The Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields’ PR crisis has turned into full-blown stakeholder collective action. In the morning of 2/16/21, the Indianapolis Star’s Domenica Bongiovanni reported that 85 Newfields employees and board members released a public statement calling for president Charles Venabl’s resignation. One day later, that’s exactly what happened.
If that weren’t enough pressure, the 2/17/2021 edition of the New York Times reported in an article by Sarah Bahr that “More than 1,900 artists, local arts leaders and former employees of the museum also issued an open letter over the weekend calling for Venabl’s removal.”
What’s particularly interesting here is this isn’t the first time a nonprofit arts and culture organization received a tremendous amount of organized pushback from employees and/or patrons against an initiative or executive leader. In most cases, the board will look for some sort of middle ground which makes this decision to remove a senior figure in the space of 24-hours highly unusual.
What’s different here is the most recent group letter included many of those Newfields board members responsible for executive oversight.
What does that tell us about the way nonprofit governance functions? Boards act quickly…but only if it aligns with their interests?
Similar amounts of negative, and organized, ire has been generated over the years in response to everything from labor disputes (Minnesota Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony) to a wave of sexual misconduct scandals (The Met, Cleveland Orchestra, Curtis). In each of those cases, boards resisted those efforts and if they finally did act, it was tempered and delayed compared to the Newfields’ decision.
The situation is still very fresh, but it is already unfolding as an outlier in a system that goes a long way to protect the interests of individuals more than anything else.