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Newfields president Charles Venable resigns after job listing backlash

Newfields staffers, artists call for the president of the Indy Art museum to resign
Posted at 2:40 PM, Feb 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-17 15:04:43-05

INDIANAPOLIS — Newfields president Charles Venable has resigned as president of the Indianapolis art museum after nearly 100 staffers, hundreds of artists, and others in the community called for him to step down following a job listing that prioritized maintaining the museum’s “core, white art audience.”

In a letter posted to its website, Newfields stated, "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."

This comes after one phrase in an otherwise innocuous job listing that could end up changing the face of Indianapolis’s largest art museum.

Calls for the ouster of the president of Newfields grew after the publication of the job advertisement for a director. The job description read in part:

"Maximize unique programmatic opportunities, working closely with the curatorial, education and public programs divisions to animate the permanent collection galleries in innovative ways that attract a broader and more diverse audience while maintaining the Museum’s traditional, core, white art audience:"

The wording of the ad was changed soon afterward to eliminate the word “white.” But the posting had already been circulated widely on social media, and even the newly worded ad was criticized as racist for suggesting that the traditional target audience for the museum was not diverse.

Last weekend, a letter drafted by several artists called for the immediate resignation of Venable. The letter has since been signed by almost 2,000 other artists, former Newfields employees, and their supporters from across the country, and it also calls for an overhaul to the museum’s board of trustees.

Only two of the 26 board members are people of color.

“We tried to make very specific demands so that there is room for growth,” said Danicia Malone, co-founder of Blackspace Indianapolis and one of the artists who helped compose the letter. “It’s not impossible. It’s not implausible. These are very concrete things that can be done.”

Their letter also calls for the city of Indianapolis to suspend public funding for Newfields until the demands are met, something the mayor’s office avoided comment on in a statement.

“Equity and inclusivity remain core values for the City of Indianapolis,” said Mark Bode, communications director for Mayor Joe Hogsett, D-Indianapolis. “Through our continued partnership with the Arts Council of Indianapolis, we will ensure that public funding contributes to the furtherance of those goals. I should also note that over the past several years, the City has collaborated with the Arts Council on varying initiatives and commitments around equity, including more recently the idea of equity standards. Those conversations remain robust and ongoing.”

A similar letter was made public Tuesday by a group of 102 people who say they are staff members, former Newfields board members and other stakeholders. In addition to the demands for Venable’s resignation, the letter states that Venable and Laura McGrew, the museum’s Senior Director for Guest Experience and Human Resources, defended the wording of the job posting during a January meeting before it was published. “At the present time, we do not see a way forward if Dr. Charles Venable remains at the helm of our institution. We have no chance of hiring the kind of Director for the IMA we need without a serious reckoning of the Board of Trustees and Dr. Venable’s immediate removal,” the letter states in part.

Newfields — formerly known as the Indianapolis Museum of Art — had previously announced an exhibit scheduled for later this year highlighting the Black Lives Matter mural painted on Indiana Avenue in August 2020, following a summer of protests over police brutality. But on Wednesday, the 18 artists who painted the mural issued a joint statement saying they would not take part in the exhibit unless the demands made by the staffers and other artists were met, “namely but not exclusively, once Newfields is under new leadership and has redirected intentional and tangible efforts to make OUR city’s art museum accessible, enjoyable and representative of our community as a whole.”

The mural exhibit is scheduled to open in April.

WRTV reached out to a representative from Newfields after the letters from the artists and the museum staff members were made public. No one from the museum has commented publicly since an apology for the initial wording of the job posting was posted to social media last weekend.

"We deeply regret that in our job description, in our attempt to focus on building and diversifying our core audience, our wording was divisive rather than inclusive," the statement read in part.