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Newfields' newest president, CEO looking to overcome museum's 'triple tragedy'

In the years leading up to Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette taking over, Newfields faced COVID, America's racial justice movement, and bad press.

INDIANAPOLIS — Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette has been the president and CEO of Newfields for the last seven months.

The Cleveland native left her position as President of Huston-Tillotson University, a historically Black college in Austin, Texas, last year. She thought she was retiring, but weeks later, she found herself moving to Indianapolis to lead the Newfields team.

"They say jump, and grow your wings on the way down. In hindsight, this was definitely the next step for me," Burnette said.

Newfields was searching for a new leader after a racially insensitive job posting gained national attention in 2021. When asked if she got the job because she’s a Black woman, she was grateful for the question.

"I've actually gotten letters since I've been in the position, where people question my credentials," Burnette said. "I've been a C-suite level executive for almost 30 years. I'm a retired university president. I had a very successful tenure in my presidency, leading an institution through COVID successfully with no layoffs."

In addition to her professional successes, Burnette touted her academic qualifications, as well.

"I have an engineering undergraduate degree, a master's in business. I have a doctorate from an Ivy League institution," she said.

Then, there are her personal accomplishments.

"I've been married to one man my entire life. I've often been the only and the othered, and yet I've still persisted and built a phenomenal career that I'm very proud of. And I’m still not qualified?" Burnette asked. "If I were a white male or a white female, I'd be overqualified, and people would be asking me why I would take this position. Leadership is leadership."

RELATED: Newfields under fire for job posting

Burnette chooses not to focus on things or people that would get in the way of her mission: to make Newfields a template cultural organization in what she calls a "grand" way. But to understand how she plans on doing that, you must understand a little bit more about the woman herself and the journey that brought her to Indianapolis.

"As a child, my mother used to take my sister and I to every museum in Cleveland, Ohio," Burnette said. "I remember very vividly, not seeing myself in any of those places. Because I'm a child of the '60s, and I don't remember seeing myself."

Those experiences have shown her the value in museums. They also inspire her outreach today.

"Young people in traditionally marginalized populations don't need to be saved. They need good books, good teachers, and exposure," Burnette explained.

So, museum-goers will find newer exhibits like "We The Culture," a refreshing American art gallery, and "Artists Among Us," an exhibit that showcases the work of Newfields employees. But Burnette said the work the team has done behind the scenes is impactful, too.

"We're rebuilding ourselves from a wounded organization — because organizations have personalities, too. And the DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, and access) training that 90+% of our staff went through, that's one step toward us becoming an anti-racist institution," Burnette said.

Newfields has had to survive what she calls a "triple tragedy" — COVID, America's racial justice movement sparked by the death of George Floyd, in addition to its bad press.

Burnette said it was important to be comfortable with having those uncomfortable conversations.

"I did not find racist people here. That is not my experience at Newfields — not at all," Burnette said. "We had something tragic that happened to us and we learn from it. And as we learn from it, we then have an opportunity to grow from it. And then we become a stronger institution."

Leading a complex organization with a 140-year history can feel like an uphill battle at times, but Burnette remains optimistic in the growth process.

"I'll know my assignment is over when two people are talking and they say, 'You're going to Indianapolis? Oh my God, you've got to go to Newfields. It will change your life.' No matter who that person is or what their walk of life is, that's when I'll know Newfields is doing what it's supposed to do in meeting its own mission."

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