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Charles Venable’s Exit From Newfields Leaves Behind A Mess—And An Opportunity

The director's complicated legacy provides an intriguing challenge for the next person to take over its leadership.

In his eight years at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Charles Venable renamed the campus Newfields, gated the grounds, imposed an entrance fee, and was promoted to president in February. Only two weeks into the new role, more than 2,000 members of the community and 85 anonymous Newfields employees demanded his resignation over racist language he defended in the job description for his replacement. It specified diversifying patronage while “maintaining the museum’s traditional, core, white audience.”

In 2017, in a stated effort to bring more racial awareness and ethnic diversity to the museum’s collection, Venable called on Dr. Kelli Morgan. Morgan says she was hired because she is Black, not because of her skill set as a critical race-culture historian. Once she began to do the work she was trained in, which centers on social justice and is designed to dismantle white supremacist narratives, the environment under Venable quickly became unsupportive, Morgan says. She resigned publicly last summer, citing a culture of fear, silence, and retaliation.

Kavita Mahoney, an arts administrator with a background in museum studies, says under Venable, Newfields had “put up one barrier after another until the museum was completely inaccessible.” Her prime example: the museum’s $18 entry fee. ARTnews reported that visitation declined after the 2015 rate hike, and quoted a museum staffer saying, “Our population became older, whiter, richer, and less families.”

Gating the grounds cheated economically and racially diverse neighbors out of a resource that had long been open to all. Urban planner Danicia Malone says this deteriorated the relationships with BIPOC community members who could be enduring stewards of the museum. The barriers, Malone feels, make Newfields feel like a fortress rather than an invitation to learn.

Revenue-generating events like Winterlights do draw crowds (the holiday light show sold 70,000 tickets at $25 a pop in its debut season), but former director Maxwell Anderson suggests fiscal complications could come with running a nonprofit like a commercial enterprise. Not only does it discount the charitable and educational mission of the museum, but he says it could also bring unrelated-business-income-tax challenges—meaning an auditor can flag certain income generated by a nonprofit as not furthering its educational mission, and therefore deem it taxable.

Critics suggest that Newfields needs to go further than replacing Venable. If you don’t, “it’s like cutting the head off of a hydra, one will grow back in its place,” says Morgan, who recommends a more powerful governing body and institution with new faces, ears, and voices at all levels.

Newfields might do well to look to its roots as it seizes this opportunity to shed the infrastructures that lead to racial injustice. The Art Association (which eventually became the IMA) was started by women’s rights activist May Wright Sewall in 1883 and funded by John Herron to build a gallery and school in his name. In her book The Life and Art of Felrath Hines, Rachel Berenson Perry notes that despite a segregated city, the Herron Art Institute had an open-door policy from the beginning and did not racially discriminate.

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