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‘I was black, I was nobody, and I worked for security’: Guards at the MFA speak out

In 2015, members of the Museum Independent Security Union protested the treatment of security guards at the MFA.
In 2015, members of the Museum Independent Security Union protested the treatment of security guards at the MFA.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/file)

The security guards at the Museum of Fine Arts are ambassadors to the public, often the only staff that visitors see when they want to ask a question or lodge a complaint.

They are also part of the institution’s most diverse department — while roughly 70 percent of all staff members are white, more than half of the guards are people of color. And some guards say they have been treated like second-class citizens at the museum for years.

As the MFA continues to reckon with allegations that middle school students were subjected to close scrutiny by security and to racist insults by patrons and an employee during a May field trip, interviews with 10 current and former guards portray a troubled workplace for some employees as well. Guards described a racial and class hierarchy within the museum, where primarily black and brown guards patrol galleries while primarily white curators and directors make institutional decisions.

“The guards are the most diverse, and they are among the least well-treated of the staff at the museum,” said Michael Raysson, 76, who helped to found the guards’ Museum Independent Security Union in the 1990s. Though he retired in 2007, he says he continues to keep in touch with current guards.

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Multiple guards who work at the museum today and over the past decade described feeling marginalized and demeaned at times in their work.

“They’re looking at us like we’re low-ground, we’re not a part of the museum, like we’re low-class,” said one current guard, a black woman who has worked there for more than a decade and who asked not to be named because she feared retaliation.

The woman emphasized that she loves her job, particularly meeting visitors from all over the world and being surrounded by extraordinary works of art. It also pays the bills, paying upward of $15 an hour with decent benefits.

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She was so delighted when she began that she greeted everyone with a cheerful “Good morning!” or “Good evening!” — but she soon noticed that white employees from other departments looked at her, as she read their expressions, like she didn’t know her place. So she stopped.

“They let me know real quick: I was black, I was nobody, and I worked for security,” she said.

She added that Matthew Teitelbaum, the museum’s director since 2015, has been a refreshing change from past leadership, a “decent human being,” who remembers the guards’ names and asks about their families.

Pam Cannon, a black woman who left her job as a guard in 2014, likened her experience at the MFA to “The Help,” a novel about black women who took care of white families in the segregated South.

The guards are “the lowest one on the totem pole, other than the cleaners,” she said.

During the field trip that drew attention to alleged racism at the MFA, students of color from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy said a museum employee welcomed them with a warning that “no food, no drink, no watermelon” were allowed in the galleries. (That employee, according to the MFA’s internal investigation, recalled repeating the standard greeting: “No food, no drink, no water bottles.”)

The students also felt that they had been more closely monitored by security than a group of white students visiting at the same time. And they said two patrons verbally abused them: One likened a student to a stripper, and another complained of “[expletive] black kids in the way.” The museum identified the patrons and banned them for life.

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Two parallel investigations are now reviewing what happened: Attorney General Maura Healey launched a civil rights investigation shortly after the incident became public, and the museum, after an initial internal review, has commissioned former attorney general Scott Harshbarger to lead an independent investigation.

The museum declined to make Teitelbaum available for an interview, citing the two ongoing investigations, but said in a statement it was “ disappointed to hear that any member of our staff would feel this way.”

“We value all museum staff and volunteers and work hard to create a community where everyone feels respected,” the museum added.

Karen Frascona, a museum spokeswoman, said security guards play “a key role in protecting the safety of museum visitors, staff, volunteers, and the MFA’s collection of priceless works of art.”

She said other staff regularly meet with the guards to talk about the artwork and that guards are “important members of the MFA team.”

But in interviews, guards said they believe the administration sees them as mere functionaries, even though many care deeply about, and have deep knowledge of, the art. Some are artists themselves; they have even created a group, Opus, which presents exhibits of their original artwork. Asked for their favorite works in the museum, their choices spanned galleries, cultures, and centuries: Chen Rong’s “Nine Dragons,” Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Dance at Bougival,” Edward Hopper’s “Room in Brooklyn.”

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“I thought I was in paradise when I first came to the museum,” Raysson said. “My job was to be with the great works of art.”

Some of the guards have registered formal complaints about their treatment. At least 17 MFA staffers have filed discrimination complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination since 2001. (It is unclear if there are any ongoing complaints, since only closed cases are publicly available.) Almost two-thirds of those came from the security department, whose 90 employees represent just 15 percent of the museum’s 600-plus staff.

None of the discrimination complaints were validated by MCAD; instead, they were dismissed for lack of probable cause, brought by the complainant to civil court, or abandoned by the complainant.

At least one court case led to an undisclosed settlement; the museum said the settlement related to back wages, and the discrimination claim was dismissed.

But, to some observers, the sheer number of complaints from security staff alone tells a story.

“You would have to conclude at a minimum that there is a fair amount of disaffection among the staff with their jobs, and that there is a sentiment that they’re not being treated equally and fairly, among the security staff,” said Ellen Messing, an attorney who represents employees in discrimination cases.

The allegations in the complaints, while unsubstantiated, depict a workplace rife with tension.

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One African-American security guard alleged in 2012 that a former director of security remarked at a holiday party that “he knew that blacks loved fried chicken wings.” Another black security guard alleged that in 2014 a manager yelled at him, “I know you don’t [expletive] like white people, I know you don’t [expletive] like me because I’m gay.” Both of these cases were dismissed for lack of probable cause, which means that the commission found insufficient evidence of unlawful discriminatory treatment. The museum said that the manager and director accused of making the comments were disciplined and no longer work at the museum.

“We take comments like these seriously,” the museum said in a statement.

Other black guards claimed that they were unfairly punished or singled out on the job. A black female security guard who was temporarily suspended in 2014 questioned the punishment in a complaint, alleging that “white security guards have committed infractions, but they only received verbal warnings.” This case was also dismissed for lack of probable cause.

The recent incident with the students brought the guards’ role into stark relief, because students of color said that they were closely followed through the galleries by security, and watched much more closely than a group of white students. The museum’s internal investigation found that guards went on and off break, occasionally overlapping, which might explain why students felt followed. The Globe interviewed three guards who were working on the day of the students’ field trip, though none were in a gallery with the students.

A black male guard who has worked at the museum for nearly two decades and asked not to be named because he feared retaliation said he found the students’ claims unsurprising.

“I thought there was a possibility that it could happen, because I’ve experienced things similar in nature to what they have experienced, not necessarily by the employees, but from other guests,” he said.

Other guards said they have a strict mandate to continuously walk the galleries as part of the museum’s “pipe system,” in which each guard carries a small metal pipe and must press it into a designated niche in the wall to record his or her presence. The constant walking would prevent a guard from following a particular group very closely, some guards said.

“We have a small place to watch. Our job is to walk back and forth,” said the black woman who has worked in the security department for more than a decade. “We’re not following. We’re doing our job.”

The pipe system is a cause of widespread disdain among the guards, many of whom see it as mindless and belittling.

“Our jobs used to be more based around our interactions with visitors and the public,” said Evan Henderson, a former union president who left the museum at the end of 2017.

The museum said the pipe system is common in the industry and an essential security tool.

Management also in 2018 changed the guards’ uniform from navy blue suits to gray polo shirts and dark blue cargo pants, a move the union fiercely opposed, arguing that it diminished the dignity and professionalism of the job. The MFA said that the change was part of a broader effort to make its space more informal and welcoming to visitors.

It remains to be seen whether Healey’s and Harshbarger’s investigations, or the bright and unrelenting spotlight that has been focused on the museum in the past month, will change what happens inside its walls. Some of the veteran guards remain skeptical.

“They’re working on it, but I don’t think it’s going to change,” said the black female guard who has worked at the museum for more than a decade. “Right now they have the pressure, so everybody’s worried. After a couple of months, it’s going to die down and they’ll be their own selves again.”


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