2 years after racism outcry, Indianapolis embraces Black artists

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2 years after racism outcry, Indianapolis embraces Black artists
People at the Butter art fair in Indianapolis, Sept. 3, 2022. As a museum takes its first steps toward diversity, a nonprofit is stepping in to help the city heal its fraught relationship with Black artists. (Cheney Orr/The New York Times)

by Sarah Bahr

INDIANAPOLIS, IN.- Inside a former car factory, some 8,000 visitors to a local art fair strolled among two halls of work by Black artists, including a glittering Bob Marley portrait and a caution sign reading “We’re too big to fit in their small minds.” During four days in September, fairgoers sipped “Faith Ringgold” and “Basquiat” cocktails, pausing to talk with the artists as Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul” played through the speakers. There were artist talks, workshops, a dance party.

The fair, named Butter, was organized by the Indianapolis cultural development firm GANGGANG, a nonprofit with an uphill mission: to showcase the work of Black visual artists here and across the country. Barely 2 years old, it is finding its way into the national art scene, elevating artists of color, maximizing their earnings by giving them all the profit for their work and proving that Indianapolis is more than a sports city.

“I’ve been to a lot of art fairs, but I’ve never experienced anything like this,” said a Chicago-based painter known as Edo. “It’s putting Indy on the map.”

His expression of surprise was universal among the nearly 50 visual and performing artists represented. Before GANGGANG formed in 2020, Indianapolis rarely showcased radically creative, formally ambitious and distinctly Black work as Butter did this year. With no gallery ecosystem to support them, most Black artists with serious ambitions decamped for Chicago or New York.

Nor were the museums in their court. The Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, the state’s largest and most influential art institution, had alienated many during the nine-year tenure of its former president and CEO, Charles L. Venable, who resigned in February 2021 after criticism of a job posting for a director who would diversify its visitor base while “maintaining the Museum’s traditional, core, white art audience.” The outcry from artists reverberated nationwide.

The museum apologized — and, days later, Venable resigned — but his decisions had been inflaming the arts community for years: He instituted an $18 admission fee at the formerly free museum, instructed his curators to assign every artwork at the institution a letter grade in an effort to pare down the collection and avoid paying for more storage, and introduced Instagram-ready attractions to the museum’s campus, such as an artist-designed miniature golf course, which a critic for The Atlantic called “the greatest travesty in the art world in 2017.”

Kelli Morgan, a former associate curator recruited in 2018 to diversify the collection, resigned in July 2020, calling the museum’s leadership “toxic” and “discriminatory” in a letter she sent to Venable, as well as to board members, artists and the local news media. (Venable said at the time of Morgan’s resignation that the museum had been taking steps to become more diverse, but that change would take time.)

Although GANGGANG was, at the time, only a few months old and still finding its niche in the local arts scene, the day The New York Times published an article about the employment listing, the organization’s founders, Alan Bacon, 41, and Malina Simone Jeffers, 40, announced that they would not go forward with an exhibition they had been set to curate at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The show would have featured 18 Black artists looking back at the creation of the city’s Black Lives Matter street mural in 2020.

“It was sad, because it was such a big opportunity for Black artists,” said Jeffers, who with Bacon worked with the artists to draft a set of conditions for their return that included a commitment by the museum to display more works from Black artists in perpetuity. But when the leaders of Newfields, the unified, 152-acre art and nature campus that includes the Indianapolis Museum of Art, did not address their requests, “it became clear we just couldn’t do it in that environment,” she said.

The Indianapolis museum has not been alone among the country’s institutions in grappling with race in recent years, including calls to diversify majority-white staffs, boards and collections.

In 2020, Gary Garrels, formerly the top curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, resigned amid staff anger, after he used the term “reverse discrimination” in an all-staff Zoom call. That year, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the museum’s chief curator and artistic director, Nancy Spector, stepped down after complaints from former and current curatorial staff about institutional racism. (An independent investigation found no wrongdoing or mistreatment by the museum.)

Since Venable’s departure, the transformation that began nationwide with the death of George Floyd in May 2020 has been accelerated here by GANGGANG, whose name refers to a group of people taking a journey together, Bacon said. The organization, which raised $250,000 in initial seed money, began staging art fairs and organized performances by more than 500 dancers, musicians and spoken word artists during the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

This year, in collaboration with the Arts Council of Indianapolis and the city, it funded nine local performing artists. Jeffers and Bacon are guest curators for an expanded version of the exhibition by 18 mural artists at the museum, now titled “We. The Culture: Works by the Eighteen Art Collective,” on view through Sept. 24, 2023.

The 24 artworks, which feature themes including hip-hop culture, queer identity and social justice, are accompanied by videos and written labels created by the artists.

Deonna Craig, the president of the Eighteen Art Collective, said she hoped that the exhibition, as well as the continued growth of Butter, would show young Black people that they could make art a full-time career.

“I hope people 15 to 20 years younger than me see this and think, ‘This is a viable career path,’” said Craig, 40. “It feels different,” she added of the exhibition. “It feels like they really care.”

In its March 2021 action plan, after Venable’s resignation, Newfields began to deliver on its diversity promises. It committed to showcasing more Black artists and, that May, it elected its first Black board chairwoman, Darrianne Christian. The institution says that one-third of its curators identify as nonwhite, and that 25% of its board of trustees (an increase from 8%) and 31% of its board of governors (up from 10%) now come from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds.

In May, it hired Venable’s replacement as president and CEO, educator Colette Pierce Burnette, who arrived from her role as president of Huston-Tillotson University, a historically Black university in Austin, Texas, with a tiny enrollment but a large reputation as a trailblazer for diversity and inclusion. Burnette said that a search for the museum’s director was underway.

Newfields also designated $20 million of its endowment for a fund devoted to acquiring work by underrepresented artists, of which it has spent almost $2 million, and expanded free admission days.

Burnette, 64, who has a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Pennsylvania, does not have the museum experience of Venable, a former deputy director at the Dallas Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art. But she served on the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities in Austin, which produced a final report in 2017 calling for a regional inclusivity effort, and she said she was looking for an opportunity to continue her community-building work.

The Indianapolis museum’s controversial job posting “didn’t cross my radar screen until I was in the second phase of the interview,” said Burnette, who became the first woman hired to lead Newfields when she assumed the role in August. But once it did, she said, “I saw an organization that was traumatized by an event that had the opportunity to take what it had learned and do it better.”

When Burnette was growing up in Cleveland, her mother, who worked as a key punch operator at an electric company, used part of her vacation to take her and her sister to “every museum in Cleveland.”

“She was showing us how we could be part of a world that was foreign to us,” Burnette said.

But the Cleveland Museum that she visited as a child was free; when asked twice whether her museum would lower or withdraw the admission fee Venable implemented, which is now $20, Burnette deflected the questions.

“I can’t speak to why we implemented an entry fee,” she said. “I’m not in a position to go back and read the books and understand what’s going on.”

While critics decried Venable’s Barnum-like approach, his cost-cutting measures — including an 11% staff reduction — ultimately benefited the museum’s bottom line. Newfields’ endowment currently sits at $390 million, up from $360 million in 2014, and attendance for fiscal year 2022 was 755,303, up more than 300,000 people from 2019, before the pandemic. Attendance was bolstered by the success of the museum’s immersive Van Gogh show, one of Venable’s pet projects (and one of the most criticized, for displacing contemporary art on one floor).

There are still internal rumblings among employees who think the museum is not doing enough — or moving fast enough — to fix its office culture.

Tamaya Greenlee, an associate interpretive planner, resigned in July in a letter to senior leadership and staff criticizing what she called a pattern of discriminatory treatment against employees of color such as herself, as well as ageism, transphobia, a hostile work environment and a mishandling of her Family and Medical Leave Act accommodations.

Although the Newfields website prominently features the number of hours museum staff has dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion training, Greenlee, who wrote text for the museum’s exhibitions, said the training she participated in focused primarily on listening and conflict resolution rather than on anti-racism instruction.

“Their action plan said, ‘Implement immediate anti-racism training for all staff,’” said Greenlee, who is now a part-time interpreter at the Indianapolis Zoo. “But after a year, we still haven’t talked about racism.” (A spokesperson for Newfields, Mattie Wethington, said that “DEIA training is only the beginning of our long-term strategy.”)

Bacon, the GANGGANG co-founder, said the fact that the organization and the 18 artists had returned for “We. The Culture” should be taken as an endorsement of Newfields’ engagement in the reform process, not an indication that every problem had been resolved. “GANGGANG is about recognizing art assets in our community,” he said.

That’s where the organization comes in, helping artists to earn recognition. The Butter fair this fall more than doubled last year’s attendance and recorded more than $250,000 in sales, compared with $65,000 in 2021. The number of artists on the walls also nearly doubled, to 42 from 24. Many artists said in interviews that they made connections that could lead to future opportunities.

“That’s what we want to do — be brokers,” said Jeffers, who looked like an artist herself in a textured pink floral coat, jean shorts, tan-and-green Velcro sneakers, with blue streaks in her black hair. “To help them with whatever they need, whether that’s framing their work, pricing it or talking to potential buyers.”

Sarah Urist Green, host of the PBS digital series “The Art Assignment” and a former curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, was one of the event’s organizers. She said GANGGANG’s model, if replicated in other cities, could be a turning point for the regional art world. “It feels more like a family block party than it does the Armory Show or Art Basel,” she added. (Jeffers and Bacon said that they were exploring holding future editions of Butter elsewhere.)

“More of America is like Indianapolis than it is Los Angeles, New York or even Chicago,” Green said. “What Mali and Alan are really doing here is proving that there are other paths toward success and sustainability.”

Of course, it’s still early, and crowning Indianapolis the next mecca for Black artists would be premature. A recent survey of more than 3,000 public artworks in Marion County, home to Indianapolis, showed that while Black, Latino, Asian and Indigenous residents account for 47.2% of the county’s population, they created 26.5% of the attributed works.

GANGGANG is working to make sure that number keeps growing. “With Butter, I feel seen,” said Ashley Nora, 33, an artist who received her first mural commission from GANGGANG last year and whose oil paintings, inspired by her recent visit to Africa, were on display at Butter and at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

“I was going to leave the city, but now it’s embraced and loved me,” she added. “I want to let other artists know that they don’t have to go to NYC or California — they can come here.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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