[Editor's note: This is the first of a series that will interview stakeholders about their reactions to the Newfields 30-day action plan]
On March 19, Newfields announced its action plan that includes the establishment of a $20 million endowment to enhance representation in exhibitions and programming, the expansion of diversity in leadership, retraining, broadened museum access, among other action items.
It’s an effort to address a controversy at the 138-year-old museum on the northwest side of Indianapolis that exploded into public view on social media and the press last month.
The controversy concerns a job posting that sought a museum director who would be responsible for attracting a “broader and more diverse audience" while maintaining the museum’s “traditional, core, white audience.”
The job posting was widely perceived as insensitive and racist and generated national attention inside and outside the museum community.
Charles Venable was ultimately forced to resign as director and CEO of Newfields. The resignation was spurred on by an open letter by staff criticizing the wording in the job posting circulated by 85 staff and board members, demanding that he step down.
But if there was any hope on the museum’s part that the subsequent release of this 30-day action plan would successfully answer the questions about the museum sparked by the employment posting, it’s not a hope grounded in current reality, according to Dr. Kelli Morgan, the former associate curator of American art at Newfields.
Morgan resigned in July 2020 after charging in a letter to Charles Venable — one she widely shared — that Newfields was “consistently fail[ing]its BIPOC staff, allies, and local communities and, as an institution, was “toxic.”
Reached by phone in Atlanta, GA. — where she currently resides — Morgan called the 30-day action plan “fluff” and said, “the entire leadership needs to resign.” By leadership, she means all senior leadership, including interim director Jerry Wise and the board of trustees.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion
“These are people who have no kind of sophisticated understanding of what DEIA [diversity, equity, and inclusion] work actually entails,” Morgan said about current senior leadership. “These are people who have no kind of sophisticated understanding of even what the word means, or what these terms even mean. The reason that I say that is because these are the exact same people, minus Charles, who have completely ignored the people within the institution who are already doing the work …
Among the leadership is interim president Jerry Wise, who told The Indianapolis Star that he didn’t see the job post before it went public because he missed the all-staff meeting where it was talked about because he was ill at the time.
“Jerry Wise is the person that said in I don't know how many meetings, ‘The goal of the institution is not to be anti-racist [...]’ That was the tenor, that was the narrative, prior to this whole job description debacle,” Morgan said.
She went on to say that the reason the description was written the way it was written is because senior leadership and the board are also oblivious to the current scholarship that appraises and critiques current approaches to DEI work.
“We know more than we did in the 30s or the 40s [...] or even the 70s right, at this point,” she said. “The scholarship is there and that's another thing that just that often shocks me.
It shocks her, she said, because the scholarship is so far ahead of institutional practice.
“They have no freakin’ clue as to what the trends are, what the current scholarship says when it comes to DEI work, or social practice or anti-racism work resources,” she said. “Just, they have no idea. So there was no sense that this nation would respond in the way that it did to the job description.”
Going beyond the gallery walls
Morgan says that Newfields curatorial staff are not being centered in the 30-day-plan and that outside consulting firms are taking the lead on DEI work.
But the section of the plan that states that the museum will work with the field’s leading scholars and curators who specialize in DEI curatorial practice has, in Morgan’s view, a significant omission.
“I am the leading scholar and curator in the field that specializes in DEI curatorial practice,” she noted. It is that perspective that she will share at the TEDx Indiana University Virtual Conference at 2 p.m. on March 27. You can RSVP for the free virtual conference by clicking here.
“I'm so excited because it's about the stories that aren't being told, more like what stories are heard, even when they are told,” she said about the conference. “So I really wanted people to see what happens behind the curtain, the story of the reality: what museum professionals are dealing with on a daily basis, and how toxic art museums are.”
These are stories, she said, that museum professionals can’t always tell publicly because of fear of retribution and extend beyond Newfields throughout art museum culture.
As Morgan is well aware, the culture of the American museum was partly shaped by the founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) — painter and Revolutionary War veteran Charles Willson Peale. Morgan worked at PAFA as a curatorial fellow.
Peale is a problematic figure to Morgan and many others in the museum field.
“This well-to-do American artist and businessman sets up this model of ‘I'm going to build a building, like I have enough resources to build a building to put all of my cool stuff in, to invite all of my friends to come look at all of my cool stuff,” Morgan told NUVO in 2019.
(It’s a model of a museum that has many contemporary analogs, where museum collections are often determined by the largesse of donors, and not the relevance of those items to 21st century audiences. The display of the Benin bronze at Newfields, a work that was looted from Benin City, Nigeria by the British and subsequently donated by Harrison Eiteljorg to the museum is but one example of this.)
It was Venable who reached out to Morgan in 2018 when she was at PAFA, which may seem ironic considering what transpired afterward, to make the American Galleries more relevant to 21st century audiences.
That is, the museum, which did not respond on Friday morning to a request for comment, originally hired Morgan to bring diversity — in the form of a more diverse selection of artists in the American galleries — to Newfields.
Morgan’s response during the hiring process, when he called to ask what she would do if she had full run of the American collection, was unequivocal: “I would change the whole narrative,” she told NUVO in July 2019. “And not necessarily change it, right? But broaden it. So I ran down how I would do that. And then he kept calling.”
Newfields announced her appointment as associate curator of American art in July 2018.
But Venable and senior leadership, according to Morgan, were not ready or willing to accept the systemic institutional changes that Morgan would seek once hired. Because in her view, the task of bringing in a more diverse selection of artwork — by decentering whiteness — went beyond the walls of the American Galleries. It required a cultural shift in the museum in order to counter the prevailing narrative that centered, in the words of the job description, “the traditional core white audience.”
“Because centering that core traditional white audience was always the goal in hiring me. It was like, ‘Oh, we just thought you were going to bring in some cool Black artists, just put them up on the wall and keep everything the same.’” she said. “There's no sense that what anti-racist work, or [...] critical race curatorial analysis actually does.”
Going beyond the gallery walls, as it were, is intrinsic to her curatorial practice.
“Part of my approach was bringing in the community to write the interpretation because it's, like, you activate the work,” she said. “We, as human beings, activate these works of art. To a certain degree, the work isn’t really interesting to me if I can't connect it to the people in its contemporaneous moment, or even in the current moment.”
That is, if the museum was displaying the work of a Latinx artist, Morgan would’ve wanted to bring in local Latinx residents to discuss that work.
But, according to Morgan, the institutional culture of Newfields was too “toxic”, to bring local community members into the museum to engage in this process without changing the museum culture by doing what Morgan describes as “holistic anti-racism” work.
But DEI training was not activated during Morgan’s time at the museum.
Part of the problem with her employment at Newfields, according to Morgan, was that she had a title but she didn’t have the corresponding power that the title implied. As Morgan told Nonprofit Quarterly’s March 11 Tiny Spark podcast titled “Curator Says it’s Time to Tackle the Art World’s Racist Culture”, Venable didn’t hire her for her skillset: “He hired me because I was Black.” (Nationwide, less than 5 percent of curators are Black.)
She encountered a lot of resistance in carrying out her work and had to maneuver around rules that, she says, she feels in hindsight were drawn up with her in mind such as a rule prohibiting curators from working with docents on-campus. So she met with them off-campus.
But the one moment that Morgan can point to — that ultimately led her to resign — was the September 2019 art committee meeting where work to be potentially acquired by the museum was discussed. Up for discussion was a vase titled “The Expulsion of Colin Kaepernick and John Brown”, by ceramicist Roberto Lugo that depicts abolitionist John Brown on one side and Colin Kaepernick — the football player and activist — on the other.
A wealthy donor started criticizing Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem during NFL games to protest police brutality. The donor complained that Kaepernick was disrespecting the U.S. flag and said that things had improved for African Americans in the U.S.
As detailed in the Nonprofit Quarterly's Tiny Spark podcast, Morgan confronted this criticism head-on, saying that “the American flag does not mean the same thing to African Americans; it never has and it never will.” She also went on to say how people were dying in the adjacent neighborhoods to Newfields every day, and how she was one of the only African American curators in the U.S. She then defended Lugo, a young African American and Latino American ceramicist based in Philadelphia PA., whose vase reflects the unfinished struggle for racial justice in America.
“To have a piece like this, to have a young both African American and Latino American ceramicist and then put this imagery on a piece like this is phenomenal, right, for those of us who are fighting against what is actually happening to us in our communities every day,” she said.
Then she gathered her belongings together and left the meeting, which was still in progress saying “This is too much and it’s too much for me to shoulder by myself,” and “This is a problem when there’s only one Black voice in the room.”
A year and a half after it took place, Morgan provided some context and perspective to that meeting.
“As an historian, as a Black woman, particularly coming from a poor working class background I was like no, you don't get to say that, at least not while I'm sitting here, you don't get to say that because that's not true for everybody,” she said.
Her response to the donor shocked the people who were in the room, she said, and in that moment none of her curatorial colleagues came to her defense. Later, she went to a mid-level manager’s office and started crying at her desk.
“Then when I went back to my office, my curatorial colleagues were kind of waiting, you know, they were like standing around, waiting and everybody was in tears, pretty much everybody was in tears and they were just like ‘We are so sorry and oh my God we don't know what to say,'” she said. “And so, in the subsequent meetings when it came up, and Charles [Venable] pretty much was villainizing me, they were not having it.”
Morgan thinks her curatorial colleagues felt bad for not saying anything in the meeting. “So then they would say things [in Morgan’s defense] whenever they could,” she said. “But then they eventually started to get reprimanded and threatened, yelled at, all that kind of stuff for doing so.”
Different types of revenue streams
Although her assessment of Venable is mostly negative, there is one area where Morgan gives him some credit. She praises his fiscal management through his tenure, and attracting a larger audience through the creation of the experiential attractions Winterlights, Spring Blooms, and the Harvest Festival.
“It made complete sense,” she said. “But the thing was, you can do both, right? You don't necessarily have to just completely divest from exhibitions and curators. There are other ways to do exhibitions right that'll bring revenue, or at least bring interest that could create different types of revenue streams around the galleries. I don't think he liked the way we were trying to do that though, those of us so we're trying to do that. We're doing that very literally through, you know, projects about social practice that were literally based on the community, and community building.”
(The Community Meal, Portraits of Our City, and Left of Center — the survey of work by Samuel Levi Jones which Morgan curated along with Bryn Jackson — are some examples of this community-engaged work.)
Morgan, who makes it clear that she sees problems at American museums extending beyond race to issues of class, gender and sexual orientation, didn’t rule out working as a consultant if there were to be a wholesale leadership change (although she ruled out living in Indianapolis again).
While living in Atlanta, where she has family, Morgan is working as an independent curator after having taken some time to regroup after her time in Indianapolis. But it’s apparent that she still thinks of, and keeps in touch with, her fellow curators at Newfields who are not entirely at liberty to share their stories with the public.
“I think as a staff, you know, we were all just dealing with, you know this, this really crazy, culture, which unfortunately, a lot of people are still dealing with, and I just couldn't,” she said.
Editor's note: I added an attribution to the Nonprofit Quarterly's Tiny Spark podcast subsequently to this story. I also changed the acronym DEIA (Diversity, equity, inclusion, and access) to DEI (Diversity, equity, and inclusion). I apologize for the omission and error.