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Students from Davis Academy issue list of demands to the MFA

The Museum of Fine Arts
The Museum of Fine Arts(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)

A lawyer representing three families and an educator from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy presented their first comprehensive list of demands to the Museum of Fine Arts on Tuesday, suggesting in a letter the students do not intend to let a recent incident of racism at the museum fade quietly away.

The letter indicates that students are still reeling from a field trip in mid-May, during which they said they were subjected to racist comments from patrons and an employee, as well as close scrutiny by guards.

And it suggests the students want to use this moment — in which they have the rapt attention of one of Boston’s leading cultural institutions — to create lasting change.

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In the letter, Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said the students want the museum to fund a mental health professional at Davis Academy, offer “free access in perpetuity” to the museum for families and staff, fund a college scholarship for students who were on the field trip, and establish paid summer internships at the museum for Davis Academy students.

“Frankly, these are ideas that should have come from the museum itself,” said Espinoza-Madrigal. “It is shameful that the museum has not offered anything along these lines to our clients.”

The letter also demands that the MFA implement a “direct and anonymous reporting system” for discrimination complaints, issue a formal public apology, create a standing exhibit to showcase local student work, and commit to hosting and sponsoring an annual black history event at Davis Academy.

The museum said in a statement to the Globe on Tuesday that it “will take the appropriate next steps” when two pending inquiries into the incident are complete.

The museum previously has said it would change its security protocols, hire new staff to welcome school groups, and continue hosting conversations about representation.

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“Since the school’s visit, and in fact long before, MFA staff and volunteers have been working to examine and improve all aspects our operation to ensure that everyone feels welcome,” the statement said. “We know that we have work to do to achieve that goal, and we are committed to doing so.”

The students initially visited the museum as a reward for their good behavior. Once there, 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.”

Since the trip, the museum has been scrambling to address the citywide uproar it caused, conducting an internal investigation, banning two patrons for life, and hiring the firm Casner & Edwards to conduct an external investigation. State Attorney General Maura Healey is conducting a separate investigation.

In the meantime, students and parents began discussing additional remedies they wanted the museum to offer the students who were on the field trip, as well as broader actions aimed at children of color citywide, said Espinoza-Madrigal.

Charmaine Nelson, a professor of art history at McGill University in Montreal who focuses on race and representation, said the students’ demands were remarkable, responding to a long history of white cultural institutions consciously excluding people of color from studying or even viewing “fine arts” in their communities. The students, she said, could have decided they never wanted to visit the MFA again.

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Instead, she said, pointing to the demand for lifetime memberships, “they’re actually insisting that they be included.”

Summer internships are another way in — a “foot in the door which leads to the paying job,” she said. “A lot of those jobs don’t go to black people and people of color. That’s why we’re absent in the upper hierarchies in these institutions, and that’s why nonsense like this happens.”

She said the demands effectively say: “Consider me a candidate who’s going to educate myself and come back and work here in a capacity where I actually get to make powerful decisions.”

Aziza Robinson-Goodnight, the former director of art and after-school clubs at Davis Academy, whose students were on the field trip at issue, also praised the students’ demands.

“They actually fought for not just themselves, but all students of color,” she said.

Lawyers for Civil Rights said in the letter it wanted to focus on a “mutually-agreeable resolution” instead of legal action. They said they expected to hear back from the museum within 30 business days.


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