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Last month, students and teachers from a predominantly black and brown school in Dorchester, Massachusetts, visited one of Boston’s whitest public spaces, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). This was a school trip intended to expose the students to its collection, but it instead taught them an institutional-racism disaster lesson. White museum goers complained about a group of “fucking Black kids in the way” and a staff member allegedly instructed the group, “No food, no drinks, no watermelon.” (Though the museum states that the staffer told the group, “No food, no drinks, no water bottles.”)
As the appalling incident garnered public attention, many expressed shock. But for Black museum goers like me, the phenomenon of being mistreated in predominantly white institutions — and the MFA’s swift reaction to a PR nightmare — are all too common. Within days, the museum issued a public apology, then announced that the racist visitors had been banned, staff had been disciplined, and that unconscious bias training was on the way. More recently, a memo, Toward a More Inclusive MFA, was posted on the institution’s website to outline the event and the museum’s next steps.
The MFA does indeed deserve credit for its crisis-management response. But its preparedness also indicates how pervasive the problem of exclusion is in the museum and art world, just as it is in other spaces. While the apologies and reactions were swift, Black museum goers like me won’t hold our breath while we wait for our curious children to stop being trailed through galleries by under-trained staff. Nor do we expect that, overnight, we will stop being told pointedly “don’t touch” at the threshold of any space exhibiting art. We know that the veneer of PR is thin, and a public apology only goes so far. We know the facts.
Fact: The MFA, not unlike many other predominantly white art institutions, has allowed a culture to fester in which its staff and visitors felt comfortable enough with their prejudice to harm group of curious black and brown students.
Fact: The change that the MFA says it seeks is a long game that should have started decades ago.
Fact: Real change requires an ability to listen to those who’ve not been heard for too long — not just when “watermelon” comments are slung their way and give the museum bad press.
As a Black museum goer, I’ve experienced the range of uncomfortable visits — from being silently trailed from one gallery to the next, to having a kind, yet overly enthusiastic docent ask me, “Is this your first time in a museum?”
As a mother, I want to trust that my child is safe during the school day — in class and during field trips. And I want to trust that there’s no room to humiliate curious children. But when cultural excursions lead children to pick cotton, or land them in the middle of a public apology as the MFA did, as adults, we are failing.
And as the director of the Art Galleries at Black Studies at the University of Texas, notions of exclusion are never far from my everyday. Nor are considerations about how institutions and cultural practitioners can and should accept responsibility for the ways in which we share a range of narratives, or how we undo the telling of one story, or how we empower those who have been disempowered.
I recently attended the Tilting Axis gathering on West Indian French island Guadeloupe, where delegates from around the world gathered to look beyond trendy notions of decolonization to examine colonial-undoing as an act of empowerment. At the Memorial ACTe, the only museum in the Caribbean dedicated to the narrative of enslaved people, as artists and cultural-practitioners considered if and how sovereignty surpasses notions of decolonization, Jamaican-born Canadian artist Charles Campbell reminded the delegates: “You need to change what you do if you want to change who walks through the doors.” Campbell described how he, along with a group of Indigenous and other POC artists, prompted the board of directors of Open Space, in Victoria, British Columbia, to resign. In their recognition of the need to create a more inclusive space, the board stepped aside, making way for a new board — one which more accurately reflected the city’s diverse community.
An Andrew W. Mellon Foundation survey reported that in 2018, people of color made up 35% of museum hires, compared to 26% in 2015. Yet much of this change was observed in curatorial and education departments, with little increase in leadership positions. Artist representation in museum collections doesn’t paint a brighter picture, as illustrated by data journalist and artist, Mona Chalabi. While women of color account for 20% of the U.S. population, they only represent 1% of all of the artists in major collections, says Chalabi. As with hiring, progress towards artist representation in major cultural institutions, remains slow — and in the meantime, people of color continue to feel unwelcome in art spaces in which they are not represented.
We need to do better than that at both the societal level and the personal level. This is not a criticism of how the MFA handled racists in its building or the fallout of their actions. This is a criticism of the fact that there was even need to issue a public apology to middle-schoolers. Because when an adult apologizes to curious young person, there’s room to do better.