INDIANAPOLIS — Colette Pierce Burnette sees her hire as the new president and CEO of Newfields as an example of the difference between equality and more modern advances toward equity, or the practice of providing access and fair opportunities.
“I didn’t see a black director of a major cultural institution when I was growing up,” said Pierce Burnette, who began his tenure at the art museum and gardens on August 1. “I was exhibited at the museum, but I couldn’t see myself anywhere in leadership positions or behind the scenes. It’s very rare.
“So equality means you can’t discriminate against putting people in those positions. Equity means you create opportunities for these people to fill the job.
Pierce Burnette has said she likely wouldn’t have her new job if not for the race-related controversy that led to the February 2021 exit of her predecessor, Charles Venable. After Newfields announced work that described the need to attract a more diverse set of patrons while “maintaining the museum’s traditional white art audience”, Venable quit.
Most recently, CEO of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, Pierce Burnette arrived at Newfields in time for the opening of the 139-year-old institution’s first exhibition dedicated to a group of black artists. from Indiana: “We. The Culture: Works by the Eighteen Art Collective”, an exhibition which will be presented until September 24, 2023.
“That was just the beginning,” Pierce Burnette said in an interview with IBJ. “It was like a crack in the door with a bit of sunlight shining through.”
Q: During your remarks at the opening reception of “We. The Culture” on September 22, you spoke of a rebirth. I think people can feel and observe the momentum of change, but how would you describe what is happening?
A rebirth is a time of reckoning and a time of renewal, all of which collide at the same time. I believe we are all living in a time of rebirth. And it’s a choice if we make it something that will be remembered in history in a positive way or if it will be remembered in history just as a moment of pain.
I have a very strong feeling that we are living through a temporal renaissance, and it is personally gratifying to be in Newfields at this time in its history and the role we can play in keeping this renaissance alive. … I want this to be a time where we encounter this tension of a settlement and a renewal at the same time.
Q: What does this mean for “We”. The Culture” will be the first Newfields exhibition to open during your tenure as CEO of Newfields?
It’s super rewarding for me because I’m at the helm of this moment of such an opportunity. …
I didn’t live here, so I don’t know. But I feel like if someone said, “What is the institution in Indianapolis that opens its doors equally to everyone?” people wouldn’t have said “Newfields”.
The incident with the job description was just the spark. It’s so much deeper than that. It was actually the gift for me, from my point of view, in a bad and twisted way, like the silver lining around the cloud. Because that’s how I got here. It was a time of pain and opportunity all rolled into one, where it’s very painful for Newfields and the people who work here.
Q: There was a signpost established before you were hired: it is Newfields’ aim to be an empathetic, multicultural and anti-racist institution. What is your assessment of how this is going and what needs to be done?
I think it’s going well, but I think it’s going well from August 1 until today. So that’s my 60-day assessment. But… I haven’t worked here before.
But the reason I comfortably say I think it’s going well is because of the energy I feel here at Newfields. It’s the same kind of energy that we felt (at the opening of “We. The Culture”). I feel that sense of hope and that sense of belonging and commitment.
I did an exercise at my first all-staff meeting where we asked people to write down what they like about Newfields. On the other side, we asked them to write Newfields biggest opportunity. And then I created a word cloud from the transcription of all the answers. And the word “community” was by far the most important. It was about what we can do to serve our communities.
It was about taking the beauty of Newfields and using it to enrich people’s lives. They were people who really focused on the mission, and I was very happy with them.
It is so much more important than diversity, equity, inclusion and access to training. It’s about changing people’s hearts.
I want people to create inclusive public programming for everyone – and “all” doesn’t mean excluding everyone. Everything means everything. I want people to think about their programming because it’s the right thing to do to bring us to excellence.
Ironically, people think this is going to take us away from excellence. In fact, it does what we are supposed to do, which is to protect the heritage of art — our collection, which is extraordinary — and then to grow and evolve it. …
It’s so much bigger than DEIA. It’s an element of that, but I don’t want Newfields thinking we’re doing DEIA training and then ticking a box. “We are anti-racist. It’s unrealistic.
Q: Do you have any information on the search for the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art?
Yes, we hired the research firm. and I anticipate that we should make a public announcement with a job description in the very near future.
We want to do global research because I am in this pursuit of excellence. We need to keep the door wide open and have the perfect job description for what we are looking for.
Everyone brings their A game to the interview. But we want to dig deeper and make sure we don’t just get an A game in the interview, but bring someone to Newfields who is a catalyst for excellence.
Q: Can I trace the timeline from when you announced you were leaving Huston-Tillotson to when this job appeared on your radar?
A friend of mine asked me out to dinner after announcing my retirement. During dinner, she asked me, “What are you going to do?” I know you’re not going to retire. I said, “No, I’m not going to retire.
I want to do something.”
And then I stumbled over my words, and realized that I had no plan for myself. She therefore suggested that I invite a friend to sit down and discuss my passions with me. And that person works at Korn Ferry (the consulting firm that worked with Newfields on the search for the chairman and CEO). We talked, and about two weeks later I got a phone call from another person who she had given my resume to. And she thought I would be a potential match.
I saw Newfields’ description and said, “That’s not me. But they persisted in painting what Newfields was looking for. In fact, in interviews, I kept saying, “Well, I’m an art lover, but I’m not an art enthusiast.” I was doing the classic talking thing to get by. It’s fear, like protecting myself from the moment of rejection.
At one point, Darrianne Christian, who I think is a wonderful board chair and a wonderful human, said, “Dr. Burnette, we know what you told us. We are not looking for an art lover. We have a position for that. We are looking for a change leader.
It makes me cry when I think about it. It was a turning point for me because I really wanted this job.