MFA Boston’s D&I Agreement Serves as Model for Arts Organizations

Photo Credit: tripadvisor.com

I am happy to share an important and significant update with the readers of Arts & Culture Connections about the results of an investigation into allegations of racial discrimination and harassment that teachers and students from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy experienced last year during a field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

The State Attorney General of Massachusetts has reached a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with MFA Boston, which includes a $500-thousand fund devoted to the development and instituting of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) initiatives. In her news release, Attorney General Maura Healey referred to the MOU as “an innovative, forward-looking, and collaborative approach” that “structures a reconciliation process between the MFA and the field trip participants, as well as a community-driven process through which the MFA will engage with and support local communities, artists, and youth of color.”

I agree with Ms. Healey’s assessment that this MOU has the potential to be a nationwide model for all cultural and arts organizations committed to building or expanding their institution’s Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Access (EDI&A) initiatives. However, even more precedent-setting is the fact that this MOU with MFA Boston was developed in conjunction with key community partners—the Davis Leadership Academy, the Lawyers for Civil Rights and the NAACP Boston—as well as the state of Massachusetts.

Under the terms of the agreement, the MFA Boston has committed to following:

Implementation Fund:  The museum has committed to creating a fund in the amount of $500-thousand dedicated to implementing the commitments to community engagement and collaboration with the Davis Leadership Academy.

Reconciliation and Collaboration: The museum and the Davis Leadership Academy field trip participants will collaborate on an action plan to ensure a welcoming experience for all members of the community.

External Consultant: The museum will retain an external consultant with experience in structuring an organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts to assist with the implementation of the commitments in the MOU. The consultant will also study the broader culture and climate at the museum with respect to matters of diversity, inclusion, belonging, and welcoming.

Biannual Reports: The museum and the consultant will provide biannual reports for the public on the progress of diversity and inclusion efforts. The biannual reports will be provided to the AG’s Office and will be made available on the museum’s website.

Community Engagement: The museum will create and improve processes for building and deepening connections with communities of color, including through its programming and exhibits. With input from community groups, the museum will document and finalize a Community Engagement Action Plan that may involve new programming or enhancement of existing programs, such as partnerships with and programming for local schools and community organizations that primarily serve students of color; partnerships with local artists of color, and leadership programs and internship opportunities for local high school students of color.

Improved Policies and Procedures : The museum will implement an anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy that applies to the treatment of members of the public by MFA Boston staff and volunteers, and to the treatment of members of the public by other visitors. The museum also will implement a policy that applies to complaints of discrimination and harassment made by members of the public, and a policy for conducting internal investigations into complaints.

Training: The museum will continue to develop and implement a plan to provide unconscious bias training for all employees at all levels and for volunteers, and it also will train front-line staff, security guards, and volunteers on its new policies about how to interact with children in a developmentally appropriate and positive way.

It is still to be determined what impact recent furloughs and salary cuts at MFA Boston may have on the implementation of the MOU and the hiring of a Director of Inclusion. But it is my hope that the community partners and the Attorney General’s office will remain vigilant on behalf of the youth who felt traumatized by the racial injustice they experienced at the museum.

Meanwhile, this news also can serve as a template for justice for the Seattle Children’s Museum, where it was reported that fear of a funding backlash caused the executive director to remove the phrase “Black Lives Matter” from Instagram posts promoting anti-racist books for children. The executive director, Christi Stapleton Keith, then apologized on Instagram for the BLM posts and on the museum’s home page.

Many of the BIPOC staff were laid off after they wrote an open letter protesting Ms. Keith’s initial actions. In its defense, the museum explained that the layoffs were preplanned due to the exhaustion of federal Paycheck Protection Program.

However, an outside investigator has been hired by the board of trustees to interview former and current employees about the social media posts, and Ms. Stapleton Keith has been placed on a leave. In the interim, the staff have told the media that the editing of the Instagram posts was part of a pattern of “indignities,” “microaggressions” and experiences of racial biases that staffers of color have endured at the museum.

As a result of these types of incidents, there potentially could be generations of youth, the majority of whom will soon be BIPOC, who believe that the arts and cultural institutions are not open to them; there will be no need for them to become future members or patrons. Given the integral role that the arts and culture play in our lives and the fabric of our society, I am determined to create a different outcome. In the wake of the pandemic and social injustice, EDI&A programs are essential to keeping the doors of these institutions open. When the dust settles from the economic fall-out of COVID-19 pandemic, the arts and cultural institutions still remaining will be those that realize that their success is tied to the implementation of policies that celebrate and enhance the equitable and inclusive treatment of its diverse communities and make the arts accessible to all.

As always, I would like to know what you think. Please share your thoughts below.

Be Safe. Be Healthy. Stay Strong.

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