Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, with a collection of 450,000 works, is the fifth largest museum in the United States and is rated as one of the country’s best institutions of culture. Despite that, large numbers of black and brown Bostonians from neighborhoods just miles away have never been there.

The massive edifice on Huntington Avenue, for some, is a source of intimidation; a reminder, according to a group of black students from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy in Dorchester, of where they are not welcome.

The students and their teachers said they faced discrimination from white security guards and patrons during a visit to the MFA last month. An internal investigation ensued, and two patrons — who contribute, WGBH News has learned, around $3,000 each year to the MFA — have been disinvited from the museum permanently for alleged racist behavior. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has opened an investigation into the alleged incidents at the MFA.

Meanwhile, MFA leaders said they are trying to get to the bottom of the affair and have brought in former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger to conduct a sweeping review as the museum attempts to communicate a message that its doors are wide open to everyone.

MFA security guard Damián Lugey communicates that message on a daily basis, greeting visitors with a smile. This 20-something, who grew up in an African-American neighborhood just down the road, had never been to the MFA until he started working there two years ago.

Now Lugey said he’s discovering something new about the museum every day, and is letting friends and family in on his secret.

“I tell my friends I have tickets every day, and they are all interested, so most of them either come once a month or whenever they have the chance,” he said.

But significant numbers of black and brown Bostonians have never been inside the museum, which first opened its doors in 1876. A 2017 Boston Globe Spotlight series found that about 4 percent of roughly 3,000 MFA patrons on one given Saturday were black.

Now, just as the number of visitors of color is creeping upwards with programs like Wednesday’s Juneteenth Celebration, fewer may be inclined to visit in the aftermath of the Davis school incident in which a staff member is alleged to have told black students "No food, no drink, no watermelon."

Whether the last two words were actually uttered is a matter of dispute. But Ekua Holmes, a Roxbury artist, said she understands how young black students might have heard those words if they felt they were being closely followed by white security guards, as alleged.

Roxbury artist Ekua Holmes said she understands how black students at the Davis School might have heard those words if they felt they were being closely followed by white security guards, as alleged.
Phillip Martin WGBH News

“And I thought about the atmosphere where something might be misinterpreted," Holmes said. "If the atmosphere is one that's a welcoming and, ‘Wow, we're so glad you're here,' no one’s going to hear watermelon.”

Holmes said she has been coming to the MFA since the 1960s, when she took classes for kids in a basement studio, “and I felt like I was at home. I felt like I had arrived at a place where I needed to be.”

But what a budding black artist saw as a refuge, others see as foreboding — again, begging the question: How do you make everyone feel truly welcome at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art?

“I've been asking myself that question since I got here in January, and I came to the conclusion that one thing that changes when you start to show up in a place is the idea that it belongs to you,” said Makeeba McCreary, the MFA’s chief of learning and community engagement, a new leadership position created precisely to address this issue. McCreary arrived at the MFA in time for Martin Luther King Day.

“And I walked through this museum and I saw 10,000 people of color, and I wondered, 'Why don't I see all of these people here on other days of the week?'" McCreary recalled. "And then the next day — poof, they're gone.”

“White patrons who are comfortable walking through this space — they walk through it as though it belongs to them," she added. "How do you make sure that black and brown people feel like Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday belong to them, just like Martin Luther King Day?”

That will require major structural changes, she added. But how do you get there?

“That’s actually the big question. How do we articulate the institution we want to be?" said Matthew Teitelbaum, the MFA's director since 2015.

“It gets into every crevice of the institution and so, therefore, it is a governance issue at the board level, and it's a staff issue," Teitelbaum said. "So we are looking at the composition from a number of points of view — race, age, gender, of our board, of our committees and of our staff."

The MFA’s current board of trustees reads like a who’s who of New England privilege. Of 99 trustees, four are African-American and three are Asian-American. McCrary said the MFA is nibbling away at the edges of the institution, hiring more diverse staff, from security guards to scientists to paid interns. She estimated about 5 percent of a new class of interns will come from “under-resourced and … marginalized communities.”

But the main institutional concern for many critics of the Museum of Fine Arts is curation. Of the 42 curators — of various levels — two are black, and one is Latina. Some artists of color are convinced it is too little, too late to change the structural and cultural dynamics of the institution. At a recent MFA forum, Dell Marie Hamilton, a Caribbean-American artist, responded forcefully to the question of what should be done with institutions like this one, suggesting, figuratively, that it should be burnt to the ground.

“Since I don't understand what my world would look like without the structures that are in place, what that leaves me with is not a lot of choices except to just burn it and de-accession everything and start from scratch,” Hamilton said.

Teitelbaum rejects such suggestions that the institution is incontrovertibly elitist. He said he learned a great deal during his 17 years heading Toronto’s prestigious Art Gallery of Ontario, where he made a point of displaying Native Canadian art alongside European-influenced works.

“We were the first museum in Canada to integrate First Nations art with our traditional historical collections, so that when you walked through the history of Canadian art, you encountered a Plains Indian pipe bag next to a painting from 1880 made by a European-trained, Toronto-based artist to make the point that these different artistic expressions existed in Canada at the same time," he said. "But to say that that therefore made an invitation where First Nation citizens felt they belonged in our space, is too big a gap.”

Teitelbaum said his Toronto experience holds lessons for Boston.

“The role of the museum is to say that you do belong to the city, a place where you can share works of art, where you can share experiences, where you can create meaning with each other, and that’s what I learned in Toronto and what I’m hoping I can achieve on a consistent basis here," he said.

Recently at the MFA, a Latina art historian guided patrons through a special exhibit of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s paintings and life story.

On a placard nearby, visitors were reminded that during an exhibit at the MFA in the 1930s, art from Mexico was described as "primitive." That description has been relegated to the dustbin of history at this institution.

Yaosca Chimurenga, a professional recruiter who is African-American, said she is new to Boston and was visiting the museum for the first time. “It’s amazing. I’ll definitely come back,” she said.

Her friend, Sarita Williams, was equally impressed. She was making her first visit since grade school to the cavernous rooms of the MFA — now filled with a somewhat more diverse collection of art.

“Despite recent events, I think the diversity of their exhibits, both from a racial and gender perspective, is really what would draw me towards the museum,” Williams said.

That is also what draws Roxbury artist Ekua Holmes there on an almost monthly basis.

1. Supermodel_Kerry James Marshall.jpg
"Supermodel." 1994. By Kerry James Marshall (American, born in 1955). Acrylic and mixed media on board. The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection. Courtesy of the artist & Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.
Photograph courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“I have decided to make the museum one of the centers of my life,” Holmes said, “because it is full of art and full of history and, in recent times, it is also acknowledged the power and the presence of black imagery — not in the grand way that I hope it will at a certain point, but definitely strides in the last 20 years toward that. If you want to see contemporary black art, you've got to go to the Museum of Fine Arts.”

But Holmes, who was among a group of artists of color invited by the MFA to a recent closed-door meeting to address issues of access and racism, said what the museum has to offer will not be clear, to many, until institutional problems are resolved.

WGBH's Forum Network streamed the MFA's Juneteenth panel discussion on how cultural institutions should acknowledge black histories on June 19. Watch the livestream here.