The situation at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields is much bigger than a job listing asking to "maintain our tradition, core white audience."
The museum posted this job description for a new museum director last week. among the responsibilities listed was to "attract a broader and more diverse audience while maintaining the Museum’s traditional, core, white art audience."
Negative reactions were swift following the posting, and the CEO of the museum quickly resigned. Still, I struggled to come to terms with how I feel about the controversy.
The job listing and description possess a very "have your cake and eat it, too" kind of feel. It repeatedly mentions wanting a more diverse gallery, representing minority groups that wouldn't typically be seen in a museum. While this call for increased diversity is good, the goal was, again, to keep a white audience coming through the museum’s doors.
Museums have a lamentable history of possessing artifacts and relics of culture that don’t belong to them, like the Benin Bronzes from the Kingdom of Benin, present day Nigeria, on display at the British Museum. An art museum might not have the same background of displaying works they don't have the permission to, but museums can have harmful effects regardless of topic.
Museums sell tickets based on people wanting to see items they couldn't see anywhere else, like the Bangwa Queen statue from Cameroon on display at the Mussé Dapper in Paris. For a white audience, that draw often means artifacts of a different culture, of underrepresented cultures.
Newfields doesn't strike me so much as a terrible outlier, but the norm for museums worldwide.
Most museums have a larger white audience than a minority audience, with 78.9% of museum visitors being white, according to the American Association of Museums. And white families tend to have more wealth than minority families, with the average net worth of a white family being nearly ten times that of a Black or Hispanic family, according to the Brookings Institute.
Strengthening business models is incredibly important to the Newfields museum, as it's been fighting debt in the millions, according to the Indy Star. The museum's former CEO Charles Venable made several changes to the museums’ business practices in order to relieve the debt. This was a controversial move, with art critics attributing the shift from an educational art gallery to a profit-first art business. When a business is in debt, it has to cater to people that have the most money.
The job listing asks to make sure white people are the targeted core audience. While this is an offensive sentiment, it makes sense from a business perspective. The museum wants to cater to white audiences because they are the majority population in Indianapolis and they need the revenue. That doesn't mean that Newfields is free from criticism, though.
Venable has been accused of facilitating a toxic work environment. In July 2020, A former associate of the Newfields museum claimed that another board member had gone on a racist rant. Once news of the job listing went public, 2000+ people demanded Venable's resignation through a petition.
Venable's actions were damaging, and a job listing like that shouldn't have existed, but it's hard to be mad at him specifically. The situation is a microcosm of many issues in America, intertwining race with capitalism and the ethics of museums.
While the job listing has been revised, I doubt the goals of Newfields as a whole will change. The reality is most businesses have financial incentive to cater to white people. Newfields is no different — they want to capitalize on current social movements like Black Lives Matter. They'll show support by showcasing the art of minorities, but they don't want minorities as a core audience.