INDIANAPOLIS — The sudden resignation of the president and CEO of Newfields is sparking frustration among different Indianapolis community groups. This includes the Indiana Black Expo and the Indianapolis Urban League. They say the community deserves an explanation.

Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette served as president and CEO of Newfields for a little more than a year before the museum announced her departure on November 10, 2023. 

On that day, Newfields Board of Trustees Chair, Darianne Christian, released the following statement:

“We thank Dr. Burnette for her service to Newfields. She helped deepen our relationships with the community and championed the transformative powers of art and nature. We are grateful for her work on behalf of Newfields and wish her well in her future endeavors.” 

However, the reason behind her sudden departure is still a mystery with at least two nonprofit groups demanding an explanation from Newfields. 

“With no explanation, no warning, no lead up, and just complete radio silence, it almost speaks to the kind of dismissive attitudes that people have toward our communities and our constituents,” said Dr. Brandon Cosby, the CEO of Flanner House Indianapolis.

Dr. Cosby with the Flanner House, a member of the African American Coalition of Indianapolis, says the announcement came as a complete shock.

“When we see yet another professional put in a position of resigning, like I said without context, warning, or explanation, it really speaks to whether or not black and brown folks in executive leadership positions are truly valued,” he said.

The Indiana Black Expo and the Indianapolis Urban League are also speaking out. They released a joint statement regarding her departure on Thursday.

“Due to the nature of the announcement and the negative perception it has created, the Newfields board leadership owes the community an explanation about the resignation of Dr. Colette Burnette. Dr. Burnette opened the Newfields’ doors to many African-American organizations and the entire community, and we have personally witnessed the buzz and excitement around her leadership.  We were looking forward to expanding the partnership with Newfields in 2024, which has now come to a complete halt.  She has become a pillar in the community and her expertise and leadership are sorely needed in Indianapolis. When a stellar executive “abruptly resigns”, one must wonder again, are we seriously committed to black talent recruitment and retention in Indiana?”

On Sunday, the African American Coalition (AACI) released a joint statement with 18 other Black organizations in Indianapolis regarding Dr. Burnette’s departure from Newfields.

The African American Coalition of Indianapolis (AACI) expresses profound concern and seeks clarity on the recent announcement of Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette’s departure from Newfields. The communication from Newfields’ Board of Trustees does not suffice to explain the reasons behind the exit of a leader who has endeavored to rebuild the institution’s reputation and foster meaningful connections with Indianapolis’ marginalized communities.

In her 15-month tenure, Dr. Burnette confronted the institution’s past issues with accusations of a toxic and discriminatory culture that failed to serve audiences of color. Her appointment, which followed a controversial job posting indicating a preference for maintaining a “core white art audience,” was a beacon of progress, signifying Newfields’ commitment to transformation into an anti-racist and inclusive institution. Following Dr. Burnette’s arrival, we witnessed increased partnerships with community organizations as well as programming that advanced the inclusiveness of the institution. Dr. Burnette’s leadership, engagement, and collaborative partnerships finally gave the community a sense of belonging.

The lack of transparency surrounding her departure raises unsettling questions. Amid many rumors and allegations fueled by a press announcement highlighting her exit, we are left feeling angry, frustrated, confused, and betrayed. Did the Board of Trustees give Dr. Burnette the necessary support and grace to navigate such a complex environment? Does this sudden change in leadership reflect a deeper reluctance to authentically pursue the anti-racist and inclusive values professed by the board? Were complaints, if any, against Dr. Burnette given undue weight, and was the challenging environment she was tasked to reform considered in the board’s decision? These are the questions that we now have because of Newfields’ announcement, and we must emphasize that the way Dr. Burnette’s exit was announced has created a worse perception. Newfields’ actions took it two steps back as it relates to community relations. The board should re-examine its commitment and determine if it is sincere and capable of building trust in the Black community.

The situation compels us to consider if the outcome would have been different had the racial dynamics at play been otherwise. These questions are not just conjecture; they stem from a discernible pattern in Indianapolis where Black professionals seldom see long tenures in executive roles. This trend contradicts our collective mission for a thriving African American community represented robustly at every leadership level.

We at AACI stand resolute in our mission and insist that local businesses, non-profits, and government entities not only recognize this troubling pattern but also act decisively. We expect a commitment to creating a supportive environment that not only invites but retains Black executives, offering them a fair opportunity to succeed and make lasting impacts.

Dr. Burnette’s premature exit signifies a lost opportunity for Newfields and the community at large. As stakeholders in Indianapolis’ future, we must collectively strive to implement a sustainable model that ensures the longevity and success of Black executives, which in turn reflects the diversity and vitality of our city.

It is incumbent upon Newfields’ Board of Trustees to not only reflect on the implications of the decision but to also undertake concrete actions that rebuild trust with the Black community—a trust that currently stands fractured. The path forward requires more than symbolic gestures; it necessitates a sincere, ongoing commitment to equity, transparency, and community engagement that transcends mere statements and is embodied in the very fabric of our institutions’ leadership and governance.

100 Black Men of Indianapolis, Alpha Phi Alpha lota Lambda Chapter, Baptist Minister’s Alliance, Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis, Exchange at the Indianapolis Urban League, Indiana Black Expo, Indianapolis Professional Association, Indianapolis Recorder, Indy Black Chamber of Commerce, Inner Beauty, Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Indianapolis, lota Phi Theta Fraternity Alpha Alpha Omega Indianapolis Alumni Chapter, New BOY, Not 1 More Project, Purpose for My Pain, The Fathers Foundation, The National Coalition of 100 Black Women

Crowds also gathered outside Newfields to show their support for Dr. Burnette on Sunday. The rally took place during the opening weekend of “Winterlights,” Newfields’ popular holiday lights display.

FOX59/CBS4 reached out to Newfields for the reason behind Dr. Burnette’s sudden departure. They did not provide any details. But they confirmed what our partners at the Indiana Business Journal reported that Dr. Burnette’s departure comes after the resignation of two Newfields board members.

They are Otto Frenzel IV, a four-year board member who resigned a month ago, and Gary Hirschberg, a five-year board member who resigned on the same day as Dr. Burnette. 

A protest is now planned for this weekend at the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and 38th Street by the museum. 

For the time being, the Newfields Board of Trustees appointed Michael Kubacki as the interim president and CEO. Kubacki was a member of the Newfields Board of Trustees from 2014-2023 and served as its vice chair from May 2021 – May 2023.