient living culture, freshly destroyed, as if it were nothing but archeological remains,” he writes
There is a whiff of that effect in the African galleries at Newfields. Like the Benin bronze, much of the art and artifacts of the African collection were donated to the museum by Harrison Eiteljorg in 1989. Although there are a few pieces of contemporary African art, you wouldn’t know, walking through these galleries, that the continent of Africa has large urban centers and thriving, sophisticated art scenes, just like Europe or the United States. In my view, the African Galleries are sorely in need of an infusion of contemporary art, in order to “make the older art go and dialogue with the new,” in Venable’s words.
But currently what we is a breakdown in dialogue. I don't think the employment listing would have created as much of a stir if it wasn't reflective of outstanding issues that Newfields (and the museum community as a whole) need to address, and quickly.
While I sympathize with the museum’s struggle, with a limited endowment, to make ends meet, I don’t think the museum needs to become something other than a museum in order to do this. Ultimately, I believe that making the entire IMA collection more relevant to 21st-century patrons — work Kelli Morgan had started — would have a positive impact on growing and engaging the Greater Indianapolis community and beyond. I'm sure that's only a start, but that's the stuff I see, from my limited point of view.
Instead, the museum seems gung-ho on using 21st-century technology to highlight pre-20th century artists and to lure back their “traditional, core, white audiences” post-COVID.
Correction: the term "board of governors" was changed to "museum board."