Published: September 22, 2020
On September 9, Rosa Rodriguez-Williams stepped into her new role at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) as the MFA’s first-ever senior director of belonging and inclusion. The museum says this newly established position will play a critical role in delivering on the MFA’s promise to be a museum for all of Boston. In her role, Rodriguez-Williams will empower others within the MFA to prioritize inclusion as a key practice in their own work, creating an internal culture that places a priority on visitor experience. Although she is just settling in, we thought this would be a good opportunity to sit down with her and learn what’s in store for the MFA as it works towards its goal of becoming more open and accessible.
Congratulations on your new position. What is job one for you as you begin your new role?
Thank you. It really is incredible to be part of this historic cultural institution. My role is to prioritize visitor experience. To come together with colleagues – from curators to educators – to foster belonging and be a museum where everyone who walks through our doors feels seen, valued and respected. As I begin my role, I am focused on meeting folks and familiarizing myself with the museum. I am on a listening tour of sorts, taking time to meet with departments to observe and learn about what they do and how they do it.
We are hearing more about such new hires as yours, and the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) recently said it has engaged a diversity and inclusion consultancy firm to lead its own efforts. What do you believe has sparked this new institutional career path?
This kind of work may seem new to some, but I have been doing diversity and inclusion work for a very long time. I have colleagues who have been doing this work for even longer. I would argue that this is not a new institutional career path, but that it only seems this way because institutions can no longer look away. There is a shift in the present moment. Cries for equity and racial justice cannot be ignored. What was doesn’t have to be – it can no longer be. It is this energy from this generation that is propelling this forward. Institutions must evolve to meet the demand, and rise up and say ‘I am coming with you.’
What resources at MFA will you require in order to achieve your goals?
Having the resources needed to achieve my goals is both important and necessary. However, I would argue that I need something greater: intentionality and commitment from MFA leadership. If the leadership of an institution lacks this posture towards diversity, equity and inclusion, nothing DEI practitioners put forth will help them achieve their goals. Yes, we can try and execute some strategies; however, these will not be sustainable. MFA leadership has shown both commitment and intentionality in their pursuit for inclusion, and I am excited to join the institution in this moment as we together invite and welcome diverse communities to their MFA.
You were previously director of the Latinx Student Cultural Center at Northeastern University. What do see as your most important contributions there?
I have so many amazing memories there. From leading diversity committees and developing division-wide training, to hosting an artist-in-residence and implementing strategies that created space for folks that did not feel included in our community, there is so much I can say I accomplished there alongside my team. But I believe my greatest accomplishment is the story of a first-year student who I met during my time there. He walked in as a first-generation Latino|a|x student, not knowing what to expect – shy, silent and insecure. Yet through the encouragement of the community and the opportunities available to him, he evolved into a confident young man who found courage to step out and do what he never thought he could. It is the scholarship recipient who is able to complete their education because they can afford to stay. It is the story of a young woman whose family is focused on traditional Latino|a|x family roles and she wonders how she’s going to tell her mother she wants to be a doctor (all her mom wanted for her was a good husband and some grandkids), but she persisted, she was supported, and followed her dreams. It is the story of the student that finally understands who they are because they took the time to explore their identity, biases and purpose. It is the story of exploring and sharing our identities through art, food, music and dance. It is not for entertainment or show-and-tell, but a form of expression of THIS IS WHO I AM – they feel alive, and they feel safe, and they feel like they belong.
Has the MFA revealed to you what constitutes its most significant struggle with equity and inclusion?
I think the MFA, like many large institutions in this country, is grappling with inclusion and belonging of BIPOC and marginalized people groups. I’ve been having really good and honest conversations with many folks across departments. I have both enjoyed and felt encouraged hearing about the changes that have already been implemented, and seeing the desire of staff and leadership to go further.
In what ways will you plug into the diverse communities around the city?
The Learning and Community Engagement Division (LCE), led by Makeeba McCreary, Patti and Jonathan Kraft chief of learning and community engagement, is instrumental in making the MFA a center of cultural activity, understanding and connections. The work LCE undertakes connects diverse communities to the MFA in numerous ways. My role focuses on empowering others within the museum to prioritize inclusion as a key practice in their own work, creating an internal culture that places a priority on the visitor experience. I will work closely with my colleagues to foster a true sense of belonging for the diverse communities who visit the museum.
What do you believe are your key strengths in motivating others and building relationships?
I believe understanding is a critical motivator, and creating safe space for courageous conversations is a great way to build relationships. In my work I must do both, and I have. I think we all have that desire to feel seen, respected and valued. To understand something especially within ourselves – a perspective, bias, positionality or our impact, for example, helps us to understand things outside our own point of view. It helps us to empathize with others’ stories and experiences. It grows in us a desire for change. Understanding is the great motivator.
Winston Churchill is said to have observed that “history is written by the victors.” So even if museums become more inclusive in terms of engaging historically underrepresented audiences, isn’t the history they see in the MFA’s collection still one that is told through the lens of those with power, privilege and bias?
Recently I toured the Art of the Americas Wing here at the MFA. As I walked those galleries it was obvious who told those stories and the lens they used. Yes, if these are the people who would still be responsible for telling the story, it would be concerning. Luckily for us they are not. Today the MFA is questioning the erasure of BIPOC and marginalized communities in its collection, acknowledging the harm caused by the omission of people, and then retelling the story. From curatorial to interpretation, belonging and representation has become top of mind. And this is very good.
Best Puerto Rican restaurant in the vicinity of Huntington Avenue?
There are so many good Latino|a|x restaurants in Boston and surrounding areas, but if you are limiting me to Huntington Avenue, I have to say hands down Vejigantes is my choice. This little restaurant in historic Villa Victoria in the South End is cozy, the people are amazing, and the food is incredible. Their guava sangria isn’t bad either.
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5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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