The Museum of Fine Arts on Friday revealed a more detailed action plan in response to allegations of racism against middle school students who visited the museum in May.
“This is our living, breathing record of our work together,” the museum wrote in a memo on its website titled “Toward a More Inclusive MFA.” “We hear you, and we want you to hold us accountable for what we’ve promised.”
The memo outlines a series of short-term steps and long-term commitments the museum is emphasizing in the wake of the incident, which involved predominantly black and Latino students from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy in Dorchester. They include adding staff to the school groups entrance, hiring “visitor services” employees to roam the galleries, and changing the greeting that visitors hear when they arrive.
“The more bodies we have, the more personalized and attentive and welcoming we can be,” said Katie Getchell, deputy director of the MFA, explaining the staffing additions. Getchell said the museum would soon be posting new rules in the lobby highlighting visitors’ collective role in keeping the art safe, and that the museum is studying how the National Park Service provides security that is friendly and nonthreatening, in order to use it as a model for the museum’s guards.
Activists, community leaders, and artists of color said the changes were probably useful stopgaps, but would not by themselves change the nature of an overwhelmingly white museum.
“Most of these are sort of operational policies,” said Reverend Mariama White-Hammond, who grew up in Roxbury, took painting classes at the MFA as a child, and recently wrote an op-ed for WBUR about racism at the museum. “If they want to change at a systemic level, then they need to shift the relationships they have with many of Boston’s communities that haven’t felt welcome. And that can’t be done quickly.”
Lyndsay Allyn Cox, director of theater arts at the Boston Center for the Arts, said she learned about the changes in an e-mail Friday morning to all MFA members.
“So many of us young artists of color really do support the MFA,” Cox said, adding that she had been to the “Black AF” late night at the museum in early May, which she called “the blackest party in Boston of all time.” She appreciated the outreach and was encouraged that the museum seemed to be taking racism seriously. Still, she said, hiring more staff for the galleries would not lead to fundamental change.
“I’m looking forward to the next step that says, ‘We are actively pursuing and recruiting people of color to be a part of our leadership,’ ” Cox said.
The museum said it would “continue to be intentional in recruitment processes that build and support a diverse complement of staff, volunteers, and governance,“ but offered no more specifics.
Some of the Academy’s students were supposed to perform this month at MFA’s Juneteenth, a celebration of black artists that is in its seventh year, though a teacher at the school told WBUR that the students would no longer be participating.
A cofounder of the Juneteenth collaboration, Malia Lazu, said the museum was engaged in the long-term process of building relationships with people of color and communities who had been historically underrepresented, evidenced in part by Juneteenth, which brings in about 5,000 visitors.
“Even the most well-intentioned white folks don’t get it right all the time, and there needs to be room for that,” said Lazu, who is a woman of color.
One of the quick fixes the museum just implemented is an edited greeting. When the seventh graders visited in mid-May, they said they were greeted by a museum staffer who explained the rules as “No food, no drink, no watermelon.” In an investigation of the incident, the museum wrote there was “no way to definitively confirm or deny” what the employee said, but that the standard greeting was “no food, no drink, no water bottles.”
Now the museum has eliminated the “no water bottles” phrase, “so that there’s just less room for any confusion or misunderstanding,” Getchell said.
Some activists say the issue goes deeper, to the very premise of a predominantly white art museum that collects art and artifacts from around the world.
“There’s an expectation that there can be an egalitarian enjoyment of art that is completely distilled from the biases and prejudices inherent in an elitist curation,” said Jose Lopez, chairman of the education committee of the Boston NAACP. “And to have that expectation in itself is a problem.”
The students from Davis Academy reported being closely followed by security while a nearby white school group was spared, and said that one patron likened a student to a stripper while another patron complained of “[expletive] black kids in the way.” In their postmortem investigation, the museum identified and permanently banned the two patrons who made the racist remarks.
The principal of Davis Academy, Arturo J. Forrest, said he had not yet seen the new memo and had no comment.
MFA will be welcoming artists and patrons of color to its Juneteenth celebration in a few weeks, a potent moment as it continues to engage in citywide conversation about race and cultural institutions. To Lazu, who helps run the event, the changes announced in the new memo are good signs.
This is a moment, she said, for the museum to reiterate and recommit to its own values, part of a transformation that has been taking place in recent years. After all, she said, “You don’t know you have any race problems until other races start coming into your place.”