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At The MFA, A Struggle For Internal Culture To Reflect Programming's Progressive Ideals06:43
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Museum of Fine Arts Boston. (Jesse Costa./WBUR)
Museum of Fine Arts Boston. (Jesse Costa./WBUR)

On a warm evening in June, a crowd gathered in a gallery at the Museum of the National Center of Afro American Artists in Roxbury. A ring of folding chairs quickly filled up, forcing people to stand and spill into the doorways.

The people — all black artists and community leaders — had assembled in response to a recent headline-making incident, in which a group of students of color said they were racially profiled and harassed during a school trip to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The class overheard one person refer to them as "[expletive] black kids" and another compare a student who was dancing to a stripper. The MFA conducted an investigation and banned two visitors. The children and their teachers also said museum guards were extra vigilant with their group, appearing to profile them while being hands-off with white student groups. The museum has said the guards were going on and off break and did not mean to follow the students.

On the agenda for the meeting of black creatives was the upcoming Juneteenth event at the MFA. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865 — the day that news of the abolition of slavery reached Texas, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The MFA draws thousands to its annual Juneteenth commemoration, but some black Bostonians now feel conflicted about supporting the event.

“Any black person who was asked to do this celebration before the racist incident kind of blew up is probably feeling similar feelings,” said Destiny Polk, who called the meeting and is scheduled to appear on a panel at the MFA’s Juneteenth event on Wednesday. “[Should I] choose to side with a community that feels really hurt? Or do I still show up, you know, for this event that is meaningful, but maybe more questionable now.”

Polk said she’s glad the MFA banned the visitors who made racist remarks. But she added that the incident was just the latest example of why many artists of color feel unwelcome at the MFA.

“Imagine what that does to a black artist who continues to try to support [the MFA],” Polk said. “And continually being shown that our kids are feeling unsafe in [its] spaces, are feeling targeted or feeling criminal in [its] spaces.”

This tension over whether to engage with the MFA's Juneteenth celebration is emblematic of a complex dynamic for cultural institutions. They often put on well-received, outward-facing programming that explores issues of race and oppression, but still struggle with the optics — and at times, the reality — that their internal culture and history do not reflect the ideals presented in their exhibitions.

Diversity, equity and inclusion: These are the buzzwords that drive programming at many cultural organizations in Boston, including the MFA.

The museum’s audience is about 80% white, according to its own data, and in recent years it has embraced inclusive programming in part to attract a younger, more diverse demographic. These efforts have been largely successful: The museum’s popular Late Nites series regularly draws hip, racially mixed crowds, and high-profile exhibitions on Frida Kahlo and gender-bending fashion, among others, have helped solidify an inclusive, culturally-savvy reputation.

But the racist incident the students encountered reveals just how far the MFA and other historically white institutions have to go in their efforts toward inclusion.

Some see the current moment of reckoning as an opportunity for growth. “As someone who's worked with the MFA on their journey and understands that they are taking on this journey seriously, I also understand that they see, when these things happen, as ways to get better,” said Malia Lazu, who runs the Juneteenth commemoration in collaboration with the MFA.

She believes the museum’s programming choices have made a meaningful impact on Boston’s cultural landscape. “The Late Nites — that’s the only fun thing to do in Boston,” Lazu says. “Late Nites gives me something to do in this city, as a woman of color.”

The success of Late Nites has been aided by collaborations with local grassroots organizations, like Angry Asian Girls, an activist collective that hosted a dance party for queer and trans people of color at the MFA’s most recent Late Nite event.

“We decorated the entire space in silver streamers and had this amazing DJ flown out from Chicago, DJ King Marie,” recalls Angry Asian Girls co-founder Dahn Bi Lee-Hong. But they say the night took a turn when the museum's protective services staff tore down a previously-approved art piece that was installed around a doorway and spoke aggressively to members of the collective who protested.

“It was incredibly upsetting for many of us who had put in long hours to not only create this event, but also just a space that was supposed to be a safe space for folks who often don't have these spaces in Boston,” Lee-Hong said in a phone interview.

In a statement, the MFA expressed regret and said it had updated its pre-event walk-through procedures. But the incident reveals the friction that can arise when institutions — still grappling with how to become more inclusive — bring in community groups that haven't historically occupied space there.

“All of us, as arts institutions, as arts and culture institutions, are on a journey,” said ArtsEmerson’s executive director David Howse. (Howse also serves on the MFA's board of advisors, but didn't speak to WBUR in that capacity for this story.) “And I think in our eagerness to get it right, we often overlook the healing that needs to take place and the trust that has to be built.”

Howse said cultural institutions tend to focus more on external programming that champions inclusion because its results are more visible and measurable than the slower, less public work of changing the internal culture of historically white organizations.

“I think we go to what is an outward indication of our values,” Howse said. “Don’t get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with that. But it starts to feel ... not superficial, but less grounded when we're not then returning to the important work of making sure that the culture actually can sustain that kind of shift.”

Examples of that work include hiring staff that reflects the demographics of the city, creating mechanisms for community members to hold to account and advise the institution, and involving all staff in honest, ongoing discussions about how to make the organization more just — all things the MFA says it's trying to do.

“You need immediate responses, and then you need some really committed, long-term strategies to shifting the practice,” said Makeeba McCreary, the MFA’s Chief of Learning and Community Engagement. McCreary joined the MFA in January with the mandate to bring new audiences to the museum. She believes the museum needs to rethink how it engages communities of color.

“I remember being in the museum on Martin Luther King Day,” McCreary said. “It's our highest day of attendance historically, and so are many of our cultural celebration days. But I had to wonder, where are all these people on every other day of the week, every other month during the year? And I think what it points to is the fact that you aren't working toward inclusion when you are simply being a venue.”

McCreary wants to see the museum develop more long-term partnerships with local arts organizations, like the one it has with the Roxbury International Film Festival. Beyond that, some of the groundwork for internal change has already been laid, through unconscious bias training and community forums. Still, McCreary said the museum is considering how to improve that bias training for staff, and rethinking how security interacts with patrons. And, she said, the museum still has a lot to learn.

“I think we have to ask questions. I think we have to accept help ... I think you have to be prepared to pivot in the moments when you realize that you just didn't quite have it right,” McCreary said. “I also think that, in the moments where it's hard work and it feels maybe a little painful, you have to push through and you have to be willing to go the long road.”

Much of that road is uncharted. Navigating it will be messy, arduous and — if the MFA wants to become truly inclusive — necessary.

This segment aired on June 17, 2019.

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Amelia Mason Twitter Arts And Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for The ARTery, WBUR's arts and culture team. She covers everything from fine art to television to the inner workings of the Boston music scene.

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