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JENEÉ OSTERHELDT | COMMENTARY

Racism at the MFA is not an isolated event. It’s a microcosm of life in America

“Mindful Mandalas” is by Nepali artist Sneha Shrestha and the students of local Boys and Girls clubs, who helped make the piece as part of the MFA’s Community Arts Initiative.
“Mindful Mandalas” is by Nepali artist Sneha Shrestha and the students of local Boys and Girls clubs, who helped make the piece as part of the MFA’s Community Arts Initiative.(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

The galleries were painted with black and brown people at the Museum of Fine Arts two weeks ago on a Friday night.

A pop-up shop featuring black makers and shirts that read “Protect Black Women” were for sale. Fashion shows bursting with African prints, regal styles, and statement streetwear took over the main floor. There was poetry, live music, a DJ, and dancing. They swagged. They surfed.

They were unapologetically black in a space that has never been known for its recognition of black beauty. It was as bold as Beyoncé and Jay-Z filming “Apes**t” in the Louvre.

Shrimp and grits and Caribbean pholourie fritters were on the menu. There was a Huey P. Newton Black Panther throne for photos. The hashtag: #MFABlackAF. And it was — for the night.

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Six days later, the students of Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy, a Dorchester middle school modeled after historically black colleges, would walk those galleries on a field trip. Security stalked them. When they were greeted with the rules, an MFA employee reportedly said, “No food, no drink, and no watermelon.”

A seventh-grade student danced the way some of us do when we hear a song that moves us, a teacher on the MFA trip said in a Facebook post. A museum-goer allegedly said it’s a shame she is stripping and not learning. Another patron, a woman, was dismayed by the “[expletive] black kids” in the way in the African exhibit, the teacher said.

Y’all. She was upset by the presence of black and brown students in the African exhibit. An incident report was filed that day, free tickets were given to the class, but that was it.

The MFA issued an apology this week for “a range of challenging and unacceptable experiences that made them feel unwelcome.”

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But words mean things, and we have to call racism what it is: racism, no filter.

In 2017, the Globe’s series on race tracked the MFA attendees on a Saturday in September. Out of about 3,000 patrons, only 4 percent were black.

What happened to the academy students is not an isolated event. The MFA is merely a microcosm of America. It is an institution of affluence and elitism. We cannot deny a historical museum culture of the white and the rich. It’s also a place where some people are working hard to shift the culture forward. Two things can be true at once.

Two years ago, the MFA rolled out a three-year plan to make itself more of a community space.

The museum’s own data showed nearly 80 percent of visitors identified as Caucasian, and 75 percent are over 45.

“We belong to the people,” MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum told the Globe back then. “It’s got to be a place where more people feel they belong, and I want them to feel they belong in relation to objects and ideas shared with others.”

The plan, “MFA 2020,” included creating free memberships, discounted nights, outdoor film series, the outdoor cafe, outreach programs, and MFA Late Nites, a recurring signature event created to cultivate community and craft celebration around art and inclusivity. It all happens after dark, from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.

#MFABlackAF was an MFA Late Nite event. The museum worked with Young Black Professionals, Collier Connection, and LiteWork Events to bring in Boston’s black millennials.

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Farrah Belizaire, founder of LiteWork Events, loved working with the museum and plans to be there next month for the Roxbury Film Festival and the John Singleton tribute. But she’s also not surprised by what happened to the academy’s students.

“I do feel there is a community of folk who value inclusion but that message is not translating universally,” she says. “A museumgoer and security said those things to those students. There is an aspect of the city and this institution that is resistant to redefining Boston. This is not the first time I have heard of people I know going to the MFA and experiencing microaggressions and feeling unwelcome. I hope it doesn’t reverse the progress being made as far as people seeing the MFA as being a space of their own.”

The thing is, inclusion cannot just be for the night. It has to be part of the culture of everyday life at the museum, of everyday living in America.

While some of us were having fun and feeling the love of art and our blackness, others were policed over party decorations.

That same MFA Late Night, during #MFABlackAF, there was also a party for Asian and queer people of color.

Angry Asian Girls — a collective holding space for Asian American and Pacific Islanders and queer Asians — hosted a fashion experience and dance party for queer and trans people of color.

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A silver door made of layers and layers of fringe transported you from one world into another. Through that fringe was a safe space centering Asian and LGBTQ+ people of color. Through that fringe was fun, love, and freedom. Until a white man, MFA security, tore the door down.

Despite them having approval from the MFA, he said, the fringe was a violation.

“There are a lot of folk at the MFA who are striving for change, but there is still a gap,” says Dahn Bi Lee-Hong, cofounder of Angry Asian Girls.

“What happened to those students and what happened to us that night raises the question of public safety and who is it for,” she said. “If you want to bring people in, you can’t bring queer people and people of color in to make you look good. There has to be institutional change. You have to bring people in and reallocate power and resources for people to feel safe and comfortable.”

We cannot continue to be on the outside looking in and allow institutions to uphold racism.

“The most important data is the fact that we had children leave this museum and adults feeling disrespected because of the color of their skin. That is fundamentally not OK,” Makeeba McCreary, the MFA’s chief of learning and community engagement, told the Globe’s Renée Graham.

During #MFABlackAF, people posed for pictures and swayed their hands with a 36-foot-tall mural bursting with bright colors and warm energy behind them. “Mindful Mandalas” is by Nepali artist Sneha Shrestha and the students of local Boys and Girls Clubs. Lots of tiny brown and black hands helped make that masterpiece as part of the MFA’s Community Arts Initiative. Some 86 percent of the students in Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston are kids of color.

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Nepali artist Sneha Shrestha.
Nepali artist Sneha Shrestha.(Barry Chin/Globe Staff/file 2019)

Unlike the Dorchester students, these kids were welcome to learn and create. Shrestha believes the MFA should bring on more art educators of color to create change. The work she’s done with the kids, she believes, is an example of how we can build a space that belongs to everybody.

“Ownership is important,” she says. “In the end, it takes a village to create a peaceful place for kids.”

It’s time to turn our backs on the so-called art world and the racism that lives in those stark white walls. We all live in the world. Let the art and its space reflect it. The world is ours.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.