Museum of Fine Arts hires outside counsel to investigate racist incident

Jim Davis/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The Museum of Fine Arts said Wednesday it has hired an outside firm to investigate allegations that middle school students were subjected to racism during a school field trip in mid-May and to reexamine the museum’s own weeklong review of the incident.

On the same day, Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston said they had been retained as pro bono counsel by three families and an educator from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy and were pushing for a separate investigation by state Attorney General Maura Healey.

“We will keep all legal options open, including filing racial discrimination, gender discrimination, and public accommodation violations against the museum,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights.


The developments suggest that the repercussions from allegations of racism at the city’s premier art institution are far from over.

The MFA has found itself under a harsh spotlight in recent weeks after students of color from the Helen Y. Davis Academy in Dorchester said they experienced racist insults and close scrutiny during a field trip to the museum in mid-May.

The museum publicly apologized and conducted its own review, piecing together footage from security cameras and interviewing staff. That investigation led the museum to ban two patrons permanently who made racist comments. The museum’s leaders also promised to change security training and procedures but have yet to offer more details.

On Wednesday, the museum said it had had continued “discussion with our Boards of Trustees and Advisors, community leaders, and other engaged constituencies” after publishing its own review and decided a further external investigation “could provide greater objectivity and clarity.”

The museum’s second investigation will be led by former state attorney general Scott Harshbarger of the firm Casner & Edwards and will begin immediately.


Espinoza-Madrigal said that although an external investigation was a step in the right direction, it would not ensure the independence and authority of an investigation by the attorney general. He added that the families have received a barrage of hate mail and harassment in the wake of the incident, an outcome he blamed squarely on the “MFA’s failure to accept responsibility.”

A letter sent to the attorney general on behalf of the three families and the educator was signed by Espinoza-Madrigal and Tanisha Sullivan, the president of the Boston NAACP

Sullivan told the Globe that she was glad to hear the museum was also launching its own external investigation.

“The initial findings of the museum raised questions about the investigation process because the findings focused primarily on violations by external parties, versus anyone who was employed by the museum,” she said.

A third party, she said, would introduce a higher level of integrity and trust in the process and allow everyone involved “to have a full report on what happened and what should happen moving forward.”

“It is never a good idea for an institution to investigate itself,” she added.

Aziza Robinson-Goodnight, the former director of art and after-school clubs and enrichment at the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy, whose students were on the field trip at issue, said it had been difficult so far for the museum to reach any type of resolution with the school, an impasse she guessed may have led the museum to hire an independent firm.


“I’m just hoping that the outside investigation allows the MFA to really think deeply about what has been done, what happened in the situation,” she said.

The museum said it would not comment on the families’ letter to Healey until its external investigation was complete.

It’s common for companies and organizations to hire big-name lawyers to conduct independent investigations when they find themselves in trouble, though the MFA’s timing is a bit delayed.

“Normally, many companies would consider hiring outside counsel at the earlier stage, which is when they were commencing their own investigation,” said Kay H. Hodge , an attorney at the firm Stoneman, Chandler & Miller who has conducted similar investigations in the past and is not involved with the review at the MFA.

Hodge added that although companies do hire outside counsel to protect themselves from liability, an external investigation has more to do with gaining trust in the public sphere than beating opponents in a courtroom.

Espinoza-Madrigal said the parents and students he is representing found the museum’s initial investigation “particularly insulting, in that it questions the credibility of our students and fails to take responsibility for the action of MFA employees.”

This story has been updated to reflect that Aziza Robinson-Goodnight is the former director of art and after-school clubs and enrichment at the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy.

Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.