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Indiana museum head resigns after job posting mentioning 'core, white art audience'

Indiana museum head resigns after job posting mentioning 'core, white art audience'
© Indianapolis Museum of Art Newfields | Facebook

The head of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields resigned on Wednesday after a job posting sought a new director who could maintain the organization’s “traditional, core, white art audience."

The board of trustees and board of governors wrote in a statement that Charles Venable's resignation was “necessary for Newfields to become the cultural institution our community needs and deserves.”

“We are sorry. We have made mistakes. We have let you down,” the boards wrote. “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.”

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The boards vowed to launch an independent committee to conduct a "thorough review" of its leadership and culture. It will expand representation from artists of marginalized identities and require staff and volunteers to participate in ongoing anti-racist training.

The museum will also look at adding more free or reduced-fee entrance days to ensure that Newfields is accessible to all members of the community.

The boards said the museum will release a “detailed” action plan within 30 days. 

The backlash came after Newfields released a six-page job posting for the role of a new director, which sought a candidate who could bring in a more diverse audience but maintain the “traditional, core, white art audience.”

Venable issued an apology in The New York Times, saying the intentional wording of the listing was meant to indicate that the museum would not abandon its existing audience as it sought a more diverse, inclusive crowd.

“I deeply regret that the choice of language clearly has not worked out to mirror our overall intention of building our core art audience by welcoming more people in the door,” Venable said. “We were trying to be transparent about the fact that anybody who is going to apply for this job really needs to be committed to D.E.I. efforts in all parts of the museum.”

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Venable became the first president of Newfields, the 152-acre cultural campus home to the IMA and other galleries, earlier this month as part of a restructuring of executive leadership. According to the announcement at the time, Venable had served as director of the IMA since 2012.

The controversy has raised concerns about a potentially larger problem in the museum culture.

More than a hundred of Newfields staff and stakeholders released a separate letter calling for Venable’s resignation, as well as a restructuring of the museum’s human resources department.

“It has been difficult and painful watching the institution to which we dedicate so much of our lives, both professionally and personally, fall short of meaningful action repeatedly when it comes to racial equity work,” they wrote.

Kelli Morgan, a Black woman, said she resigned in July 2020 from her role as associate museum curator due to what she referred to as "toxic" and "discriminatory" culture. 

“Clearly there’s no investment or attention being paid to what’s being learned or communicated in the training,” Morgan told the Times. “Because if there were, there’s no way a job posting would’ve been written like that, let alone for a museum director.”

“Until the museum world is Black and white and red and purple, and until we deal collectively with the responsibility for discrimination, things like this will continue to happen," she later added.