Teen Scholars Curate Exhibition of 20th Century Works by Black Artists at MFA Boston

"Black Histories, Black Futures" forms a centerpiece of the Museum’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2020

MFA’s first teen-curated exhibition of collection works

Marks culmination of partnership with local youth empowerment organizations

(January 13, 2020)—On January 20, 2020, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), unveils a centerpiece of its yearlong 150th celebration: Black Histories, Black Futures, an exhibition curated by paid teen scholars that grew out of a new partnership with local youth empowerment organizations Becoming a Man (BAM), The BASE and the Bloomberg Arts Internship Boston program managed by EdVestors. Spanning three prominent exhibition spaces along the core of the Museum, Black Histories, Black Futures features approximately 50 paintings and works on paper from the 20th century—all powerful images created by Black artists. The works on view are drawn largely from the MFA’s collection, supplemented by key loans from the Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Artists (NCAAA), a partner organization of the MFA since 1969. Black Histories, Black Futures opens to the public on January 20, 2020, during the Museum’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day community celebration. The exhibition will remain on view for 18 months through June 20, 2021 in the Carol Vance Wall Rotunda, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Visitor Center and Lower Hemicycle. “Black Histories, Black Futures” is supported by Robert and Pamela Adams and Robert Ellis Alan.

In the summer of 2019, six high-school students from BAM, The BASE and the Bloomberg Arts Internship Boston program participated in a series of workshops at the MFA, designed to build curatorial skills such as close looking, research methods, label writing and gallery installation. This new teen program is the result of a partnership led by the MFA’s division of Learning and Community Engagement. The curatorial workshops were developed by Layla Bermeo, Kristin and Roger Servison Associate Curator of American Paintings, and Sidney Bowden, Youth Intern Coordinator, who served as mentors to the six students:

  • Armani Rivas (junior, John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, Dorchester resident)
  • Jennifer Rosa (senior, John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, Mattapan resident) 
  • Destiny Santiago-Mitchell (senior, Wellesley High School, Dorchester resident)
  • Jadon Smith (junior, John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, Dorchester resident)
  • Alejandro Flores (class of 2019, Dr. William W. Henderson Inclusion School, Hyde Park resident) 
  • Jingsi Li (class of 2019, The English High School, Jamaica Plain resident) 

Rivas, Rosa, Santiago-Mitchell and Smith continued to work at the MFA through the academic year, fulfilling the curatorial visions that emerged from this innovative collaboration. Flores and Li graduated from high school, but their ideas remain visible in the galleries. Additionally, the fellows’ peers from the MFA’s Teen Arts Council (TAC) contributed to the development of the exhibition’s interpretation.

“We've created a space for artists who look like me and represented their thoughts through art, the purest form of expression. My hope for this exhibition is for people to walk away feeling relief and comfort, or maybe experience a rude awakening, because this exhibition pushes boundaries,” said exhibition curator Armani Rivas.

The exhibition features works by well-known artists including Archibald Motley, Norman Lewis, James Van Der Zee and Dawoud Bey, in addition to highlighting painters with connections to Boston, such as Loïs Mailou Jones and Allan Rohan Crite. It also brings fresh attention to rarely shown works by artists such as Eldzier Cortor, Maria Auxiliadora de Silva and Richard Yarde. Many of these works are drawn from the John Axelrod Collection, which was acquired by the MFA in 2011. Curators’ interpretation and presentation of these key collection works in Black Histories, Black Futures will inform future installations of these objects at the Museum.

“As the MFA celebrates a major anniversary in 2020, the ideas, perspectives and voices of these young scholars represent our commitment to the future, even as we celebrate the past,” said Bermeo. “Where do young people belong in a 150-year-old museum? In the center.”

Black Histories, Black Futures is organized into four thematic sections that explore and celebrate Black histories, experiences and self-representations:

  • “Ubuntu: I Am Because You Are,” curated by Smith, presents images of community life and leisure activities in the Carol Vance Wall Rotunda.
  • “Welcome to the City” is curated by Santiago-Mitchell and focuses on paintings of urban scenes in both figurative and abstract styles. The sounds of the city are evoked by song lyrics chosen by Santiago-Mitchell—ranging from The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” to Prince’s “Baltimore”—that wrap around the gallery’s pillars in the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Visitor Center.
  • “Normality Facing Adversity,” curated by Rivas, and “Smile in the Dark,” curated by Rosa, examine photographs and works on paper showing dignified Black people and families, from before and after the Civil Rights Movement. Both sections are located on two sides of the Lower Hemicycle.

“We are extremely proud to have the perspectives of these young scholars front and center in the Museum,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, Ann and Graham Gund Director. “Museums are challenged in this moment to invite new voices of interpretation and to share new points of view with our audiences. In planning our 150th anniversary, we knew we wanted inclusion, community and generosity at the core of our celebration. We wanted to give back, when we have received so much. Black Histories, Black Futures wonderfully embodies these ideals.”

At the exhibition opening during the MFA’s MLK Day community celebration, the teen scholars will be joined by staff from BAM and The BASE, in honor of their students’ participation.

“We’re excited to open this new exhibition at our MLK Day community celebration, marking the culmination of an important partnership that opens pathways for young people who would not ordinarily see themselves in a museum setting,” said Makeeba McCreary, Patti and Jonathan Kraft Chief of Learning and Community Engagement. “The students invited to participate do not have a background in the arts but all live within a short distance of the MFA. They had never previously visited outside of a school field trip, and our goal is that, through this experience, they have found a new home within our galleries.”

About Becoming a Man (BAM) Boston

Under the leadership of Boston Executive Director Shawn Brown, Becoming A Man (BAM) is a social group program that provides guidance, support and mentorship opportunities to young men in the Greater Boston Area. BAM is a national program whose model is the creation of a safe space in which young men are free to explore the challenges in their lives. By teaching young people to “think about their thinking,” BAM participants develop a future orientation, and the skills necessary to resolve conflicts, express themselves positively, practice integrity in their daily interactions, and set ambitious goals for their futures. BAM serves over 550 young men through partnerships with over a dozen schools and community partners.

About The BASE

Founded in 2013 by community leader and Boston Astros baseball coach Robert Lewis, Jr., The BASE combines exceptional athletic training and competition with education and career resources to empower student-athletes to achieve their full potential both on and off the field. The BASE is headquartered in Roxbury, MA, and has served over 1,000 Boston student athletes, connecting young athletes with coaches and professional athletes across the country.

About the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Founded on February 4, 1870, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), stands on the historic homelands of the Massachusett people, a site which has long served as a place of meeting and exchange among different nations. The Museum opened its doors to the public on July 4, 1876—the nation’s centennial—at its original location in Copley Square. Over the next several decades, the MFA’s collection and visitation grew exponentially, and in 1909, the Museum moved to its current home on Huntington Avenue. Today, the MFA houses a global collection encompassing nearly 500,000 works of art, from ancient to contemporary, and welcomes approximately 1.2 million visitors each year to celebrate the human experience through art as well as innovative exhibitions and programs. In 2017, Matthew Teitelbaum, the 11th director in the Museum’s history, unveiled MFA 2020, a three-year Strategic Plan that articulated a forward-looking vision for the Museum to become an institution of the moment and more connected to the community. The spirit of collaboration and engagement at the core of MFA 2020 has been brought to life over the past three years through the implementation of more than 50 initiatives, the full slate of which will be realized during the Museum’s 150th anniversary year.

Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–5 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–10 pm. Admission is free for MFA Members, University Members and youths age 17 and younger. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25) and is free to all visitors during Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Lunar New Year Celebration, Memorial Day, Free Fun Friday and Indigenous Peoples' Day. Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. The Museum’s mobile MFA Guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115. For more information, call 617.267.9300, visit mfa.org or follow the MFA on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.