More than 1,500 people have signed an open letter demanding the removal of Charles L. Venable from the helm of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) after an offensive job posting surfaced on the museum’s employment platform. According to the job description for a new director, which has since been edited, the position’s responsibilities included “maintaining the Museum’s traditional, core, white art audience.”
The job description “blatantly detailed the ways in which systemic racism permeates our city,” the open letter states. Conceived by Danicia Malone, an urban planner in Indianapolis and former member of the IMA’s Contemporary Art Society, the letter outlines a series of demands for the museum, along with Venable’s removal. Other requests include diversifying its primarily white Board of Trustees to include BIPOC individuals and other underrepresented groups by June of this year.
It also urges “the immediate hold on any pending or future funding to the museum” by the Lilly Endowment, which awarded $7 million to the museum last year, and other key donors until reforms are made.
“This cannot be fixed with programs, we want to underscore that,” Malone told Hyperallergic. “This is not a situation we can throw money at to initiate a new course or exhibition. This is systems changed. We’re not calling for a defunding, we simply want the holding of funds until these things are addressed.”
As of this afternoon, Malone has not yet received an official response from the museum.
The job listing’s language drew ire from artists, IMA patrons, and former and current museum workers and collaborators over the weekend. The guest curators of an upcoming exhibition at the IMA featuring Black Lives Matter muralists, Malina Simone Jeffers and Alan Bacon, have stepped down in objection. In an interview with WTHR, former board president John Thompson said Venable should resign. According to reports by IndyStar, the Lilly Endowment said it took “the issues raised by the job posting very seriously” and planned to meet with the board today.
Responding to the onslaught of criticism, the IMA issued an apology and edited the posting to instead read “traditional core art audience.” In a statement posted to Twitter on Saturday, the museum said, “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.”
But the open letter demands a further update to the text, arguing that the latest version “still implies a preference for a white audience.”
“This is not just a problem at Newfields,” Malone told Hyperallergic. “While the letter may have been directed at this incident at that institution, this is a community-wide, systems-wide, state-wide, country-wide situation.”
This morning, a group of 85 current staff and stakeholders at the museum released their own missive, which echoes appeals for Venable’s removal and describes the recent incident as a “boiling point” following months of “diversity, equity, access, and inclusion (DEAI) failings.” Notably, the letter alleges that staff raised concerns about the job posting over a month ago.
“When the language of the posting was questioned in an All-Staff Meeting in January, it was defended by both Dr. Venable and Laura McGrew, Senior Director for Guest Experience & Human Resources,” the workers write.
They also denounce Venable’s “continued gaslighting of the staff” and lack of accountability for the departure of a Black curator, Dr. Kelli Morgan, last summer. The IMA was at the center of controversy when Morgan, the former associate curator of American art, resigned from her post, alleging a “discriminatory” work environment, a lack of implicit bias training, and incidents including a “racist rant” by a museum board member.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Morgan, now an independent curator based in Atlanta, said she was not surprised by the language of the job listing, which she viewed as “typical Newfields.”
“I didn’t even blink an eye,” she said. “Newfields is its own universe — it’s very insular, there’s no real finger on the pulse of what’s happening not just in the larger art world but the larger society, period. Indiana is very insular in that same way, and white supremacy is normalized throughout the culture. [Venable] does not understand how racist the intent was in and of itself.”
“I had been asking for DEIA training, implicit bias training, anti-racist training, since the spring of 2019, and it was excuse after excuse,” Morgan added. The museum began undertaking DEIA efforts following her resignation, she said, but the regrettable job description was published nevertheless.
“This job posting comes out while the institution is in the midst of DEIA training,” Morgan said. “So clearly something’s not computing.”
The IMA is the ninth oldest art museum in the US, and also one of the wealthiest, with an endowment of over $335 million as of 2019. At that time, Venable’s compensation as director and CEO of the museum stood at nearly $800,000, per its most recent 990 filings. The museum is housed in the larger Newfield arts campus in Indianapolis, which also includes the Lilly House and Gardens estate and the 100-acre Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park.
The search for a museum director is part of a recently announced executive restructuring that promoted Venable, the museum’s current director and CEO, to President of the overall Newfields campus, freeing a new position to head the IMA. Jonathan M. Wright, the museum’s Deputy Director, was appointed Ruth Lilly Director of the Garden and Fairbanks Park.
In an interview with the New York Times, Venable noted that the six-page job description also emphasized the importance of attracting a diverse audience, an aim he believes was overshadowed by a single, problematic bullet point.
Under Venable’s leadership since 2012, the campus was renamed “Newfields” in a bid to expand the institution’s audience beyond the 16% of Indianapolis residents who then accounted for more than 90% of its visitors, according to a statement. Venable also led the development of non-traditional programming, like an artist-designed miniature golf course, in order to reach a wider public.
But many view his approval and defense of the prejudiced job listing as the latest in a series of missteps related to inclusivity. In 2015, Venable instituted an $18 admission fee at the IMA, which had previously been free. That same year, members openly criticized changes to access points at the campus, including the closing of pedestrian entrances that some said made the arts hub less accessible to people without a car.
“When you look at a campus like this, that is hundreds of acres, beautiful green land, mostly cut off to the residents who live in that area — a lot of them are the underserved population from the entirety of Indianapolis,” Malone told Hyperallergic. “When you have all of those demographics living in an area like that and you have this gem of a space that is guarded and inaccessible to them, that too, to me, is criminal.”
Newfields has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
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