Newfields and the Indianapolis Museum of Art seek to turn a corner after ‘triple tragedies’

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Halfway through a series of listening sessions with the 30-plus departments making up Newfields—a 152-acre cultural campus that includes the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), botanical gardens, a historic home and an art and nature park—its new president and chief executive, Colette Pierce Burnette, realised her organisation had been through what she came to call “triple tragedies”.

Already reeling from Covid-19 and the murder of George Floyd, “Newfields had its own racist incident”, says Burnette, referring to the uproar around a job listing, posted in early 2021, seeking a new IMA director who could to bring in a more diverse audience while maintaining its “traditional, core, white art audience.” For many within the institution’s staff, the Indianapolis community and beyond, that language betrayed a failure of Newfields’ leadership to see DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility) initiatives as anything other than cosmetic and precipitated the resignation of Burnette’s predecessor, Charles Venable.

“When I got here, I found an organisation with a wonderful mission, creative beautiful people who work here, but an organisation that had been traumatised,” says Burnette, now ten months on the job after more than two decades in education, most recently as president of Huston-Tillotson University, a historically Black college in Austin, Texas. “We have challenges but we’re not a racist institution. We’re really walking our way out of that.”

Burnette has focused on building relationships with a broad spectrum of neighbourhood associations, local universities including Butler and Ball State, the local Mexican consulate, the youth development group 100 Black Men, the Indianapolis Urban League and other organisations beyond Newfields’ sister institutions with very similar audiences.

“It’s all about facing outward rather than inward and consciously targeting certain organisations that already serve these populations that we’re interested in reaching, so that we can use Newfields to compliment the work that they’re doing,” says Burnette, who served as co-chair in Austin for the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities. “We don’t have to start all over again because, as a nation, we’ve studied it and we know what works. We just need to put resources behind it and do more collaborations.”

She pointed to the IMA’s just-completed reinstallation of its American art galleries, which decentre the standard curatorial perspective and bring external voices into the mix—the first in a series of such refreshes planned for all the museum’s permanent collection galleries. For Work in Progress: Conversations About American Art, five local residents were invited to participate—all artists and scholars from diverse backgrounds—who named themselves the “Looking Glass Alliance”. They articulated difficult topics and omitted stories, inspired by works they selected from the collection, through a variety of media in the galleries.

The initiative was begun three years ago during Venable’s tenure but changed dramatically while the institution was in crisis after his resignation, according Tascha Horowitz, Newfields’ director of interpretation, media, publishing and experiential design, during a recent panel discussion with the members of the alliance and curatorial staff. “It’s been amazing to me to see the institution be able to catch up to the project and support it,” Horowitz says.

A sculpture from Robert Indiana’s LOVE series at Newfields Photo by Serge Melki, via Flickr

Newfields has also reactivated the commissioning of new site-specific outdoor installations for its art and nature park, inaugurated in 2010 with eight large-scale artist projects spearheaded by the former chair of contemporary art, Lisa Freiman, when Maxwell Anderson was the IMA director. Six of the original projects remain but the programme languished during Venable’s tenure, from 2012 to 2021, when there was less emphasis on contemporary art.

A $3m gift from the longtime Newfields patron Kent Hawryluk has now created an endowment to support the ongoing commissioning of public art for the park, with the first new piece to be created by the Brooklyn-based artist Heather Hart. Her Oracle of Intimation, resembling the rooftop of a canary-yellow A-frame house that appears to have been dropped from above, is an interactive sculpture that visitors will be able to walk on, and through its dormer windows, and plug into its audio-visual system to listen to music or podcasts.

“This project ties in perfectly to the original conception of the park, which was to have something participatory, engaging, an object that was not off-limits to people to climb on, that could have an element of play and appeal to a really broad audience,” says Freiman, now a consulting curator for Newfields and an art history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. Hart’s installation will go on view next spring as part of Home Again, also including Pollinator Pavilion by New York artists Mark Dion and Dana Sherwood and This Is Not a Refuge by Indianapolis-based Anila Quayyum Agha. The first new exhibition in the park since 2010, it is expected to remain up for three years.

Burnette hopes to announce by this autumn the new director of the IMA, which is among the ten largest museums in the country and has substantial resources (Newfields’ annual operating budget is approximately $40m, with an endowment of $385m). Despite the initial controversy surrounding the posting of the position, “I’m pleased at the interest that we’ve received,” she says.

“We’re on this march to being an anti-racist institution,” Burnette says. “We want to do that in a very open, non-performative, sincere way and own who we are as an organisation. It’s a process.”

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