For the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the reckoning followed a field trip gone awry. In the spring of 2019, a group of middle schoolers, all students of color from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy in Dorchester, Massachusetts, were treated to a visit to the museum as a reward for good grades and good behavior. There, they were allegedly greeted with racist invective and profiled by museum staff and fellow visitors alike. According to Academy teacher and chaperone Marvelyne Lamy, a museum employee told the children that “no food, no drink, and no watermelon” were allowed in the galleries. In an impassioned Facebook post uploaded after the visit, Lamy also described in detail how the students were harassed by fellow museumgoers and tailed closely through the galleries by museum security, who reprimanded them disproportionately compared to white students visiting from another school. She swore she would never go back to the MFA.
Within days, the incident had been picked up by national news outlets. A week later, the museum issued a public apology, staking a claim for the future to be “committed to being a place where all people trust that they will feel safe and treated with respect.”
In the next week, two museumgoers who had made derogatory remarks to the students were banned from the premises. A range of reforms was promised, including new training sessions for all front-facing docents, guards, and staff. Meanwhile, internal investigators grappled with how to overhaul a museum culture that had allowed for a hostile environment and ensure that changes would be made.
The Massachusetts attorney general also launched an investigation that culminated in an agreement between the museum and the attorney general’s office. As part of the arrangement, the MFA appropriated $500,000 to launch a new fund for diversity and inclusion initiatives, such as internships for students of color. It also developed a more direct system for processing complaints regarding discrimination and implemented new anti-harassment and discrimination training for museum staff.
Four months after the agreement was finalized, the museum also announced a new hire: Rosa Rodriguez-Williams, who took the newly created position of senior director of belonging and inclusion. At the time of her hiring, MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum said in a statement that Rodriguez-Williams would be “integral in reimagining how we welcome and engage historically underrepresented audiences, truly reflecting the communities we serve.”
“Museums and organizations are about people, so helping people engage with a sense of belonging is where I come in.”
The position was developed within MFA Boston’s Division of Learning and Community Engagement rather than under the banner of human resources, with an understanding that the work would be fluid and determined by the demands of the audiences the museum wants to reach. In Rodriguez-Williams’s own terms, one of the most important aspects of her job is “fostering visitor experience” from inside and outside the institution.
Born in Puerto Rico, Rodriguez-Williams assumed the post in early September, after more than a decade at the helm of the Latinx Student Cultural Center at Boston’s Northeastern University. Her job there focused on recruiting and retaining Latinx and Latin American students, with a particular focus on establishing a sense of belonging among those from marginalized communities. With her background, she was quick to recognize that educators had been working on issues related to equity and inclusion for much longer than museums had—and that change owes less to institutions than to the people who support them.
“My day-to-day is working alongside the departments and providing the tools they need to prioritize inclusion within their own work,” she said in an interview in November, two months into her tenure. “Museums and organizations are about people, so helping people—staff and visitors—engage with a sense of belonging is where I come in.”
When protests swelled over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last spring, many predominantly white-led art institutions wrestled with how to acknowledge the Black Lives Matter movement as layoffs and furloughs disproportionately affected BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) employees. Amid the unemployment crisis, open letters penned by museum workers condemned leadership at major institutions—among them the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Getty Trust in Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—for legacies of racial bias and institutional inequity.
Full-time positions promoting inclusivity have been instated with growing frequency since. Last August, the Seattle Art Museum tapped Priya Frank for the new role of director of equity, diversity, and inclusion. In September, the Milwaukee Art Museum named Kantara Souffrant its inaugural curator of community dialogue, and SFMOMA appointed Kenyatta Parker director of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. In November, the Metropolitan Museum of Art made a high-profile move in hiring Lavita McMath Turner—who had done similar work for the City University of New York—as its first chief diversity officer; that same month, London’s Serpentine Galleries announced the appointment of Yesomi Umolu as director of curatorial affairs and public practice.
Responsibilities differ in the job descriptions, but among the common goals are diversification in terms of curatorial programming and museum staff, as well as aims to connect with communities of color. In Boston, Rodriguez-Williams leads a voluntary group called Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA) that has launched affinity groups for those less well represented, including BIPOC and LGBTQIA+. Such measures, she said, are “a good way to support the incredible diversity in the museum.”
In all of her work, Rodriguez-Williams collaborates closely with Makeeba McCreary, who in 2018 was appointed MFA’s first chief of learning and community engagement. A Boston native, McCreary came to the museum from the Boston Public Schools, where she worked as managing director and senior adviser of external affairs. Describing her role as “amorphous,” McCreary now works in a role whose official responsibilities, as per MFA’s own language, include “integrating diverse perspectives into the museum’s programs and educational offerings” and fostering “a better understanding of the issues of today through the lens of art.” Outside of that, she thinks of her job as an interpretive process. “When I came here, I found myself in a dramatically outward-facing role—I was figuring out how to reach out to the public and say ‘Come,’ ‘come,’ ‘come,’ ” McCreary said. “But then I realized that you had to worry about what would happen when you do find them at the threshold. The question is: what gets them over that threshold and willing to explore?”
McCreary and Rodriguez-Williams are currently working to create what they refer to as “tool kits” to help their colleagues in various departments reduce barriers between the institution and its audience. In the museum’s Art of the Americas Wing. wing, for example, an effort was initiated in 2020 to provide translations for every wall label. And new initiatives were enacted around special exhibitions including “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation,” a show (running into May) anchored by Jean-Michel Basquiat but expanded to illustrate how the barrier-breaking hip-hop movement was the cumulative vision of Black and brown communities of artists.
Writer and musician Greg Tate, who co-curated “Writing the Future” with MFA curator Liz Munsell, said McCreary was “essential” to the exhibition’s success. Before the show opened, McCreary invited members of the community—artists, business people, musicians—to gather and respond to questions about it. Did the exhibition speak authentically to their lived experience? What does Basquiat mean to people living and working in his wake? The exhibition opened in October and, by December, attendance averaged around 2,000 people a week—a “remarkable” figure, Tate said, given the circumstances, the pandemic keeping so many people at home.
“It would be pointless to have this show while not being able to crack those castle walls, that alienation that exists between the community and the institution,” Tate said. “People said that they had actually avoided the museum because they felt like nothing in there spoke to them. Those talks were an icebreaker to a frozen relationship.”
[Read an essay by Greg Tate on curating the MFA Boston’s Basquiat show.]
Considering such changes in the context of what an institution can and can’t do, McCreary quoted Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem: “Bricks and mortar does not create culture—people create culture.” That is to say, the museum suffers if it is not representative of its entire community. According to the MFA, 79 percent of visitors in 2015 identified as Caucasian, and 75 percent were age 45 or older. That same year, around 20 percent of the institution’s 700-plus staff identified as nonwhite. Of that segment, 14 percent occupied “professional” positions in conservation, education, and curatorial departments. Today, 29.5 percent of MFA staff self-identify as BIPOC—an improvement, though clearly there’s more work to do.
The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened in Bentonville, Arkansas, in 2011, offers a blueprint for what equity-minded work can achieve. In 2016, the museum’s board of directors named Rod Bigelow its first chief diversity and inclusion officer—a mantle added to his lead role as executive director. The position was created in response to a damning survey commissioned by the Mellon Foundation in 2015 whose findings included that, among the ranks of U.S. museum staffs, 84 percent of “professional” positions were occupied by workers who identified as white. Only 4 percent of those occupying such roles were Black, and 3 percent were Hispanic.
Recognizing similar points of disparity at Crystal Bridges, Bigelow pledged to make a change. “We had every opportunity to create an organization that was representative of the people of this country, and we didn’t do a great job of that,” he said, of an institution founded just a few years before the survey was conducted. Since then, he and the museum’s board have worked in what he called a two-prong approach: execute short-term solutions and sustain long-term initiatives. “From hiring diverse staff to deciding who makes up an advisory committee to what’s in the galleries—everything must be done to make sure we retain momentum in the long term,” Bigelow said. “That means, firstly, educating the team on what it means to be anti-racist and what racist systems exist that we contribute to.”
The Early American galleries at Crystal Bridges were reimagined early in the process to include contemporary artwork in an effort to add context, such that visitors are now greeted by Nari Ward’s monumental We the People (2015), a 27-foot-wide wall sculpture presenting the opening words of the Constitution’s preamble with each letter outlined in shoelaces. As of this past November, 28 percent of Crystal Bridges staff and 32 percent of museum leadership are people of color. (The board of directors remains predominantly white, with the exceptions of Thelma Golden and artist Hank Willis Thomas.)
In the past year, Crystal Bridges has held more than a hundred sessions with the public to learn about what people feel are the most pressing issues, among them immigration, accessibility, power, and process. “We need to ask the right questions of our community over and over again to ensure real change,” Bigelow said. “Too many times have these issues come up and then faded away.”
In Boston, McCreary shares Bigelow’s concern that attention can be all too fickle. She expressed fear over the prospect of fading awareness as media interest cools and unemployment declines with the pandemic’s hoped-for abatement.
Bigelow, for his part, hopes matters of diversity won’t get too entangled with issues of finance. “Not all of this work requires funding—it’s about changes in procedure and process,” he said. “Too often there’s a default to slowing the work or stopping the work because there’s a perceived lack of funding. But this isn’t entirely about funding—it’s about will.”