Of even greater concern than the lack of MFA or ICA leadership signatories is how unwilling those at the ICA and MFA who did sign the letter are to talk about it on the record.
If you’ve been following this series since the beginning, you’ll know it has been an unhurried one: the pieces haven’t emerged on a neat and predictable timeline. Which is fine. Change does not always occur on a neat and predictable timeline, and momentum is not the only force that drives progress.
In part the pace has been set by the difficulty in getting people to talk about these issues.
Though hundreds in the Boston area signed the June 2020 Open Letter from Boston Arts and Cultural Workers in Demand of Racial Equity and Social Transformation that began this inquiry, listing their professional affiliations along with their names on the petition, many have been reluctant to talk about what they or their institutions have done or plan to do since making these commitments. Though in some cases it has had more to do with timing and COVID-impacted institutional capacity to respond to press inquiries, the silence has still been both deafening and deeply disappointing. Boston is such a small, tightly knit town, comprised—as Tufts/SMFA Exhibitions Coordinator Kaitlyn Ovett Clark pointed out in the previous piece in the series—of institutions, that it is difficult not to succumb to the feeling that it is the institutions, rather than the city’s residents (who staff and patronize these institutions), that set the tone for Boston’s arts community.
It’s not true, but it can feel true, especially when the two of the city’s 800-pound cultural gorillas—the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) and the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA)—both decline to respond to inquiries about how they have been addressing the fact that such a high proportion of each of their employees signed the letter with their job titles at the ICA and MFA prominently listed (implying that their workplaces were the sites where they were planning to implement the commitmentments they’d made by signing the petition.)
Approximately 60 people claiming professional affiliation with either the ICA or the MFA signed the document. The signers came from all departments and many different professional levels, and had a wide range of museum work experience: Some were interns, consultants, or contractors; others have held staff positions for over a decade. They also crossed museum sectors: One of the press contacts reached out to in an effort to set up interviews for this piece was a signer; folks in each museums’ development, marketing, and membership departments signed it; curators and educational programming leads, managers, associates, and coordinators signed it; visitor and gallery services folks, executive assistants and preparators all signed it.
The range of commitment is heartening, even though at both the MFA and ICA, it excludes the museums’ highest levels of staffing (most notably each institution’s director. As opposed to the directors of smaller museums and arts organizations in the city, who have signed the petition).
Of even greater concern than the lack of MFA or ICA leadership signatories is how unwilling those at the ICA and MFA who did sign the letter are to talk about it on the record. Of the 50+ people who signed the petition contacted (via nonmuseum channels) in the hopes of hearing their experiences of how the process of implementing the commitments they had made by signing the letter were going, only two people were willing to talk for this article, and neither felt comfortable doing so in a way that was not anonymous. This fact is probably more important than anything else that will be said here. And it should be further noted that no one at all from the ICA was comfortable being interviewed for this article. The two voices here are both from within the MFA community, and though initially each person had been willing to have at least their department shared here, by the end of the conversations, it seemed best to leave anything that might make them identifiable as individuals out of the story. So they will simply be MFA Employee A and Employee B.
Employee A and Employee B both describe feeling that diversity, equity, and inclusion were priorities at the institution when they were first hired by their respective departments. One of them felt that the period during which they were hired represented a moment when there was a concerted effort to bring in staff who identified as BIPOC. The other was made very aware at hire that diversity, equity, and inclusion were priorities to the museum.
But pretty quickly, Employee A noticed that there was no formal infrastructure or informal support system in place for making employees of color feel welcomed and at home within the majority-white institution (as there had been at their previous place of employment) and that the bulk of BIPOC MFA hires were usually at the lowest professional levels.
And Employee B felt that though there was a lot of really good intention and smart thinking around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in their department, most “really good initiatives … never got off the ground.” Instead, responses to problems in this area (readers may remember that the MFA has had some very serious problems in this realm: most notably, students from the city’s Davis Academy filing a complaint about racialized mistreatment towards their group while on a May 2019 field trip) tended to be “very corporate gestures. Kind of like just going through the motions” rather than about making real space and time for important internal conversations to be had.
Despite this, both employees noted that staff began really reaching out and connecting with one another outside of the official efforts of the museum (which are outlined here: mfa.org/about/toward-a-more-inclusive-mfa) after the death of George Floyd, ultimately composing a collectively written letter (which can be read here: mfa.org/about/letter-from-bipoc-collective.)
“That got written over the summer internally,” says Employee B, who saw staff at the museum “self-mobilizing and self-teaching in order to have these conversations” that were not being facilitated from above. Employee A described it as the formation of “affinity groups” who were reaching across departmental silos, ready to set out their priorities and advocate for them to leadership.
Though both were among the 300 museum employees furloughed at points beginning in April and running through the summer of 2020, Employees A and B both stayed involved in these efforts to increase internal valuation of BIPOC employees and press for action to shift the museum’s culture.
Though Employee A is still in close contact with MFA colleagues, they found alternative employment during the furlough period and did not return to the MFA, so couldn’t speak to the outcome of the letter from personal experience. But they did note that pre-pandemic, even when there were “new initiatives that we were trying to push forward around diversity, inclusion, and belonging,” there were never “concrete actions” taken. The rationale, according to Employee A, “seems to always be that we don’t have the money right now.” They said, “It’s like supporting DEA [diversity, equity, and accessibility] is what the museum will do when they have enough money. … It’s seen as an extra, not a necessity.”
Employee B, who still works at the museum, reports a sense that some significant money has been invested in these areas—particularly in institution-wide unconscious bias training, the hiring of consultants, and a compensation study reviewing pay equity within the museum that was carried out 18 months ago (the results of which haven’t yet been shared with museum staff despite this being promised “on multiple occasions”)—but doesn’t see anyone measuring the success of these investments or even sharing what the metrics of success are.
Employee B also expresses deep disappointment at the lack of institutional response to the letter from the museums’ collective of BIPOC staff. “I would like to see staff more empowered to execute their ideas. There’s an enormous amount of talent and goodwill and sincerity. It’s the top level that keeps hampering these efforts that could be really fantastic for the institution.”
When asked for a statement for this article about how widespread MFA staff sign-on to the Boston Artists for Black Lives letter was, the response from the MFA via its press officewas short and simple, and specifically referenced the collective of BIPOC staff who wrote the internal letter that followed it.
“We are committed to the Museum’s continued path toward inclusion, diversity, equity and access, and are collaborating with this group—and staff across the museum—to address these issues.”
“It feels,” says Employee B, via Zoom, “like there is a shirking of responsibility on leadership’s side to sort of call in these quote unquote, experts to do this difficult work. I think the problem with that is spending all sorts of money for an external person to tell you what you probably already know about your institution, and meanwhile people are not getting paid enough, and projects can’t get underway, because the museum doesn’t have any money.”
It’s worth noting that some of these issues—especially those related to professional development and compensation equity—can’t help but be lumped in with the museum staff’s recent vote to unionize. According to Employee B, the museum immediately ceased holding all-staff meetings when it was clear the vote was going to go forward, and articles leading up to the vote showed the same reluctance on the part of staff that this project has encountered when it comes to people feeling comfortable talking publicly about their experiences at the museum. “Fear of retaliation” is how the Boston Globe’s Malcom Gay put in on Sept 22, 2020.
Employee A wouldn’t go so far, but described the museum as both very large and very small at the same time. “If you were to say what department I was in,” they explained via Zoom, “they would know immediately who I was, or that I was one of two people. … I definitely think there’s something in the culture that makes it hard to talk about [issues of inequity]. I don’t think people feel exactly like their jobs are on the line. But I think people feel it will affect their comfort level. No one wants to go to a job and be uncomfortable every day.”
“Most of the higher-ups [in Employee A’s department] are of an older generation. And they’re all white. So having those uncomfortable conversations is not something … well, the museum [leadership] doesn’t really make space for them to happen. So then it feels really unnatural to have to force them.”
Employee A felt that every departmental choice that happened in their sphere of work was trickling down pretty directly from the highest levels of the institution. And Employee B identified a similar stumbling block in progress on these fronts: the museum’s sharply pyramidic structure.
“So much hinges on that one person, that one personality,” says Employee B. “I think it really needs to just totally change. I think there are some good initiatives: like the ‘Table of Voices’ program is moving forward”— a program that Employee B sees as an important effort to “meet community members as equals and to pay them for that time, because otherwise it’s just extraction of resources.” But also wonders “how far can these small things change, when they are very programmatic? When the [museum] structure is the same?”
This series began in a Boston-area space where art is incubated; then moved to one where it gets assessed, evaluated and contextualized; and now we are visiting sites where its value is reified, stored, showcased, and protected. It’s no wonder the security is tighter here. The question is whether its tightness will keep it from continuing to be meaningful to the changing community and world that it’s embedded within—starting with how it supports the needs of, and nurtures its own, ever-changing, internal community.
Employee B sums it up nicely. “It’s the people that make the museum and there is a huge, huge variety in that.”
“But at the top there is fear. There’s a sort of a masking: The museum is an institution that has this veneer of being a place of public service. But it is fundamentally a colonial institution. And the mandate to educate has its own racist and power dynamics that need to get addressed and recognized.”
“So it’s about understanding the institution that we have inherited, that we are currently operating in, and changing and transforming it.”
But the first step, says Employee B, hasn’t been taken yet. “I think that piece of acknowledgement, and the will to change at the top. That hasn’t happened.”
Do you work at the ICA or MFA and feel the environment is being characterized inaccurately? Or have you had an experience at either museum that concerns you? Talk back to me about this series via Twitter @hkapplow.