Collective Action In Action

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.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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