After the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields faced controversy over a job listing seeking a director who could maintain its “traditional, core, white art audience,” the institution’s president, Charles Venable, has resigned.
“We are sorry. We have made mistakes. We have let you down,” the museum’s board of trustees and board of governors wrote in a notice posted to the museum’s website. “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.”
In its letter, the museum said it would bring on an independent committee to review Newfields’s leadership and work culture, and vowed to diversify its curatorial staff and the programming it puts on. Newfields also said it would review and expand periods where free or reduced admission is offered, which have been a point of contention during Venable’s tenure.
The museum’s chief financial officer, Jerry Wise, will act as the museum’s interim president, and the board promised a more detailed action plan within 30 days.
Venable’s resignation marks an ending to a controversy that came to a head this past weekend, when screenshots of the posting went viral on social media. After many expressed anger over the listing, the museum altered the phrasing to read “traditional core art audience” and apologized for the original language.
Although the job listing generated a mass outcry from the general public, spurring on a petition for Venable’s resignation that amassed more than 1,500 signatures, staff at the museum had also been speaking out against Newfields. This past July, Kelli Morgan, an associate curator of American art, resigned from the museum. In a letter to Venable, Morgan claimed that Newfields facilitated a “toxic” and discriminatory work culture, describing a “racist rant” from one board member. After Newfields apologized for the job listing, a group of 102 museum employees, operating under the name Change Newfields, demanded Venable’s departure.
Venable arrived at the Indianapolis Museum of Art as its director in 2012, having held top-ranking positions at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio. While he has come under greater scrutiny over the past half-year, locals in Indianapolis and museum professionals across the nation have expressed concern over Venable’s leadership for years, claiming that he has steered the museum, which he later rechristened as Newfields, in a way that has placed financial success over community engagement.[Did Charles Venable democratize Newfields or destroy it?]
When he came to the museum, Venable aimed to do away with Newfields’s debt by 2026. Among the key facets of his strategy was to get rid of the museum’s free admission policy in 2015. (That policy had been in place since 2007.) Alongside that move, Venable gated off the museum’s 40-acre garden, forcing visitors to pay admission fees of nearly $20 in some cases to enter. According to one museum employee, the choice caused attendance figures to drop and the museum’s audience to begin skewing “older, whiter, richer, and less families.”
Venable also drew ire from the staff when he had it class every object in the museum’s holdings using a letter grade system. Using the results, the museum would then begin slimming down its collection.
Alongside both of these measures came a focus on blockbuster exhibitions, including ones devoted to Bugatti cars and Henri Matisse. He also initiated the Winterlights festival, which involved stringing flora in the garden with colorful lights during holiday time and charging $25 for entry. These programs rankled some who claimed that Venable had lost sight of what made the Indianapolis Museum of Art so important: its holdings, which are widely considered to be rich and art historically significant.
When the museum rechristened itself Newfields in 2017, CityLabs critic Kriston Capps wrote, “Venable has turned a grand encyclopedic museum into a cheap Midwestern boardwalk.”
Venable defended his decision to mount such blockbusters, telling ARTnews in 2019, “What is fair to say is that we are being exceedingly disciplined about when we program those shows.” The board had given Venable a 10-year contract extension in 2016.
The recent job posting seeking a new director was to have seen Venable taking on the role of president. He had previously been director.
In its statement on Wednesday, Newfields promised to make substantial changes to the way it operates and the work culture it facilitates.
“As we guide the organization through this crucial process, we will listen to and partner with members of the community,” the museum said. “Newfields is yours and we pledge to make the necessary changes to ensure we can regain your trust and respect. We commit to being held accountable, as we hold the institution accountable, to ensure that Newfields is diverse, equitable, accessible and inclusive.”