Charles L. Venable has stepped down as President of Newfields, the arts campus housing the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), under pressure from thousands who called for his removal after the museum posted an offensive job listing.
Incensed by the job description for a new director, which mentioned “maintaining the Museum’s traditional, core, white art audience,” community members and IMA staffers penned two separate open letters demanding Venable’s departure, which have been signed by over 2,000 people so far. Both missives decry longstanding issues related to diversity and inclusivity at the institution under its current leadership. The staff letter accuses Venable of evading responsibility and silencing staff following the departure of a Black curator, Dr. Kelli Morgan, who alleged a racist and toxic culture at the museum.
“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,” says a statement released by Newfields this afternoon.
“This morning, we accepted Dr. Charles Venable’s resignation as President of Newfields. We thank him for his service and agree that his resignation is necessary for Newfields to become the cultural institution our community needs and deserves,” it continues. The statement also outlines a series of immediate actions the institution plans to take, including leading a committee to conduct a review of leadership; and expand curatorial representation “of/for/by Black, Latino/a/x, Indigenous, Women, People with Disabilities, LGBTQIA, and other marginalized identities.”
Bryn Jackson, the Assistant Curator of Audience Engagement and Performance at the IMA, tells Hyperallergic that Venable’s resignation is the first step toward reform. In the months leading up to the incident, he says, staffers had voiced several demands, including a measurable commitment to the professional development of BIPOC employees, salary transparency and equity, and clear paths for professional advancement.
“What we are seeing at Newfields and throughout the field is the result of a crisis of unethical stewardship,” Jackson adds. “The directorial job description at the center of this news cycle is but one manifestation.”
Venable joined Newfields in 2012 as Director and CEO of the IMA after a five-year stint as director of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. This month, as part of an executive restructuring, he was promoted to President of the Newfields campus at large, prompting a search for a new director of the Indianapolis institution.
During his tenure at Newfields, Venable was criticized for changes that some say made the museum less inclusive, including an $18 admission fee at the formerly free IMA and the closing of several pedestrian entrances in the 152-acre campus. The admission fee more than tripled paid membership, which comes with free museum access, and the IMA noted at the time that it had eliminated its parking fees as a concession to visitors.
Venable also defended the single-entrance plan, implemented in 2015, as a way to “[move] the museum to another level of public garden,” but others felt that it cut the museum off from its surrounding community.
Justin Garrett Moore, director of the NYC Public Design Commission, noted that the 46208 zip code where the museum is located is 55% Black. The community’s demographics, and allegations that the IMA has not always been sensitive to its needs, further highlight the inequity of its stated “core, white art audience.”
The first open letter released this weekend, authored by Indy-based urban planner Danicia Malone, calls for the museum to offer a free or reduced fee for the “underserved” and free access to students, “thereby operationalizing accessibility, equity, justice, and liberation.” (Among the actions outlined in today’s statement, the museum says it will “review and expand the current admission policy to include additional free or reduced-fee days to increase access to Newfields.”)
The perception of the IMA as an ivory tower is compounded by the institution’s sizable endowment — $335 million as of 2019, one of the nation’s largest for an art museum. Venable has reaped the rewards of that wealth, taking home almost $800,000 in total compensation that year.
In 2016, according to a press release, the IMA’s Board extended Venable’s contract until 2026. The following year, Venable spearheaded the IMA’s rebranding as “Newfields,” uniting the different assets of the arts hub under one name in a bid to become “a holistic cultural campus” and, presumably, attract new audiences.
But for many, the job description for the IMA’s new director threw into relief the museum’s prioritization of attracting the same audience — white visitors — over any commitments to diversity. After the museum apologized for the posting and edited the text to instead read “traditional core art audience,” Venable gave an interview to the New York Times in which he explained the use of the word “white” as an attempt to clarify that the IMA’s existing visitorship would not be sidelined.
Staff said in their letter yesterday that “a serious reckoning of the Board of Trustees” would also be necessary in order to hire the kind of director the IMA needs. The board should be expanded to include dedicated positions for local representatives, artists, and art organizations, says the letter, which was signed by anonymous members of the museum’s Board of Governors.
Dr. Morgan, the museum’s former associate curator of American art who stepped down last year, agrees that Venable’s resignation is only a first step.
“It’s a great start, but honestly they all need to go,” Morgan told Hyperallergic. “You can be a flawed leader. Nobody’s perfect. But what you cannot be is a leader who blatantly and deliberately refuses to listen and learn, and other Newfields leaders besides Charles made that decision years ago.”
Museum patrons, donors, and artists have since been vocal about the need for reform at the institution. Malina Simone Jeffers and Alan Bacon, guest curators of the upcoming exhibition DRIP: Indy’s #BlackLivesMatter Street Mural at the IMA, withdrew their participation and asked for the museum to apologize to the 18 artists involved and offer another chance to show their work with “appropriate compensation.”
The Arts Council of Indianapolis, which has given funding to the IMA, says it was “deeply disappointed and concerned” by the original job description.
“While we are working hard to make progress in racial equity and inclusion across our arts and culture sector, we are frequently reminded just how much work we have to do,” the council says in a statement. “We want to believe this isn’t who we are, but this is exactly where we are. And it has to change.”