I grew up in Boston in the ‘80s and ‘90s before it became hip and obscenely expensive to live here. My parents were determined to expose my sister and me to everything this city had to offer. We participated in activities at Black-led institutions — re-enacting the bus boycott for Rosa Parks at the Henry Buckner School, dancing at the Roxbury Center for the Performing Arts, and studying piano at the Elma Lewis School. We also made the rounds of the white cultural institutions — camp at the Museum of Science, Friday nights at the Children’s Museum and painting classes at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). We had the economic privilege to participate in these different experiences in a way that most of our neighbors in Mattapan and Roxbury did not.
When I was 5, I took painting classes at the MFA. Most of the families were from the suburbs and they were not of color. I remember how the museum security, and the walls seemed to whisper, “Don’t touch.” I remember painting after painting in which no one looked like me and the scenes didn’t reflect my neighborhood or my experiences. My mother remembers the comments about how “articulate I was.” She got used to their shock that a little girl from Roxbury could string together a sentence.
I will not comment on the veracity of the last week’s MFA controversy because experience has taught me that unless you really investigate, you don’t know the full story. What I do know is that 35 years ago I was a little girl at the MFA and there were a myriad of signs that the space was not made for me. So, when it comes to the past week’s discourse, the only thing I find shocking is that so many people seem to be shocked. I keep wondering why people of color are surprised that something racist could occur at the MFA. For white folks, take this as a data point about how little you really know about the experience of people of color in this city.
We still live in a city where your ZIP code determines most of your health and wealth outcomes. I suspect that on any given day of the week, young people experience the feeling of being unwelcome in spaces like the MFA, whose mission statement says it exists to “celebrate diverse cultures and welcome new and broader constituencies.”
Thanks to the pushback from the teachers and students at Davis Leadership Academy, we have the opportunity, yet again, to discuss race and inclusion in this city. Yet in the midst of what could be a moment of reckoning, I’m frustrated by the way the conversation is taking shape. On one hand, I have heard some folks try to regard this as an isolated event, as if our city does not have a problem with racism. On the other hand I have heard outrage and calls for the MFA to fire people or for people of color to boycott.
What I have not heard is a call for the kind of transformative work that would ensure that our children feel welcome in all of Boston’s civic and cultural institutions. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are some cultural institutions in this city like the Children’s Museum and ArtsEmerson, which have made inclusion central to their missions and have spent years doing real work to ensure their work faces and invites historically underrepresented communities.
The Huntington Theatre Company and the Institute of Contemporary Art have looked at the diversity of their staff, to the artists they bring and the kinds of stories they tell. They have programs that make admission affordable to low-income folks and have partnered with local leaders to listen and make people aware of what the organization is doing.
Recently the MFA hired people of color in a few key leadership positions and has fostered a number of partnerships and events that welcome a greater cross-section of Boston. Its Juneteenth celebration, late nites and free membership to new U.S. citizens and their families — programs that reflect the MFA's strategic plan meant to diversify its patrons and employee base — are (albeit incomplete) steps in the right direction. My church went to the MFA Late Night for the “Gender Bending Fashion” exhibition and was blown away to see queer and hip-hop artists performing in the MFA atrium.
At the same time, I am clear that having a few staff members of color in a large organization and being a little “edgier” will not be enough if the executive leadership and the board are not committed to the long term systemic change required to change a historically exclusive institution whose ethos has often equated inaccessibility with higher artistic quality.
As a pastor I know that transformation is neither quick nor linear. We may leap three steps forward and fall two steps back. It will take years of work and a serious investment of resources for the organization to shift, but I think that change begins with having a clear vision for where they want to be. That vision should not just be the musings of the MFA board and staff, but should be co-created and co-curated with multiple community leaders who agree not only to hold their feet to the fire, but to work with them to bring the vision to pass.
Soon, the news cycle will move on to other things, but my hope is that from this will emerge a group of leaders from within the institution, and outside of it, who work together so that we don’t settle for anything less than a world in which all of our children can enter the MFA and have an experience which “encourages inquiry and heightens public understanding and appreciation of the ... world."
Rev. Mariama White-Hammond is a pastor, activist and artist living in Boston.