By Julia Kim, Anoushka Shah and Dana Sung
Boston University News Service
After pledging to bolster diversity and inclusion following accusations of racism and landing in a survey of institutions whose permanent collections feature white males, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is showcasing diversity in their new exhibitions.
It is hard to assess how the museum is doing with the decreased attendance during the lockdown. However, as the city opens up, patrons may find some changes at major art institutions as they attempt to revamp their offerings in the wake of protests and calls for change.
A study published in the journal PLoS One in 2019 examined the permanent collections of 18 popular museums across the country and found that white artists produced 85% and 87% of the artists were men.
“MFA could definitely be more diverse — the museum is definitely an institution that has a lot of work to do in rebuilding itself,” Vivian Tran, a first-year student at the School of Museum of Fine Arts in a collaborative arts program offered in conjunction with Tufts University, said.
Tran faces many difficulties as a female person of color in the art industry.
“[It is] just harder for a person of color to [create highly prized art], since our work and our stories aren’t viewed as ‘universal’ experiences,” said Tran.
The MFA has recognized this issue and is taking steps to rectify it. A special exhibition, called “Women Take the Floor,” is one way that the MFA is trying to give a platform to historically underrepresented artists.
On Sept. 13, 2019, the special exhibition was launched to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment. This exhibition displays over 200 works by female artists drawn from the existing collection.
“Many of the elements of the exhibition seek to address not only the historical imbalance and inequities in terms of gender representation in museums, but also seeks to tell a more inclusive narrative moving forward,” Dr. Dalia Habib Linssen, the head of academic engagement at the MFA, said.
Linssen also said that this exhibition acknowledges women of color during this era and the unique inequalities they had to face.
“We all know that suffrage was not inclusive of all women in the United States,” Linssen said. “We know that, for example, for African American and Native American women in the United States, [suffrage] was not extended to them. This exhibition seeks to address women’s voices, women’s participation and seeks to actively take a much more inclusive view of the production of the art of women and to set up a space for dialogue.”
Another exhibition that is on display is “Black Histories, Black Futures.” The MFA website states the exhibition “focuses on works by 20th-century artists of color.” The unique aspect of this collection is that these works are curated by local youth empowerment organizations.
Linssen said that this project has long been in the works for the MFA and reflects that the institution places value in engaging young people in spaces of exhibition, “not only as learners but as scholars and creators of knowledge with the museum.”
“I think it signals the MFA and many other museums to a point where they are really rethinking their models of engagement in terms of exhibitions and programs,” Linssen said.
In early May 2020, the MFA launched a diversity and inclusion initiative to involve and engage with communities of color, devoting $500,000 to the cause.
This agreement was in response to allegations of racism that the MFA received after a group of black middle school children from Dorchester Middle School said they were harassed by a patron and made to feel unwelcome by the staff.
Following the 2019 incident, the MFA hired Rosa Rodriguez-Williams as the first Senior Director of Belonging and Inclusion. This role aims to “empower others within the MFA to prioritize inclusion as a key practice in their own work, creating an internal culture that places a priority on visitor experience,” according to an MFA press release.
A few months later, following George Floyd’s murder, the museum released a statement of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and the MFA’s leadership team received a letter of action items from a collective of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) staff at the museum.
This list of action items was a call to MFA leadership to help create a safe workplace for BIPOC staff, which included funded employee programs that support BIPOC staff and improving hiring practices.
“We have a task force that has representation from across many different departments within the museum,” Linssen said. “It has been needing to design a whole series of programs and policies that will make diversity, inclusion, equity and access a real priority across the museum.”