After MFA incidents, ‘dismayed and disheartened’ city councilor calls for inclusion hearing

"Too many of these institutions’ visitors of color are often viewed with suspicion, treated with contempt, or even taunted with racial slurs," Councilor Kim Janey said.

Boston City Councilor Kim Janey in a February 2019 photo.
Boston City Councilor Kim Janey in a February 2019 photo. –Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

City Councilor Kim Janey says city officials need to be proactive in making sure Boston’s renowned artistic institutions are diverse and welcoming.

On Wednesday, Janey called for a hearing to talk over tackling those issues with the city’s esteemed museums, saying that despite their commitments and efforts, many struggle to be inclusive.

“Too many of these institutions’ visitors of color are often viewed with suspicion, treated with contempt, or even taunted with racial slurs,” Janey said.

“This is bigger than that one incident,” she added. “It’s time for us to have a broader conversation on race, inclusion, and diversity in the arts.”

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The request comes weeks after students of color reported being subjected to racist remarks, harassment, and profiling at the Museum of Fine Arts during a class trip.

While Janey’s hearing seeks to discuss prevalent issues at institutions across the city, it cites those incidents in particular as one example that “much work remains to be done,” the request says.

Janey, whose district includes the MFA, said what happened left her “dismayed and disheartened.”

On May 16, seventh-grade students from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy, a Dorchester charter school, were told by a museum staff member that “no watermelon” was allowed in the museum, English teacher Marvelyne Lamy recalled following the visit.

At other times, a student, who was dancing in an exhibit that included music, was told by a fellow museum visitor that she should be learning instead of stripping, while another patron remarked that “there’s f****** black kids in the way” when the group was near an exhibit, Lamy said.

Security personnel hovered near the group throughout the visit, according to Lamy.

The museum issued an apology after Lamy detailed her students’ experiences in a May 20 Facebook post. The membership of the two visitors, now banned from museum grounds, was revoked, although an internal investigation did not determine whether a staff member made the remark about “watermelon,” MFA officials have said.

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The museum also announced additional steps it will take, including expanding training, to make the landmark more inclusive.

“The MFA considers City Councilor Kim Janey a partner and we support her inclusion efforts,” a museum spokesperson told Boston.com in an email Wednesday.

Still, even beyond the walls of the MFA, city officials have good reason to make sure Boston’s cultural landmarks are living up to their potential and promises, Janey argues in her filing.

She notes a recent ArtsBoston report that found the region’s creative industry brings in about $2 billion a year to the Greater Boston economy. Last year, 21 million people attended arts events — quadruple the total turnout of all of Boston’s major sports events, the request says.

“I’m hopeful that our cultural institutions want to participate, that they are already taking some steps in terms of providing training around cultural proficiency, around how to be more diverse,” Janey told councilors. “Some have even said diversity is a key part of their mission statements, and so I’m hopeful that we will have this conversation.”

The discussion also offers a chance for the city to reflect on how its own identity is perceived, particularly in places like its websites and brochures, she said.

“Really, this is our opportunity to be proactive and thinking about how the City of Boston, our cultural institutions here, can do a better job at being more inclusive around really welcoming and respecting all folks, but also as a city, the image that we project out,” Janey said.

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The hearing request was assigned to the Committee on Arts, Culture, and Special Events.