Rosa Rodriguez-Williams on Reaching Underrepresented Museum Audiences

Portrait of Rosa Rodriguez-Williams, 2020.

Portrait of Rosa Rodriguez-Williams, 2020.

Rosa Rodriguez-Williams began her new job last month as the first senior director of belonging and inclusion at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Following a racial incident in the spring of 2019, the museum launched a fund for diversity and inclusion initiatives. Rodriguez-Williams, who previously helmed the Latinx Student Cultural Center at Northeastern University, discusses working with staff on engaging historically underrepresented audiences and some related topics.

I’m doing a lot of listening in my new position. So far, I’ve been learning as much as I can about the museum and those who work here. I am prioritizing visitor experience by working alongside colleagues on everything from exhibitions to learning programs to cultivate a sense of belonging. I want everyone who visits the MFA Boston to feel seen, valued, and respected.

I’ve always been very interested in this kind of work. I’ve had about twenty years of experience creating inclusive spaces for people of marginalized identities and backgrounds. But I’m really excited to foster inclusion in this space and in this time, which are so fraught with conflict and division. I’m currently leading the voluntary group Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility (IDEA), where museum staff discuss issues of inclusion, diversity, and access. We’re working on forming affinity groups where we can all come together to learn from each other.

In light of current world events, self-care has become particularly crucial. Working out has always been an outlet for me. I started doing CrossFit training prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, but since then it has become a positive way to let go of any anxious energy that I’m carrying with me. Now that the boundaries between work and home have blurred, it’s a great way for me to break up my days and to care for myself not only physically but also mentally and emotionally. I love feeling strong as I do burpees and circuit training.

Photo of Orlando Magic guard Michael Carter-Williams in front of Detroit Pistons guard Derrick Rose, 2020.

Photo of Orlando Magic guard Michael Carter-Williams in front of Detroit Pistons guard Derrick Rose, 2020.

Physical fitness is important to my family as well. I am a step-momma to Michael Carter-Williams, who plays basketball for the Orlando Magic. He was five years old when we came into each other’s lives. One of my greatest joys as a parent is being in the stands and cheering him on, as I also do for my son, Adrian, who enjoys playing recreationally. It has been incredible to see Michael reach the peak of his profession—which so few truly get to do—and find his own voice on social justice issues using his professional platform. Needless to say, I’m a huge NBA fan because of Michael. But, despite his affiliation, I will be cheering for the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.

With some extra time on my hands, I just finished binge-watching the 56-episode telenovela series “Her Mother’s Killer.” It reminded me a lot of the telenovelas I used to follow with my mom when I was growing up. The show features a really strong female lead who is the campaign manager for a Colombian presidential candidate who killed her mother back when the manager was a young girl. The bigger issue is that this powerful man abuses and rapes women without consequence. Throughout the show, the manager makes it clear that she’s not plotting to destroy him for vengeance, but rather for justice—all the while dealing with her own troubles and traumas. The show does a great job of focusing not solely on her, but on the greater good.

I worked with both documented and undocumented students in my previous position as the director of the Latinx Student Cultural Center at Northeastern University. In his novel Dear America, Filipino immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas writes about the experience of belonging versus not belonging that immigrants so often have to navigate. Vargas found out that he was undocumented when he went to get his driver’s license. Up until that point he thought he had a green card. There’s a part in the book where his grandfather, who brought him to the United States from the Philippines, says pointedly, “we don’t belong here.” The way Vargas talks about those feelings of rejection—lying, hiding, passing, and all of the difficult things that many immigrants have to do in order to find a place in this country—is very impactful. In my work, open dialogues around immigration have helped me prioritize people’s needs, so they can feel that they have a place they belong.

Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in the 2020 documentary Disclosure.

Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in the 2020 documentary Disclosure.

Since, as a Puerto Rican woman, I belong to a marginalized identity group, I found the documentary Disclosure truly empowering. It features people from the trans community commenting on the treatment of trans characters and themes throughout the history of film and television. Disclosure serves as a reminder that marginalized groups are, more often than not, portrayed through the lens of the dominant culture, which generates false and dangerous narratives. What really stuck out to me was Black trans folks talking about the incredible racism in the 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation. I enjoyed learning more about the trans community by listening to their struggles and truths. These accounts not only provide us with a better understanding, but invite our empathy as well.

During one of my first days at the MFA Boston, a colleague of mine took me on a walk in the art of the Americas wing. I found it so incredibly moving to see works from different historical time periods before entering the “Women Take the Floor” exhibition, which focuses on overlooked and underrepresented female artists of the twentieth century. There was a dedicated spot in the show where visitors could sit and write their thoughts. One note read: “This was odd like me.” And it struck me that people could see representations of themselves in this show and had the opportunity to engage. I loved being able to read their comments and see the ways in which “Women Take the Floor” impacted them. The show is closed right now due to coronavirus, but I’m looking forward to its reopening. Ultimately, as I was walking through the American wing, I could see examples from various historical periods of what inclusion looks like—this is what we are striving toward.

—As told to Francesca Aton

The recently appointed senior director of belonging and inclusion at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston discusses the importance of social justice, along with related interests.Read MoreArt in America, Interviews, diversity, inclusion, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Rosa Rodriguez-WilliamsARTnews.comRead More

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