In 2015, Matthew Teitelbaum left Toronto to head one of Boston’s foremost cultural institutions, the august 150-year-old Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). From the start, he wanted to see a significant culture shift.
He was well on his way to accomplishing that when a racial incident threatened to derail his best efforts, and intentions.
The MFA is one of the world’s most comprehensive art museums, with a global collection of about half a million works of art ranging from ancient to contemporary. Yet there was something further Teitelbaum felt the MFA was in desperate need of – diversity in its audiences and its programming. It needed exhibits and narratives that could expand its reach into Boston’s neighborhoods and communities. The building itself, with its palatial façade and massive columns flanking the exterior like soldiers, has an unwelcoming and intimidating vibe.
“I said to the folks at the MFA before I came that it wasn’t an accessible institution,” Teitelbaum said. “For me, accessible is the opportunity for people to come into the institution and to hear their voices … I wanted it to be not only an institution for Boston but an institution of Boston.”
Two years later the MFA released a bold strategic plan, unveiled as “MFA 2020,” setting out transformational goals that included expanding audiences and engaging new and diverse communities. “We will honor all visitors,” the plan promised. “We will invite many voices.”
A lot happened quickly. Plans got underway for a “Gender Bending Fashion” exhibit about how changing gender roles are reflected in fashion. And another exhibit would explore the relationship between graffiti artists and hip-hop music.
Teitelbaum, whose father was the late Canadian Jewish painter Mashel Teitelbaum, also hired a dedicated curator of Judaica, the first full-time curator of Judaica in any American encyclopedic museum in the country (a nonspecialized museum that collects art from around the world.)
But last year something very went wrong – a high-profile racial incident in May that left some visitors feeling brazenly dishonored.
The media characterized it as “a case of museum-going while Black.” Even now, after investigations internally and by the state Attorney General’s office, exactly what happened that day remains murky. What is clear, though, is that a group of students from a Boston middle school – all students of color — visited the MFA on a chaperoned tour and said they were harassed and targeted because of the color of their skin by staff and other visitors.
They described being shadowed closely by security guards, unlike a group of white students who were also visiting that day, and said that when they told were the museum rules, a staff member used a gratuitous racist trope: “No food, no drink, no watermelon.” (The employee would later tell investigators they said “no food, no drink, no water bottles.”)
Students also said they were derided by other patrons including one who likened a student to a stripper as she danced to music in a fashion exhibit, and another who complained about “[expletive] Black kids” getting in the way.
There was citywide outrage. Led by Teitelbaum, profuse apologies to the students followed and immediate policy changes took place. The offending patrons were barred from the Museum and welcoming and orientation policies improved. The Museum signed a memorandum of understanding with the Attorney General’s office which included committing $500,000 over three years to diversity initiatives. Already in the works were other inclusion efforts such as conversations with the community about race and inclusion, and hiring a “Chief of Learning and Community Engagement” and a director of “Belonging and Inclusion.”
It was a deeply challenging time for Teitelbaum, an art scholar who came to the MFA from Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario where he was director and chief executive officer, and whose many honors include the Canadian Center for Diversity’s Human Relations Award.
An appreciation for diversity was part of the canvas of his childhood. His mother Ethel is a retired Immigration Appeal Board judge. His father regularly protested outside the Art Gallery of Ontario in part because he was frustrated by what he considered its elitist stance. Teitelbaum, whose trademark look is wearing very skinny ties which he sources at flea markets, says his father’s example “has led me to be skeptical of the authority of institutions.”
Then, in September, another controversy erupted.
The MFA was one of four major art museums organizing a much-anticipated retrospective of the work of 20th-century Jewish artist Philip Guston. (The others were the Tate Modern in London, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.) Delayed by the pandemic, the tour was supposed to start in 2021.
Guston, who died in 1980, was the son of Jewish immigrants who fled Ukraine to avoid persecution. He was born in Montreal, and his family later moved to Los Angeles where there were regular Ku Klux Klan activities against Jews, Blacks and others. Guston famously departed from his work in abstraction and turned to soulfully dark and cartoonish figurative work; his vernacular of images included white-hooded Klansmen, and some of his paintings depicted acts of racial terror that alluded to white America’s complicity in white supremacy.
The retrospective was supposed to begin its tour in 2021 and had been in the works long before the country’s racial reckoning following the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others. But in light of these events, the museums jointly announced the show would be postponed for four years, or “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.”
The MFA got major blowback, as did the other museums. Critics charged they were being cowardly, patronizing, and censoring an important artist. A letter signed by more than 2,000 artists, curators and others protested the postponement.
“The people who run our great institutions do not want trouble,” the letter said, in part. “They fear controversy. They lack faith in the intelligence of their audience. And they realize that to remind museum-goers of white supremacy today is not only to speak to them about the past, or events somewhere else. It is also to raise uncomfortable questions about museums themselves—about their class and racial foundations.”
In November Teitelbaum announced another change of plans. The show would open in the spring of 2022, just six months after it was originally scheduled, and the MFA would now be the first venue.
“For me, making the decision to postpone this show was not, as some have claimed, the silencing of an artist,” he wrote in a formal “Director’s Message.” “It is, on the contrary, a commitment to putting the Museum at the center of these conversations and creating a public space for in-depth discussions about great art and how we understand its reception and its effect.”
“I think we can be more thoughtful with a bit of pause,” he added in an interview “There is a need for more outside voices in our presentation – the views of other artists, of historians, to help us understand how these images have been perceived across time. This is a moment to acknowledge museums and cultural institutions work within the context of their time. To engage the right partners and voices is more important than it has ever been.”
In an interview with The Forward, Teitelbaum acknowledged his tenure has had its challenges. “For sure!” he said, with a hint of a laugh. But he said he is moving “insistently” to make the MFA more inclusive in Boston, a city that’s historically been resistant to inclusion.
More than half the city’s population is nonwhite, yet Boston is viewed by many as clinging to insulated, parochial attitudes toward race, while denying that racism is endemic and institutionalized, even in the arts. A Boston Globe survey published last month found that the governing structures of the city’s cultural institutions are overwhelmingly white.
“It is amazing to me that there is even a public narrative that the [school incident] was a shocking singular event when something like that happens at every single cultural institution across the city,” said Makeeba McCreary, the MFA’s chief of learning and community engagement. “For a young person of color, Boston is fraught with moments like that, whether perceived or real.” McCreary, who had no background in museum work, said she took the job because Teitelbaum convinced her “he was absolutely ready to be courageous and take on a culture shift that is seismic. There aren’t a lot of folks who are willing to invite that disruption into their world.”
There’s no question that visitors to the MFA today have a much different experience than they would have had five years ago — and not just because parts of the museum are closed, due to COVID-19. There are new acquisitions by artists of color, women, self-taught artists and Indigenous artists. Labels are being updated to address stereotypes in images as well as images that aren’t there at all: An empty frame in the Eve of Revolution Gallery acknowledges those who contributed to the nation’s founding but are left out the visual record because of their race or class.
Along with new exhibits of Monet and Cezanne, there’s a groundbreaking, eye- and ear-popping show called “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation” which brings together assertive work by the late New York graffiti prodigy Jean-Michel Basquiat with work by his peers, connecting it to the music and pop culture that inspired them. In conjunction with the show, the MFA welcomed two Black Boston artists-in-residence and commissioned an outdoor community mural project on the exterior of a Boston high school, and a map of other murals within walking distance of the MFA.
Another project is “Black Histories, Black Futures,” an exhibit of 20th-century work by artists of color curated entirely by teens, the result of a new partnership with Boston youth-empowerment organizations. “We were able to give the students pretty free rein [of the MFA’s collection],” Teitelbaum said. “They saw things and responded to works of art that frankly their eyes helped us to see.”
Teitelbaum’s goal of re-contextualizing parts of the MFA’s collection also applies to its Judaica, one of the museum’s newest areas of collecting which got a huge boost a few years ago with a gift from Oklahoma collector Lynn Schusterman who donated a much-welcomed gift of 121 decorative and ritual objects spanning three centuries; prior to this there had been only 12 at the MFA. The collection now includes art in all media including ritual items, textiles, ketubot, ancient coins, and Hanukkah lamps, and continues to grow, said Simona Di Nepi, the first full-time curator of Judaica. Among her acquisitions are a “subversive” Passover Hagaddah, and feminist Jewish ritual objects including a decorative arm bracelet that evokes tefillin.
“To me this is underrepresented Jewish work,” she said. “What we don’t have yet is queer [Judaica] – that’s the next step.”
Currently, Judaic art is displayed in nine galleries, across different periods and cultures. “The whole rationale is to integrate it throughout the galleries,” said Di Nepi. “The objects tell the world that Jewish art speaks the language of where it comes from, very much like Jews. I’m an Italian Jew and I speak Hebrew with an Italian accent. The same thing happens with objects. Objects made in a certain place speak Judaica with the accent of that place.”
On the face of it, the newly-acquired Kurdish Shabbat cloth may not have much in common with items in the Basquiat show, like a leather jacket tagged in spray paint. But there is a common thread. Said Di Nepi: “The bottom line is that it’s all about inclusivity.”
“The notion of expanding beyond the traditional has been a kernel of thinking at the Museum for a long time,” Teitelbaum said. “But I come with a little bit of urgency around it. I think our communities are complex and diverse in so many ways, and yet museums have been relatively slow in developing experiences, narratives, points of engagement that truly acknowledge that. There is no singular value in having a great collection unless it’s relevant and active in the lives of the community.”
The MFA’s annual Hanukkah celebration, in partnership with the Jewish Arts Collaborative – which draws 2,000 people — was ranked by Martha Stewart as one of the eight best Hanukkah celebrations in the country. This year it’s virtual and will be held Wednesday, Dec. 9 at 6 p.m. ET. It will include music, dance and a conversation between Judaica Curator Simona Di Nepi and Judaica artists.
Linda Matchan is a Boston journalist and documentary filmmaker.
A Boston museum director faces challenges over race