For the first time in its 150-year history, the Museum of Fine Arts has elected a Black president to lead its influential board of trustees.
Edward E. Greene, a global human resources consultant who previously served as chair of the MFA’s board of advisors, was appointed to the three-year term during the board’s annual meeting on Sept. 21.
Nominated in 2019, Greene, 57, will share leadership responsibilities with Cathy E. Minehan, who was appointed board chair at the annual meeting. Board members also elected Azi Djazani to chair the museum’s board of advisors, where she will succeed Greene in the role, and approved numerous other trustees and advisors. .
Greene, who succeeds Jill Avery as president, said his focus will be on developing a sustainable business model amid the economic downturn while also bolstering the museum’s ongoing efforts to become more culturally inclusive.
“We have a real responsibility to ensure that we are financially viable, but more importantly, that we are relevant as we move forward,” said Greene. “That’s what’s exciting in this very difficult time. ... We have the ability to lead from the front.”
His appointment comes at perhaps one of the most challenging moments in the MFA’s history, which recently reopened some of its galleries following a six-month closure that included more than 100 layoffs and early retirements.
And while the MFA has sought in recent years to become more welcoming, it suffered a major public relations debacle in the spring of 2019 when students from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy alleged they’d been subjected to racist treatment by museum staff and visitors during a school outing.
“As a Black person, as a father of two Black children, it was very, very painful,” said Greene, who added the incident prompted him to consider more seriously the leadership role. “But the reality is it wasn’t just the MFA. It wasn’t just Boston. Racism and discrimination exist, and the fact that it was put front and center for an institution like the MFA — you can’t walk away from it. You can’t deny it. Let’s address it.”
Museum director Matthew Teitelbaum said he looked forward to working with Greene and Minehan as partners.
“Challenging times need diverse opinions,” said Teitelbaum. “Having the first African-American as the president of our board, working closely with [Minehan], who has so long been committed to women’s issues and public service, will create a very dynamic set of conversations. And that’s what public institutions need: We need to look at things from different points of view, and we have to come to new conclusions.”
Minehan, who was the first woman president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and previously chaired the board of Massachusetts General Hospital, said she was “honored” to be named a new board leader alongside Greene and Djazani.
“I am confident that the museum can and will be a conduit of ideas and experiences that bring us closer together as a community,” she said in a statement.
Even so, the museum has come under withering criticism in recent days for its decision, along with three other major museums, to postpone a retrospective of modernist painter Philip Guston, which was to include some of the Jewish artist’s cartoonish representations of Ku Klux Klan members, “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.”
On Wednesday, an influential group of art world luminaries amplified pressure on the institutions by publishing a highly critical open letter that calls on the museums to reinstate the show and describes the decision to postpone it as an acknowledgment of the museums’ "longstanding failure to have educated, integrated, and prepared themselves to meet the challenge of the renewed pressure for racial justice that has developed over the past five years.”
A spokeswoman for the MFA declined to comment.
The new leadership appointments come as part of a broader push to diversify leadership ranks at the museum, which in 2018 brought on Makeeba McCreary as its first chief of learning and community engagement, and last month hired Rosa Rodriguez-Williams as its inaugural senior director of belonging and inclusion.
Similarly, the museum has committed $500,000 over the next three years to diversity programs and to develop an anti-discrimination policy — two prongs of an agreement with Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey following the Davis Leadership Academy incident.
The MFA also agreed to bring in a diversity consultant, and Greene pointed to a new policy of paying college interns as evidence of the museum’s commitment to becoming more culturally inclusive.
“It’s historically been white kids who have the luxury to do unpaid internships,” said Greene. “There’s a recognition that we need to do more and do better.”
Nevertheless, the changes come as the MFA faces fierce financial headwinds. It fought to balance its budget earlier this year during the closure, and even now the museum is only partially open, admitting just 75 visitors per hour.
Meanwhile, Teitelbaum has said that fully reopening the museum could take up to eight months — and that’s assuming “the context doesn’t change on us.”
“We’re limited by capacity, and that revenue is key,” said Greene, who added that cultural relevancy was “inextricably linked” to a sustainable business model. “The health of the market we serve will really impact our decisions going forward.”
To that end, he reaffirmed the museum’s stated commitment to continue collecting contemporary artworks by a diverse group of living artists, a long-lamented weak spot in the MFA’s otherwise sprawling collection.
“There really is an opportunity to expand our collection and bring in different audiences,” he said. “We are by no means perfect, but we do have a desire to learn and grow.”