The Museum of Fine Arts has reached a groundbreaking agreement with Attorney General Maura Healey to dedicate $500,000 to diversity initiatives and develop an antidiscrimination policy, nearly a year after the museum faced citywide outrage over allegations of racism against middle school students there.
The MFA agreed to commit the money over the next three years to implement inclusion programming, including ideas that arise from forthcoming meetings between the museum and students and teachers from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy in Dorchester. The museum also agreed to hire an outside consultant to help implement the agreement, develop an antidiscrimination and harassment policy to govern how visitors are treated, and submit biannual reports to the attorney general’s office noting its progress.
“Today’s agreement affirms the experiences of students and teachers from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy and lifts up their voices," Healey said Tuesday in a statement, adding that she hoped it would serve as “a model for cultural institutions" in Boston and elsewhere. The MFA also pledged to work with local schools that primarily serve students of color, local artists of color, and extracurricular programs throughout Boston to build community involvement in the museum.
The agreement came in response to an incident last May when a group of seventh-graders said they were subjected to a string of racist incidents during a field trip at the elite institution. They said they were greeted by a staff member who described the museum’s rules as “no food, no drink, no watermelon." (In a subsequent internal review, the museum said the employee recalled issuing the standard greeting, “no food, no drink, no water bottles.”) One patron likened a student to a stripper, and another complained of “[expletive] Black kids in the way.” The students also said they were closely tracked by security guards while a group of white students nearby wandered freely.
“I think the entire agreement represents a victory,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, which represents one educator and three students who were on the field trip to the MFA last May. Espinoza-Madrigal said his clients and the MFA had not been in direct conversation over the past year, but would now set up a meeting with a “clean slate.”
“I was on the phone today with the educators and students, walking them through the provisions of the agreement, and they said, ‘We feel heard, we feel seen, we feel validated,’ ” he said.
The agreement goes into effect in either 120 days or when the COVID-19 state of emergency ends in Massachusetts, whichever comes later.
Finances may be an issue: The MFA, like other cultural institutions in the state, is closed through at least the end of June because of the coronavirus and won’t have any public programs or special events through August. The museum’s director, Matthew Teitelbaum, is taking a 30 percent pay cut, and a significant portion of its staff is furloughed.
"We are committed to funding these initiatives,” said Karen Frascona, a spokeswoman for the MFA.
The agreement with the attorney general’s office notes that if “financial circumstances endanger the MFA’s ability to fulfill its mission and fulfill the terms of this Memorandum, particularly in light of ongoing public health and economic circumstances and their impact on the MFA,” the terms might be modified.
The agreement noted that the NAACP Boston Branch would play an important role in implementing its terms; NAACP president Tanisha Sullivan called it “historic” in a statement. Espinoza-Madrigal said he had not seen an agreement of this nature before, and appreciated that it focused not on penalizing the museum but instead on making sure “there is a transformative experience for everyone involved.”
The Davis Leadership Academy teacher who first wrote about her students’ experience in a Facebook post that quickly went viral declined to comment on the agreement.
The museum has continually contended with fallout from the incident over the past year. After an outcry, it conducted an internal review, issued a public apology, and banned the two patrons who made the racist comments.
But critics at the time said the museum did not do enough to take responsibility for the actions of its staff, or make permanent changes to the institution’s culture. Soon after, the attorney general launched a civil rights investigation and the museum launched its own external investigation, led by former attorney general Scott Harshbarger. That investigation is also complete, the MFA confirmed, though it declined to say when it was finished or what it found, “because the report contains detailed information regarding security protocols and systems that would put the MFA’s collection, staff, and visitors at risk,” a spokeswoman said.
The MFA has struggled to make its space truly diverse. In a 2017 series on race in Boston, the Globe Spotlight Team counted the number of patrons at the museum on a Saturday, and found that about 4 percent of roughly 3,000 were Black. Both current and former security guards, the majority of whom are people of color, told the Globe last year that they had long felt treated as second-class citizens within the museum.
In October, the museum overhauled its pre-visit interactions with students and the way they move through the museum, another attempt to make it welcoming to new and diverse visitors.
“We have learned a great deal during the past year and through this process,” said Teitelbaum, the museum’s director, in a statement. “There’s nothing more important to us than making sure everyone feels welcome at the MFA.”