The Indianapolis Museum of Art Galleries (IMA) at Newfields is in the midst of a public reckoning about race. The IMA posted an insensitive job listing seeking a director who would work to attract a more diverse audience but also maintain its “traditional, core, white art audience.” Public backlash ensued and despite the museum’s attempts to tweak the job description and defend its position, Charles Venable ultimately stepped down as president of Newfields.
But this was not the first time the Indianapolis Museum of Art had been charged with racism. In July 2020, Kelli Morgan, the museum’s associate curator of American Art, resigned publicly after dealing with—among other things—the fallout that ensued after she stood up to a wealthy donor.
At a September 2019 art committee meeting, the two were discussing a vase [above] depicting political activist Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who had begun kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality. In our latest Tiny Spark podcast, Morgan shares the audio of her interaction with the donor and explains why she spoke up at the meeting.
“Part of me, not only just being a Black woman, but also being a critical race scholar in these spaces, is to push back against a very myopic and a very racist opinion.”
Less than five percent of art curators in the US are Black. Like so many of her colleagues of color in the arts world and beyond, Morgan says she was given a title but did not feel it came with commensurate power.
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“It was, ‘do what I want and need and tell you to do,’” she explains. “And I never abided by any of that,” Morgan says.
This led to Morgan being labeled by museum colleagues. “I had become the angry Black woman all day,” she tells us. “I would have very mild panic attacks about just having to be there.”
We reached out to the IMA to ask them to respond to Morgan’s critiques, and they did not respond. But Morgan, now an independent curator, says the problems go beyond her own experiences at one institution.
“White supremacy culture and the toxicity of museum culture is not unique to the IMA at Newfields,” she says. “I think that it’s just time for the general public to know more about what happens behind the curtain.”
- Sarah Bahr, “Charles Venable Resigns as Head of Indianapolis Museum of Art,” New York Times, February 17, 2021.
- Maxwell Anderson, “I Led the Indianapolis Museum of Art for Five Years. Here’s How Charles Venable, Its Recently Ousted President, Failed the Institution,” Artnet News, February 23, 2021.
- Kelli Morgan, “To Bear Witness: Real Talk about White Supremacy in Art Museums Today,” BURNAWAY, June 24, 2020.
- Chenoa Baker, “Four Women: Black Curators Who Encapsulate The Shift Of The Art World,” Sugarcane Magazine, June 11, 2020.
- American Alliance of Museums, “Latest Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey Shows Increases in African American Curators and Women in Leadership Roles,” January 28, 2019.
- Amy Costello, “Museums Must Open Doors to Today’s Realities,” Tiny Spark, October 9, 2018.
- On Instagram: Dr. Kelli Morgan, @elli616
Cover Image: “Dr. Kelli Morgan.” © Tyrone Myrick Photography.
Body Image: “The Expulsion of Colin Kaepernick and John Brown.” © Roberto Lugo. Courtesy of Wexler Gallery.