One straw too many

The Indianapolis Museum of Art

The departure of Charles Venable, formerly Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, was an unexpected surprise, and a welcome one. I had been planning a post on how Venable’s mismanagement of the museum merited his dismissal, but he himself resigned (willingly or not we will likely never know), intending to add to my “Stupid Museum Tricks” posts, when word came down. Even more surprisingly, the Board of Trustees and Governors of Newfields issued a public apology (below), a truly rare occurrence:

The final straw, ironically, came about because Venable was about to be moved into a new position, and included, well, read for yourself… this is from the job listing for Director:

This is a blunder right from the start. Racism in museums, whether in staffing, programming, all across the board, is one of the primary challenges to the field. This listing, though seeking to broaden the museum’s audience, also makes it clear that the “traditional, core, white art audience” is its own thing, separate from the community as a whole. It’s a poor choice of language, and one that the executive search firm working with Newfields, m/Oppenheim, ought to have flagged immediately; the posting was revised, but too late. It was one straw too many, and the arts community rose in outrage.

Keep in mind that many of the other straws were just as bad, and Venable himself is only part of the problem. Staff turnover under Venable’s leadership has been extensive and damaging to the museum’s reputation, with former Associate Curator of American Art Kelli Morgan writing to Venable about the “toxic” work environment, and citing a “racist rant” from a member of the Board. Venable became Director in 2012, and his tenure has not been viewed positively in the museum world. Eliminating free admission in 2015 led to charges that portions of the community were being overlooked in favor of the wealthy. In 2017 the institution as a whole was renamed Newfields, as the museum also includes gardens, a park, and two historic houses, but this was seen as diminishing the museums central role. With some educationally light programming, and little to no emphasis on the museum’s holdings, Newfields seemed headed in the wrong direction. Venable is, I hope, not a token sacrifice: the Board has promised improvements, and they should be held to that. Since a new Director was already in the museum’s future, the time is now, doubly so since the reopening of the country following the pandemic will add extra importance to how museum’s re-engage the public.

It is time for a more open and transparent attitude at Newfields: sometimes the openness is physical (Venable had the gardens enclosed), economic (work to re-establish free admission; it is a long-standing myth that admissions bring a significant portion of a museum’s revenue), and internal (transparency in salary, anti-racism training, and programming that keeps the museum’s collection front-and-center). It’s a troubled institution, but there is great potential as well. I hope some talented executive gets the job, and gets the healing and repair started promptly.

ADDENDUM: This essay on Artnet, written by former Indianapolis Museum of Art Director Maxwell Anderson, spells out many of the problems at that troubled institution.

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