Museum Visitors, And Employees, Are Mostly White. The MFA Is Trying To Change That

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The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Leadership and staff at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston have been pondering the future. Now, after a year and a half of institutional soul-searching, they're rolling out a new, ambitious strategic plan. The blueprint — titled "MFA 2020" — is designed to expand and enliven the museum’s core mission over the next three years while engaging audiences that can be hard to reach.

Creating a culture of inclusivity — both inside and outside the museum's stately walls — is a thematic thread that weaves the plan together. A driving hope is that fostering openness and collaboration will ensure the nearly 150-year-old institution's relevancy and survival in a century defined by rapidly shifting attitudes and demographics.

I met with director Matthew Teitelbaum to find out more about the new roadmap's commitment to diversification. He wanted to talk in one of the museum's two Conservation in Action labs, where visitors can peer through glass walls to watch highly-trained staff work to maintain precious paintings and ancient objects from the encyclopedic collection.

Patrons of the museum can watch the conservation team restore pieces of the MFA's collection. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Patrons of the museum can watch the conservation team restore pieces of the MFA's collection. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A new, centralized, state-of-the-art Conservation Center plays a starring role in the strategic plan. But this particular location also speaks to a phrase Teitelbaum cites because he believes it conveys a lot about the next chapter for the museum: "outward-facing." That includes things like "be more inviting to our visitors, more engaging when they’re here," he said. "I think it should be a place where everybody feels they belong."

But there can be barriers to belonging. High ticket prices for one. Also age and various cultural differences. The list goes on.

In 2015, according to the MFA, 67 percent of visitors were female, 75 percent were 45 or older and 79 percent identified as Caucasian. Teitelbaum said many of the strategic plan’s more than 50 new initiatives are designed to change those numbers through the lens of art.

With input from teams made up of about 70 staff members, some new programming concepts include movies on the museum’s lawn, a series of late-night events, and free, family memberships for newly naturalized U.S. citizens.

As Teitelbaum explained much of the museum's mission needs to focus on who the visitors — and who potential visitors — are.

"How are they represented? How do they feel empowered by their visit?" he asked. "One way to do that is through diversification of staff. It's certainly a way to increase diversification of audience because it is a subset of a feeling: 'I belong here because when I come here I feel comfortable.' "

About 20 percent of the MFA’s 700-plus member staff self-identifies as non-white. Of that group, 14 percent are in the “professional” ranks, meaning curators, conservators, educators and leadership.

Teitelbaum and the MFA are not alone in this drive to shift internal museum culture and color. The plan to evolve the museum's population taps into a larger movement across the U.S. museum field.

"In order to stay relevant, institutions, cultural organizations — that in a meaningful way lack for diversity — are really going to be threatened themselves."

Roger Schonfeld

"In order to stay relevant, institutions, cultural organizations — that in a meaningful way lack for diversity — are really going to be threatened themselves, and really fail to provide for the needs of the society that we’re building and that is emerging," Roger Schonfeld explained.

Schonfeld leads a research and consulting program at the non-profit Ithaka S+R, which has been tracking demographics in the art museum world with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The gender gap in museum leadership has long been an issue. But racial demographics were less documented. So Mellon proposed partnering with various museum organizations to survey the population in hundreds of art museums. In 2015 they released a study that crunched data which found the sector's employees do not match the diversity of American society. It also found a disproportionate number of positions held by people of color were mostly security and facilities-related.

"Everyone understood this anecdotally," Schonfeld recalled, "but the effect was that it changed the conversation from where everyone has their own anecdotes and experience to one where now there is a common data set and baseline against which everyone — not matter their perspective — can begin to make progress."

Now Schonfeld's team is building on those findings by collecting more data for ongoing, holistic case studies of eight art museums that he says are achieving “a relative degree of racial diversity in professional roles.”

"We recognize that some of these museums — even among the eight — would say they have a lot farther to go themselves," Schonfeld acknowledged.

Edmund Barry Gaither, who directs the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury, has for decades been a consulting curator for the MFA. He helped bring African-American art and stories into the museum through 11 different exhibitions.

"The Museum of Fine Arts is an encyclopedic museum — and it positions itself as a museum that speaks about the cultures of the world," he explained when asked about the relationship between curatorial staffing, diversity and audience.

MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum with Frida Kahlo’s "Dos Mujeres", which was brought to the museum last summer. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum with Frida Kahlo’s "Dos Mujeres." (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

He told me the MFA's plan to hire people of different backgrounds and cultures will translate to the narratives on the gallery walls — and ultimately to the visitors.

"To do that convincingly — and frankly to do it in the most honest way possible — it needs at the professional curatorial level to have people whose voice and visions are as rich and as complex as the stories that are being told," Gaither reflected.

Curators at the MFA have been working hard to broaden the scope of their storytelling. One high-profile example is a work the museum acquired about a year and a half ago the museum acquired a work by famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Teitelbaum says the painting’s installation in the Art of the America's wing top floor gallery tells a unique story about the artist's time and place in history. It's also the first and only Kahlo in a New England museum's collection.

That said, the director also wants to make something clear: "I would not want this acquisition to be so purposefully prescribed that people thought, 'They only bought it because it was going to show diversity.' We bought it because it was a great work of art by a very important artist," Teitelbaum explained.

The curator who found the Kahlo is Elliot Bostwick Davis. She heads the MFA’s Art of the America’s department and has been focused on diversifying her staff along with the narratives. Davis was part of the strategic plan's development team, and she welcomes the institution-wide "laser-focus" on multiculturalism, equity and inclusion laid out in the strategic plan.

"The top job I have is to really get the best people in our field, and help them stay in our field, so that they don't leave to head out to 'for-profit' perhaps," Davis said.

The museum recruitment pool needs a deeper candidate pipeline for hiring new staff, she explained. That's one reason why the blueprint includes paid teen internships and grant-supported mentoring programs for developing the next generation of museum professionals. Davis hopes more deliberate outreach will lead to an infusion of fresh perspectives.

MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum speaks with Art of the Americas chair Elliot Bostwick Davis in the Lane Galleries. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum speaks with Art of the Americas chair Elliot Bostwick Davis in the Lane Galleries. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

To that end, the curator is eager to push forward with a new pilot program supported by the Luce Foundation. She said it will highlight and re-interpret "under-served" works from the museum's permanent collection for three different one-year exhibitions. The first will explore identity through the context of the museum's Native American art collection, and Davis added a college intern with Native American heritage will be integral to the curatorial process.

"This adds a different dimension that people don't often think about in terms of diversity, which is very often defined almost exclusively as 'people of color,' but of course it's much broader than that."

At this time there are three, open curatorial department head positions that need to be filled at the MFA. Of the 46 curators on staff, three self-identify as non-white and five chose not to identify, according to the museum.

"I'm concentrating, at the moment, on the candidate pool," Teitelbaum said. "For any position — for all positions."

The museum's more than 1,000 volunteers will be part of the cultural shift, too, along with the Board of Trustees.

As the museum faces many new questions, Teitelbaum says some of them are eternal. "Why should people come to museums? What is the power and value of museums?" he asked. "And people do come to museums — and they're deeply valued in communities — but we must always keep that question alive: Why do people want to come? What do they want to celebrate? What do they want to experience?"

With so much change in the wind, Teitelbaum added it’s also critical not to leave the MFA's loyal core audience behind.

Editor's Note: The original post has been updated with Andrea's Morning Edition feature. 

This article was originally published on June 06, 2017.

This segment aired on June 7, 2017.


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Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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