How Newfields’ We. The Culture changed to center Black artists

During 2020’s summer of protests on downtown pavement, 18 artists took to the same canvas to paint “Black Lives Matter.” Indiana Avenue, a street rooted in the contributions of Black Hoosiers, bore messages of racial justice — and, subsequently, vandalism.

The 18 artists who created the mural arrived from a spectrum of styles and skill levels. Some were veterans of the city’s art scene. Others were on the front end of establishing their craft. Each contributed to the united moment, to the message they believed in. Each also expressed personal perspectives through other individual pieces.

“We. The Culture: Works by the Eighteen Art Collective” is an exhibit of about 20 of their artworks that opens Friday at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields.

But it started out with a different focus and name. Almost two years ago, the museum and artists began discussions for “Drip: Indy’s #BlackLivesMatter Street Mural,” a show that would highlight the Indiana Avenue artwork for six months starting in April 2021. While the artists and guest curators signed on, they said Newfields didn’t agree to their request to display their individual pieces as well.

The journey to focusing on the Eighteen Art Collective and its members’ work unfolded over a two-year period. It saw the artists pull out of “Drip” in response to a national controversy over a Newfields director job post, discussions that changed the parameters of how and what work they would show at the museum, and, finally, the announcement of “We. The Culture.” The museum’s leadership calls the show a “groundbreaking moment” but didn’t provide specifics about conversations that led to it.

“It was more about the box the first time around,” guest curator Alan Bacon said. “The artists were saying, like, ‘the mural letter does not represent my art. So this mural letter represents this moment and my contribution to this moment, but it’s not highlighting me as a Black creative. You’re just wanting what I create.’

“That type of approach is what we were able to turn around.”

What’s inside ‘We. The Culture’

Through Sept. 24, 2023, the Eighteen’s artworks will reside in a second-floor gallery under the soft glow of natural light. Across from the window, Gary Gee has positioned pieces that make up an atmosphere of multiple worlds.

“Un-Caged Thoughts for an Un-Caged Mind” is displayed in the “We. The. Culture:” gallery Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields.

In front of a mixed-media partial landscape abstract on canvas is a busted upside-down skull containing one that’s right-side up. It’s inspired by the thoughts in Gee’s mind at 4:30 a.m. — experiences, dreams, subconscious. On another wall hangs Deonna Craig’s artwork. It shows a journey of humankind, told through the lens of her experience, that uses symbolism influenced by ancient rock art like petroglyphs.

The rest of the space includes works that show an artist grappling with becoming a businessman, brothers about to experience the life change caused by a college acceptance letter, and deaths at the hands of police after traffic stops.

The Eighteen comprises Jarrod Dortch; Kyng Rhodes; Rebecca Robinson; Amiah Mims; Pope Gaskine; Kevin West; John G. Moore; Gee; Craig; Rae Parker; Ess McKee; Wavy Blayne; Harriet Watson; Fitz; Israel Solomon; Shamira Wilson; Ashley Nora; and Kenneth Hordge, known as Fingercreations.

Accompanying the art are interactive components, including video interviews of the artists and a short film about the mural. Indianapolis-area bands comprise the soundtrack that will play in the gallery. In October, a self-guided mobile tour will launch, said Tascha Horowitz, Newfields’ director of interpretation, media and publishing.

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The artists’ diverse styles existed well before they came together to paint the mural in August 2020, which had been approved by a resolution of the City-County Council. They bonded over the piece and saw requests pour in from the community to talk about creating it and how the art became activism. Malina Simone Jeffers and Bacon, who helped organize the mural and co-founded cultural development firm Ganggang, were guest curators for “Drip” and, now, for “We. The Culture.”

What the artists requested for ‘Drip’

In October 2020, Newfields approached the artists with the idea to exhibit the mural and its creation, and the collective voted to go ahead with it, said Craig, who is the president of the Eighteen. “Drip” was to include vinyl reproductions of the mural’s characters and video interviews.

But it didn’t meet the artists’ vision.

Guest-curators Molly Jeffers, left, and Alan Bacon discuss their 'We. The Culture' gallery Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields.

Early on in the talks, the Eighteen asked to exhibit individual pieces, Craig said. But Newfields declined, according to artists and the guest curators.

Jeffers, who is on Newfields’ Board of Governors, said she was told that the process to display works on loan from living artists would take too long and be too cumbersome because of legalities and financial discussions. Shelley Selim, Newfields’ curator of design and decorative arts, also pointed to time and space constraints.

In response to IndyStar’s questions about Newfields’ decision and who made it, Jerry Wise, who previously served as interim president, wrote in an email:

“When planning for #DRIP, we were excited to showcase their mural project, which was such a timely work of art in 2020. Newfields is grateful for the opportunity to build our relationship and get to know the 18 artists individually, through that process we are now delighted to highlight their individual works of art in We. The Culture.”

The artists have a broad range of skills and styles, Craig said, and they didn’t want only to be known as muralists. Exhibiting their own works shows their depth and dimensions as humans behind the Black lives matter message, she said.

“As an artist, you want to feel free to create in any way,” Craig said. “I thought it was sort of an oxymoron to be invited to exhibit in an art museum but only in one way.”

Gee moved ahead with the project but said he had cast a “no” vote initially. Kelli Morgan, Newfields’ associate curator of American art, had resigned three months earlier in July 2020, saying the museum’s environment was toxic and failed people of color. Gee said he felt like she had been written off.

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“Are we an afterthought, is it a distraction?” Gee said. “For me, I guess it was looking it at like from a political standpoint, a cultural standpoint, just an ethical standpoint. The timing just felt off (to) me because the original approach was right after” Morgan’s resignation.

New conversations happen after the controversy

Two months before “Drip” was set to open, a firestorm erupted over Newfields’ job description for a new director. It sought to attract a diverse audience while “maintaining the Museum’s traditional, core, white art audience.” The Eighteen and Ganggang pulled out of the exhibit. Days later, CEO and president Charles Venable resigned, and the boards promised to make changes.

The artists held what Craig called an emergency family meeting to vent and figure out how to move forward.

“We were in a very vulnerable place,” Craig said. “We expressed our partnership with Newfields just to have this controversy kind of slap us in the face, and so we’re advocating for a space that I guess kind of said that they didn’t even want us around.”

The Eighteen voted not to sever ties but to hold the museum accountable and demand changes, Craig said.

Among those were an apology, a promise from Newfields to show more Black artists’ work in perpetuity and for the Eighteen to be appropriately compensated for displaying their personal work, Jeffers said.

“Existence” by Deonna Craig is displayed in the 'We. The Culture' gallery Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields.

Wise, who is chief financial officer, wrote in an email that conversations with the artists and curators made clear that an exhibit showing the Eighteen’s works lined up with their vision and would be compelling for the public.

Jeffers and Bacon said Newfields leadership met the demands, and their apologies helped broker a better relationship rather than merely checking boxes.

“What did make (the Eighteen and Ganggang feel) comfortable enough to, I guess, propose the larger exhibition and move forward with it?” Jeffers said. “And I think it really was the team that we were working with on ‘Drip’ and how the curators, specifically, said, ‘Hey, how are the artists? And hi, artists, I apologize. Like, what do you want to do? What feels right? Let’s pause. Let’s just be right here in this space for a few weeks.'”

How the artists and Newfields are moving forward

To gather art for “We. The Culture,” Selim and Horowitz have visited artists’ studios and homes, met their dogs and their students. Over two years of working together, the two grew to know each one on a personal basis.

“We were just so thrilled with what the show eventually became because it was something we could tell the artists really wanted, and I think we wanted it, too,” Selim said.

Guest-curators Molly Jeffers, left, and Alan Bacon discuss their 'We. The Culture' gallery Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields.

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“It is rare that a single exhibition will reflect the voices of so many emerging living artists,” Wise wrote. “This is a groundbreaking moment for Newfields and I look forward to sharing it with these talented artists.”

“I received their apology, but it was more of a realization that we needed to do our own work and put it in Newfields and allow that to serve as a part of the apology, too,” Craig said. “We wanted to be a part of the solution and that was more important to us than an apology.”

Craig said the collective and Newfields have started to discuss programs and workshops that include highlighting the lives of working artists. As museums re-examine their role in cities, they’re seeing how they need to engage more with the communities around them, Selim said. Showing local artists means they can keep holding events with them throughout an exhibition’s duration, Horowitz said.

At the Annual Meeting in May, the museum announced it has spent almost $2 million of its $20 million endowment that is devoted to work by artists who are Black, Indigenous and from other underrepresented backgrounds, which was outlined in 2021 in its action plan. This summer, new CEO and president Colette Pierce Burnette officially began her role at Newfields after serving as president of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas. The museum has not yet announced the hire of a new museum director.

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Contact IndyStar reporter Domenica Bongiovanni at 317-444-7339 or Follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter: @domenicareports.


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