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Q&A With Newfields’s New CEO Colette Pierce Burnette

After a decade of PR disasters at Newfields, new CEO Colette Pierce Burnette has been tasked with restoring the museum’s reputation. She chatted with us about her vision for the institution, her unconventional background, and that infamous job posting.
Newfields CEO Colette Pierce Burnette

Newfields CEO Colette Pierce BurnettePhoto by Tony Valainis

You’re originally from Cleveland. How does it feel to be back in the Midwest?

Very good. I have been super welcomed. I’m an Ohio State graduate, a true Buckeye, a true Midwest girl. My mother is in the Dayton area, so it feels good to be closer to her. While I had a very good journey as president of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, I felt very far away from her. I was deeply rooted in Austin, and even received a key to the city. I miss my friends and my work there, but I don’t miss the heat. I worked hard to close my chapter down in Texas, and I’m excited about this next one.

You studied industrial engineering. Yet much of your career has been spent at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. What sparked your curiosity in engineering, and what are the threads that tie in with higher ed?

I studied industrial and systems engineering, which today is affectionately known as information technology. Now, I don’t think I ever really wanted to be an engineer; that’s what all the adults in my life told me I should do. I was a Black female born into the 1960s and graduated in 1980 when every corporation was looking to hire a female engineer, especially a Black female engineer, as a way of diversifying the workplace. I really think that my engineering degree and corporate background were the foundation of my leadership style. Being a critical thinker, I am someone who is always working to analyze a problem and find a solution. That’s what systems engineering is, in effect. My corporate career showed me that I wanted to pursue something much more people-facing. Often, I was the only woman and only Black person in the room, so it informed my confidence and drive to be better than everyone else.

Newfields was founded 140 years ago with art at the core of its mission. You don’t have an art background. How does a former university president navigate a cultural institution like an art museum?

Higher education is seen as its own sector, but universities are cultural institutions. Like art museums, universities enhance lives through experiences. As president of a university, your everyday decisions impact the lives of young people. I take my work seriously. It’s a mission, an assignment. I grew tremendously through my experience in Austin, through my work with racial equity and in building the brand of the university. As I sit in meetings here at Newfields, I see many commonalities between those cultural experiences: being fiscally stable, strategy development, and building engagement with people, who, after having a phenomenal experience, go out and recruit more visitors. Leadership is leadership, no matter where you are. In my role as leader of Newfields, I’m tasked with honoring our traditions while blazing trails into the new. That’s why we are now emphasizing the “new” in Newfields, to be transformational and evolving with the times.

Through much of its history, the museum has been free to the public. Just after you were announced as president and CEO, there was an increase in admission price to $20 for nonmember adults. Will that stay in place, or have you explored alternatives?

We have not explored alternative opportunities so far, but that doesn’t mean we won’t. To explore alternatives, we need to consider how to be fair and equitable to our patrons.

“What we have to work through are people’s first impressions when they hear “Newfields,” especially when thinking about what happened with a position description for the museum director.”
Colette Pierce Burnette

Along with the admission price increase, the name “Newfields” was widely criticized throughout the community when it was announced. What is Newfields to you?

One of my missions in life is to be part of building beloved communities. I see Newfields as a vehicle to do just that, to enrich lives through exceptional experiences with art and nature. While university president, I used to say that education is the great equalizer. So we’re looking for ways to educate and stretch people’s minds through their interaction with art. I’ve shared this with many members of my team already, but I will know that this assignment is over for me when I hear people recommend Newfields as an essential part of the Indianapolis experience. Newfields is an opportunity to build a beloved community.

Is Newfields in 2022 a strong cultural institution?

I think we are a strong cultural institution that can be stronger. And we have four tenets: stewardship, inclusivity, service, and excellence. If we focus on our mission and those four tenets, then we will become stronger. We must rebuild trust from all communities in order to be a cultural institution that brings Indianapolis together. And trust is something that you earn, it’s not something that is given or can be taken for granted. I am a servant leader, so I must listen to the people who work here and love this institution. I must listen to the people who weren’t really pleased when we became Newfields.

With listening as your focus right now, describe your relationship with the current staff. How are they informing your vision?

Visions can’t happen unless everyone buys into them. Everyone. So I can have the vision, but I can’t make it happen without the staff. That’s not just the curators and facilities people, not just security or the back-office operations. It’s all those moving parts together. That’s why I’m hosting listening sessions with the staff, and we’re going to have meetings where I want to know, What’s the thing that you love most about Newfields? What’s something you never want to see change? What do you hate? What do you see as an opportunity for us?

What partnerships and support from the community do you need to be successful in your role?

We need to continue our partnership with our investors, the people who believe in us and will assist us as we build our collection, as we maintain our gardens, those who help us operationally. I see great value in corporate partnerships, which I see as a reciprocal relationship between companies and Newfields. But I would like for us to build relationships with all of the local universities because I want us to be a learning lab. I want educational programming that works with students of color and emphasizes advancement through nontraditional careers here at Newfields. If, under my leadership, we serve as a learning lab and use our programming in service to the community, then we will have become part of the thread in the quilt that is Indianapolis.

When you were announced as president and CEO, you were quoted as saying, “I believe strongly in service, and I am excited to lead Newfields at this unique moment, to make it a place every person in Indianapolis and beyond is excited to visit, and every team member is proud to work.” I’m particularly drawn to that last line. How do you mend any strained relationships between staff who may have fought back against
prior leadership?

My response to that is: I wasn’t here then. While I didn’t live that experience, I can understand it. For me, it’s like a relationship. If your prior partner hurt your feelings, I want to understand what that did to you as a person. But I can’t go back and fix what your prior partner did. For me to be a good partner in this relationship, I know that it will take time and intention. My emphasis is on building a strong team that can meet our mission, and I can’t do that without every single person contributing.

Are you at all familiar with past styles or approaches of former CEOs at the museum? Have any of them reached out to you?

I have only learned of the past two CEOs [Maxwell Anderson and Charles Venable], and I apparently have a very different personality, a very different leadership style. But no, no one has reached out to me.

There were several communication shortfalls with prior leadership, specifically in a job listing that described a new museum director’s role as one that would work to not only attract a more diverse audience to the museum, but to “maintain its traditional, core, white audience.” What is your reaction to the intentional use of those words in a job description?

As you can imagine, when I discussed this opportunity with my friends, they asked me how I could even come to such a place. I can’t lean into that because I don’t think it reflects who we are today with me as the leader. I can’t criticize anyone because I don’t know what happened that led to that moment. I didn’t live it. So it’s unfair for me to try to weigh in on it. If I was to dwell on that, then I’d be dwelling on pain. And I don’t want to dwell on pain. I want to dwell on hope, on opportunity. I’m not naïve. I know that we have some challenges. I know that we have to earn trust, and I want to emphasize that it’s not about what we say, but what we do. I want us to be held accountable. This is all part of building that beloved community.

It’s my understanding that the museum director position remains open. What kind of person are you looking for in that role?

A team player. A brilliant director of an art museum is someone who embraces our goals, is the best at maintaining a first-class collection, and someone who can bring to us cutting-edge, thoughtful art.

While in Austin, you served as co-chair for the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities. How does that experience inform outreach efforts in the Indianapolis community, and specifically those who may feel unwelcome, intimidated, and closed off from Newfields?

Of course, what we have to work through are people’s first impressions when they hear “Newfields,” especially when thinking about what happened with a position description for the museum director. In Austin, which is a very prosperous city, but one with an ugly history when it comes to racism, what I learned was to own the work needed to address the issue. I own it; I own that it happened there. Rarely are the problems about racist people. Rather, they are systemic. I learned with my work in Austin that there’s equity and then there’s equality. We as a nation have reached equality. In the ’60s, we were lulled to sleep with the thought that we were all equitable. And then we were shaken awake with the unfortunate murder of George Floyd that showed that there are still inequities in our nation. In my day-to-day life, equity is a primary focus for me, and it takes work to diversify my workplace and workforce, to diversify our collection, to diversify our programming. As long as I’m using my gift in this assignment, our driving force will be to enrich lives with equity in mind. We now have an opportunity to serve as a template for addressing inequities.

I want to stay on this topic because by its nature, an art museum can be viewed as an intimidating place. How will you make people of underserved communities feel welcome?

I want them to see themselves in the museum. When I was a little girl, my mother got two weeks of vacation, during which she would take my sister and me to every museum in Cleveland. We weren’t going to Spain for vacation. We were going to the Cleveland Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I think about that, she was positioning us in a world that we weren’t a part of by showing us that we could be integrated into it. So I want to create an opportunity for exposure, because many communities may not have been to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Just recently, I was looking at the demographics of Indianapolis to gain an understanding of the household median income, all the core things you need to know about the community that you serve, because there are many kinds of diversity. We get stuck on the racist part because that’s the painful part. But I’m not afraid to move into those painful parts. I’m unapologetically a Black female. Because of my own experiences of having been ostracized in many places, I’m sensitive to what it feels like to be marginalized. Therefore, when I walk into the museum, I want to have an experience that makes me comfortable. I’m going to define within our language as an organization how we talk about traditionally underserved populations so that we aren’t approaching it with a missionary attitude. We are not here to save anybody. We’re here to serve everyone.

Your mom couldn’t take you to Spain on vacation, but you could go to a museum, and you could see Spain in a painting or a sculpture by a Spanish artist. If, during your time here, there is a little girl who looks like you that visits Newfields and all that it has to offer, what do you want her to experience?

I actually witnessed this. I went to the cafe my second week here, and there was a woman in there with four little Black kids, two boys and two girls. As I was watching them, they were bouncing all over the place, just so excited to be there. And she looked exhausted, rightfully so for doing that by herself. But I sat there thinking about what they had just seen on their tour and how they were taking everything in. Their little brains are like sponges. I want them to sit in wonder while inside The LUME, to see our different collections, to walk around the garden, to visit the inside of Lilly House, to take in the entirety that is 100 Acres. I want someone who understands the art to help identify the symbolism in a piece for them, to help them understand the tension within art, because that’s where the learning takes place. That’s the entire experience, and what a gift it is to give to someone. 


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