By Bob Keyes/ Portland Press Herald
BAR HARBOR— Chris Newell, the charismatic executive director of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, resigned his position on Thursday, just 18 months after becoming the first tribal member to lead the museum of Wabanaki art, history and culture.
Newell, a Passamaquoddy and native of Indian Township, announced the news in a video message, citing personal reasons. “This choice is difficult to make, but my path was made clear to me, and I have to follow it,” he said in his video message posted to YouTube.
I spent much time deliberating with my family, people I trust, spiritual leaders, and elders. Many of my reasons are personal. Some are the result of the pandemic and difficulties out of anyone’s control. I won’t go into the details, but what I can tell you is that I found myself in the position of having to choose between the dream job of my career and the health and well-being of myself, my family, and the people I love.”
In a press release, the museum’s board of trustees said it was in the process of naming an interim director.
In addition to serving as executive director of the museum, Newell also had the title of senior partner to Wabanaki Nations, which involved serving as a spokesperson and advocate for Wabanaki culture beyond museum walls. “The Abbe Museum community will always be grateful to Chris for his dedicated work as Executive Director; he is leaving the museum stronger for his presence,” Margo Lukens, the trustees’ co-chairperson, said in a press release. “His tenure as the first Wabanaki Executive Director of the museum has been pivotal, and we look forward to continued good work together in service to the Abbe and to the Wabanaki Tribes in Maine.”
Newell, 47, said he would continue working with the Abbe through the Akomawt Educational Initiative, which he co-founded before taking the position at the Abbe. The Connecticut-based organization works with educators, curators and others across New England to integrate accurate and effective education on Native history and contemporary issues. Newell said he will return to full-time work with the organization, and has rejoined his family in Mashantucket, Conn.
Newell began his job at the Abbe on March 1, 2020, on the eve of the onset of the pandemic. The museum remained closed throughout 2020, reopening this past July with an exhibition about porcupine quillwork. Throughout his tenure, he traveled between his family in Connecticut and his work in Maine. His resignation is effective Saturday.
Newell established his presence soon after beginning his job, testifying in an Indian mascot dispute in Connecticut and protesting the portrayal of Wabanaki culture in a Boston newspaper article. Because of the pandemic, the museum’s high-profile Abbe Museum Indian Market, which had been in downtown Bar Harbor, moved online, creating an international platform for artists exhibiting at the market as well an opportunity for Newell, who hosted the event, to introduce himself as a museum leader. The digital version of the market continued in 2021.
In spring 2020, as the racial and social justice movement spread across the country, Newell spoke about the role of museums in addressing injustices. “Museums are not neutral. If we sit back and say nothing, we take the side of complicity,” he said at the time. “The endangerment of Black and brown bodies exists on a daily basis because of the way America is structured. Systematic racism exists. As Native people, we know this all too well.”
He spoke about his role and goals as a guest on Maine Voices Live, hosted by the Press Herald, in December 2020.
This past June 18, he was among tribal leaders, elders and others who welcomed cellist Yo-Yo Ma to a sunrise performance at the Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park. On Friday evening, he was scheduled to deliver the Distinguished Lecture 2021 at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, where he planned to show a trailer for the upcoming documentary “Weckuwapok: The Approaching Dawn” about the sunrise performance.
On Oct. 5, Scholastic will publish his non-fiction book, geared for second- to fifth-graders and educators, “If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving,” about the landing of the Mayflower and the creation of the modern thanksgiving holiday.
David Greenham, executive director of the Maine Arts Commission, called the news of Newell’s departure “a really disappointing blow to Maine. Even though he has only been here a brief time in that role, it feels like a tremendous loss for the state, although I do understand the challenges of having family in Connecticut while working in Maine.
Newell is a member of the Maine Arts Commission, a position he will have to resign, Greenham said, as well as a member of the Cultural Alliance of Maine, which represents arts leaders. “He was a tremendous asset,” Greenham said. “There are great arts leaders in the state, and he quickly joined that group very seamlessly. Right now I am sad, mostly sad.”
In his farewell message, Newell acknowledged the sudden nature of his departure, and said he hoped he did not disappoint people with his short tenure. “When I came to the Abbe in March of 2020, I arrived with the full intention of working for this museum until I retired. I truly saw leading this institution as the medicine I needed in my life,” he said. “The Abbe Museum offered me the privilege of following my passions in education, decolonization, and re-Indigenization, to work for my own communities in my own homeland and to make a living salary while doing so. I will forever be grateful to the Abbe for this opportunity. The board of trustees and Native Council saw the potential in me that others did not see.”
A drum group singer, Newell closed his video with what he called “a gift of song” for his Abbe colleagues. He wrote it as good medicine, to bring joy and make people dance. “And I leave it here with the Abbe. It is yours to keep and use however you wish as my parting gift to the people and the institution I am so closely attached to. There is no goodbye in our language. Instead we say ‘apcoc’ or ‘I will see you again.’”