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The Indianapolis Art Center faces questions about diversity and equity

Mark Williams’ appointment by the Indianapolis Art Center as executive director causes controversy and a search for solutions.

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  • 11 min to read
The Indianapolis Art Center faces questions about diversity and equity

At the Indianapolis Art Center currently, you can visit the biannual exhibition “Art from the Heartland,” which includes work from artists all over the Midwest. You need to wear a mask, because of COVID-19, and you also need to follow arrows on the floor. You need to walk in one direction and maintain social distancing as you make your way through the main gallery and a hallway that doubles as exhibition space. 

Mark Williams, who just became the Art Center’s new executive director, is now in charge of setting the direction of the nonprofit arts organization through what is likely to be a rough period financially.

His selection by the board of directors has raised concerns in the arts community about diversity and equity at the long-running Broad Ripple-based arts nonprofit.

His appointment in late June came after former executive director Patrick Flaherty stepped down after filling that role since 2014. It also came during a fraught time for arts organizations locally and nationwide. For the Indy nonprofit arts sector, the Arts Council of Indianapolis estimates an $8.6 million per month loss due to lost revenue during COVID-19. This will likely add up to $50 million by September without even factoring in infrastructure changes needed to mitigate virus spread.

Williams is a former Art Center board chair and an emeritus member of the marketing committee. A successful entrepreneur with a long association with the Indianapolis Art Center, he stepped away from his marketing and branding firm ImageNation to assume his new role. 

Beyond financial concerns

The Art Center had financial issues preceding COVID-19, not the least of which stems from the 2019 Art Fair. Roughly half the ticket sale revenue was lost last year due to the second day of the fair getting rained out. (Art Fair revenue makes up roughly one-third of the Art Center’s annual operating budget.) 

During COVID, the 2020 Art Fair was canceled and significant revenue was lost due to canceled classes during the spring as well as corresponding refunds. 

It isn’t just financial issues, however, that are coming to the fore at the Art Center, and elsewhere, in Indy’s nonprofit arts sector. When Kelli Morgan announced that she was quitting her post as associate curator of American art at Newfieds on July 16, she called the museum’s culture “toxic” and “discriminatory” in a letter to CEO Charles Venable and the Newfields board.

On July 9, Michelle Winkelman, the former director of education and outreach at the Indianapolis Art Center, posted an open letter on Facebook, taking issue with Williams’ appointment by the board’s executive committee. In the letter, which was also sent to the board, Winkelman took issue with the lack of an external search process as part of Williams’ selection and the implications for diversity and equity in the Arts Center resulting from this.

Winkelman, in her letter, called for Mark Williams to assume an interim role in order for the board to open the position to a “thorough search for diverse candidates.” 

She also asked the board “to make a specific, time-bound, and publicly accountable commitment to BIPOC [Black, indigenous, and people of color] representation in positions of power at all levels of the organization, beginning with the Board, and immediately in any committee charged with overseeing the next search.”

“Reevaluating hiring procedures is one of the first examples given when discussing how institutions can combat systemic racism,” Winkelman wrote in her letter. “It is staggering to me that during a time when public consciousness of racism is at a high that the Art Center would decide to conduct a transition with no actual opportunity involved while keeping a white male in its most powerful staff position.”

Winkelman, who said that she left the Arts Center on her own terms in 2019 —  who currently works in the field of educational administration — said that she still has friends who worked there. She also wrote about the Center having made “some tremendous achievements in its long history” and how it “has positively impacted the lives of countless individuals.”

Winkelman’s concerns are echoed by Wendy Lee Spacek, who worked at the Art Center for five years under Winkelman’s supervision, who posted on Facebook July 10 in support of Winkelman’s position. “This choice upholds white supremacy by denying people of color, especially Black people the opportunity for such a position,” she stated, before criticizing the Center’s history in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion. She also outlined her own list of demands that includes a call for the resignation of the board’s executive committee. 

 “I am not anti-Art Center,” Winkelman said. “I don't have an ax to grind. This is something that just stood out to me as a huge missed opportunity. I think it is very relevant to a lot of other discussions that are happening right now. And that's why I wrote the letter because I was very disappointed [...] This is not exclusive to the Art Center at all in any way. This happens all the time, everywhere.”

“A process that could have been more transparent”

In response to Winkelman’s letter, on July 10,  the board’s executive committee wrote on their Facebook page that they appreciated Winkelman’s concerns, but they would not redo their selection process.

As Winkelman detailed in her letter, this process seemed highly foreshortened.

“The position was posted for less than 24 hours, was never directly promoted by the organization, and was posted after the decision on Mark had already been made,” she wrote. “In this action, the Art Center has closed off opportunity to new leadership and voices from outside the organization; specifically, it has denied an opportunity for people of color to apply for a leadership position in Indianapolis’ arts community.”

In fact, the position was never meant to be posted, according to board chair Lisa McKinney, since the board had already made its decision, as Winkelman alleged. As McKinney described it, their HR service provider erroneously posted the position. “When they posted it, we found out through social media,” she said. “In fact, our HR person found out through social media that it had gone immediately and took it down.”

McKinney, while acknowledging that the hiring process “could have been more transparent”, insists that Williams is the right choice. “We had a unique opportunity to hire someone who is both deeply familiar with the organization and professionally qualified to lead the Art Center into a new era,” she stated in an email. “We also recognize that, like all organizations, we must make every effort to be inclusive at the Art Center, and that begins with a better understanding of the issues surrounding diversity." To that end, we issued last week a RFQ [request for qualifications] for diversity, equity and inclusion consultation and training being led by the staff and board members that will help our staff and board build skills and competencies as the Art Center strives to be more inclusive.”

Cuff links and Indy Arts Guide

Mark Williams first began frequenting the Indianapolis Art Center when it was still known as the Indianapolis Art League. The League was founded in 1934, and funded as a project of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, under the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The art league moved to its present location at 820 E. 67th St in 1976. Thanks to a capital campaign begun in 1994, which raised $7.6 million, the organization was able to finish the construction of a new building in 1996 under the executive directorship of Joyce Sommers, who occupied that position from 1976 - 2009.  That year, the League changed its name to the Indianapolis Art Center.  

“I've been coming here since the 1970s,” said Williams. “I was taking classes on and off as a kid of an attorney —  and I got a bunch of attorneys and finance people in my family —  so I was the only one with this defective gene that had me interested in creative things which is how I ended up in storytelling and advertising and filmmaking, I think, because it was a nice blend of business and creativity.” 

He took drawing, painting, and clay classes. When it came time to get his brother a wedding gift, instead of buying cufflinks at Tiffany’s, he took a jewelry class at the Art Center and made cufflinks for him.  

In 1996, he founded the marketing and branding firm ImageNation, which has grown to include offices in New York, Fort Lauderdale, and Indianapolis. That same year, his firm began working with the Arts Council of Indianapolis.

“I started working with the Arts Council when it was just two people,” he said. “I've been personally involved in every major enterprise they've done. We actually built the Indy Arts Guide which was a leader in the country when it was launched.”

IndyArtsGuide.org is an online information resource and calendar with a tool where nonprofit arts organizations can input their events information into a user-friendly interface.

It is, in fact, a website the Art Center frequently employs to highlight its events.

Williams said that, because he was most recently an emeritus member of the board, he wasn’t privy to the inner workings of the board during his selection process. He did, however, speculate on why the board felt the need to get leadership in place right away after Patrick Flaherty’s departure, sidestepping an interim executive director appointment. 

“Marketing was a huge area of need,” said Williams. He said that having an interim director during a protracted search process could be “unhealthy” for the Art Center if it were, say, in the middle of a capital campaign. He specifically cited his working on both of the capital campaigns for the Mind Trust as something that the board viewed favorably.

For Winkelman, Williams’ selection process echoes her own rise in the organization. 

That is, a promotion without an external search process was something that she herself had experienced twice at the Art Center.

“I was hired in August of 2006,” she said. “In February of 2008, I moved into the role of ArtReach Manager so I joined the outreach department which at the time was separate from the education department. That was a full-time role. I managed the ArtReach program and a couple of other programs. And then in 2011, my boss, the director of outreach, left and promoted me into her position in her departure. So that was the first time I was promoted in a transition with no search. That was 2011, and then, in 2015 I was promoted to the position of director of education and outreach when we merged those two departments into one. That was the second time that I was promoted without a search. I was placed in an interim role at first. But I don't know that we ever posted it.”

Hiring people from within organizations, without an external search process, isn’t unusual, according to Breanca Merritt, director of the Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy at IUPUI.

“I think your instinct is; who do I already have, at the table who can quickly be promoted to this position, or targeted in that way,” she said. “While it might not be the most equitable hiring practice, I think that experience isn't uncommon.”

The ability for an employer to hire from within and still be inclusive, however, depends on the people already at the table, according to Merritt.

“If you already don't have a very diverse group of folks working in your organization, that makes it difficult to find somebody who can do that,” she said. “If you really value issues of equity, and inclusion, you could have an interim role that will kind of serve as a starting point as you look for someone.”

The crucial point for Merritt is that “without intentionally trying to be equitable in hiring processes and setting clear goals for those efforts and processes, it’s really difficult to have equitable hiring.”

Winkelman sees a lack of racial or ethnic diversity in the Art Center currently: she also saw a lack of diversity in the pool of employees who might have been promoted into positions that she herself was promoted into when she worked there.

When Winkelman identified herself in her letter as a white woman who was “complicit in upholding systems that kept the Art Center’s program largely segregated between its state-of-the-art facility and the classes it conducted in schools and community centers,” she was referring to the ArtReach program. This is a free, community-based art education program for children from ages 5-18, which annually serves approximately 1,000 children at 26 different sites. It was a program that she was responsible for as the director of education and outreach. It is a concern to her that the supervision of this program has historically been white, she said, and that the students in these programs are largely Brown and Black. 

After the news of Williams’ appointment, Winkelman thought of other experiences that she had, trying to have conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the organization. These conversations left her feeling, she said, like she was “beating [her] head against the wall.”

“I felt like [the Art Center board’s position] was always, ‘We'll get to accessibility once we have our financial feet under us,” she said. ‘We'll get to diversity and inclusion after you've put the house in order.’ To me, it started to feel like a carrot on a stick. At some point, I stopped buying the idea that you can't do both. And now, I actually feel like it is the most important work that any organization can do right now, regardless of their financial situation, maybe even because of their financial situation.”

Before publishing the letter, Winkelman had discussions over the phone with both McKinney and Williams.

As she noted in her letter, she had brought her concerns to the board’s executive committee for consideration during a discussion about forming the Art Center’s most recent strategic plan in June 2019. In this meeting, she wrote, “several white board members agreed amongst themselves that diversity did not need to be a priority in the plan.”  

McKinney disputes the characterization of the discussion between Winkelman and the board. “Michelle mentioned the executive committee meeting where she says several white board members agreed amongst themselves that diversity did not need to be a priority in the plan,” she said. “I was in the meeting, and it was a strategic planning meeting. It wasn't an executive committee meeting, and I completely disagree with her characterization of the discussion. I've spoken to several of the other board members and the people that were there and we all agree. We readily agree that diversity was such an important issue we felt it should be woven or embedded into the strategy rather than pulled out on its own. So diversity would undergird everything we did and express through our actions.”

Small steps towards expanding diversity and inclusion

In her time at the Art Center, Winkelman was able to affect the diversity of the staff at the Indianapolis Art Center by hiring two people of color.

“But having two or three people of color on staff didn’t begin to make a difference in an organization with 25-30 staff members in a city that is 62 percent white,” she said.   

For Williams’ part, he said that he is committed to expanding diversity at the Arts Center. Some of his perspective is informed by his experience in marketing which is, he said, “one of the most inclusive industries out there” and he has plans to rectify the situation at the Arts Center in regard to inclusivity.

“If you look at the Outreach program, it is predominantly reaching persons of color,” he said. “The classes here are predominantly not.” 

In order to fix this situation, Williams said that he is considering expanding satellite arts education programs into communities of color. This might be seen as part of a bigger push on Williams’ part that would deepen the Art Center’s engagement with the city.

“The Art Center used to have a very prominent position in town,” he said. “In my opinion, it was always in the top handful of names that you would hear; the Children's Museum, the Symphony, Newfields, but it would always be in that top handful. I think the recession, particularly, hit the Art Center hard, and it had to contract. It used to have several events annually and contracted down to two. So its presence in the community just naturally by that process diminished, and it didn't resurge as others started to improve and grow with the economy. One of my key things is really amplifying the presence of this institution, through partnerships and collaborations, and get the name back out there.”

He also is putting in mechanisms to move the discussion of diversity forward. On July 16, he posted news of the creation of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force on the Art Center’s Facebook page. The task force consists of 10 members from the staff and board and is led jointly by one staff member, and one board member.

“My initial goal for our DEI Task Force is to identify a consulting partner [through an RFQ], and then work with them to bring actionable items, training and learning that can be implemented without hesitation to both staff and board,” he wrote in the letter.

“Additionally, we are having conversations with community partners about how our process and learning may benefit others. I know that human nature wants simple direct answers and quick solutions. This challenge does not offer those. Indeed, it will take not just our work or even asector-wide approach, but rather community-wide discourse and action. This will be hard work.” 

Winkelman continues to stand by her original demand outlined in her letter, despite the creation of this task force. On the other hand, she continues to engage with the board in the hope that they will implement concrete changes, and the hope that the Art Center might, she stated, “become a leader for other white arts organizations who truly desire to change”.

In an email written after the announcement of the DEI task force, she stated the following:

“I have mixed feelings about the letter from Mark and the RFQ. I am glad they are doing something. But this should be just the beginning of increased transparency and accountability from the Art Center. Let's see the strategic plan goals. Let's see who's on this task force. Let's hear how that group is going to be empowered to make change. Let's see some ideas about how the Art Center plans to engage the community in their journey.” 

 

Editor's Note: Lisa McKinney, the board chair of the Indianapolis Art Center, is the sister of Kevin McKinney, the editor and publisher of NUVO.

Managing Editor

Having lived and worked in Indy on and off since 1977, and currently living in Carmel, I've seen the city change a great deal. I love covering the arts in all its forms, and the places where the arts and broader cultural issues intersect.

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