Bias in the High Arts

I have to admit, the story in this week’s Boston Globe about a racial incident at the Museum of Fine Arts, where students from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy were subjected to racial comments and slurs by patrons and tour guides didn’t shock me. It didn’t even surprise me. As someone who has chaperoned many field trips to Boston area “High Arts” institutions for my children’s very diverse elementary school classes, I have seen this bias first hand. We have long known that there is deep institutional, structural and implicit bias in what’s considered the “High Arts”, and their institutions have had a long history of keeping the status quo for wealthy, mostly white patrons and donors. Until recently, ballet dancers of color have had to color their ballet shoes with dye to match their skin because there were no manufacturers that provided them, and curators of large art institutions face many challenges to display diverse art on their walls, mostly due to fear of their major donors and the members of their boards. These are but a few examples where bias exists in the high arts, and it’s no wonder that artists and patrons of color don’t feel welcomed in these highly vaunted arts spaces. Ballet dancers are literally being told “you don’t belong here”, and patrons of color do not see themselves reflected on the walls of these institutions.

Nine months ago, I was chosen to chair the Mayor’s Arts Task Force here in Cambridge, to look at ways the City could better support the Arts and the artists who create it. Choosing a diverse group was key to the groups success; both racial diversity and diversity of arts mediums. Once the members were finalized, I took on the daunting task of speaking with each of the 20+ members by phone to better determine what they each wanted to cover during the nine months of meetings we would have together. During those conversations, every single member made it clear that without a real discussion how racial bias would show up during our meetings, this work would not have the foundation necessary to deeply and honestly cover the topic of the arts in Cambridge. The fundamental questions of “what is art, and who gets to decide?” and “who is represented and reflected in art?” needed to be carefully considered in each and every conversation we would have. Whether the topic was public art, licensing and permitting, zoning, funding or others, these fundamental questions needed be answered, and an equity and inclusion lens needed to be used by all members. In order to ensure that our work as a Task Force had that foundation, early in our schedule we dedicated an entire meeting to diversity, equity and inclusion in Art with a skilled facilitator, Malia Lazu from The Urban Labs. Ms. Lazu laid the foundation for our work by asking these questions, helping us understand where we might discover bias in our work, and how we could confront bias with a shared language and understanding. She taught us how to work together as a diverse group, dealing with difficult issues with a solid understanding of the inherent racial bias in art, and how to move through our conversations with that as a prominent lens.

The Arts Task Force undergoes an anti-bias training/discussion at its second meeting.

That shared foundation Ms. Lazu laid has been critical to us having difficult conversations about race, inclusion and equity in art. That conversation has allowed every member of the Task Force to speak up forcefully when issues of bias arise, not leaving it to our members of color to do that work — as often happens in group dynamics. This led to incredibly productive conversations, and immediate outcomes. Without that initial training with Ms. Lazu, I often wonder if we would have had the successes we have had together. My guess is no. The truth is, any healthy committee, task force, or organization needs to be doing this incredibly difficult, but ultimately rewarding work to fully realize their potential for inclusivity and bias free outcomes.

The Museum of Fine Arts and other “high art” institutions; The Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Boston Ballet, The Isabella Stewart Gardner and others have an absolute responsibility to be on the forefront of this anti-bias and inclusion work. The institutional, structural and inherent biases that exist in large, high art institutions need to be addressed wholesale. Their employees, from the executive leadership level to the guards and box office employees, need to have intensive anti-bias training. Their Boards of Directors themselves need to be diverse and each member clearly needs to understand that what is inside their buildings must reflect who comes to visit, and that all must feel welcome. Their curatorial staff must feel supported in choosing diverse works, diverse artists and exhibits. These institutions must have a no tolerance policy for patrons who make others feel that they don’t belong, simply because they don’t look like them.

I was not shocked to hear that Museum of Fine Arts employees and patrons were racially biased, but I will be if the MFA rises to the challenge to deal with this head on, and lead the way for other high art institutions. It’s high time, and I am ready to be shocked. Your move MFA, we are all watching.