Don’t touch the art, kids. Just let it touch you.
“Let’s go to China,” Francisco Mendez-Diez tells a group of elementary school children gathered at the Museum of Fine Arts on a recent afternoon.
By that, he means one of the galleries housing the MFA’s collection of Chinese ceramics.
Mendez-Diez is manager of community arts at the museum, an official-sounding way of describing what he does. In reality, he’s an ambassador, his mission to introduce the museum’s treasures to children between 5 and 18.
These days, educational programs are not just a necessity as schools cut back on arts education, they’re a huge source of funding for nonprofits. But Mendez-Diez is not part of a trend. He’s a throwback, an artist who found himself drawn to his work because he believed that children should feel as comfortable in a museum as on a playground.
“When they come through those doors, I want them to feel like artists,” he says. “I also want them to feel like they have fun. It’s very important that when they come to a museum, it’s not just all rules.”
Mendez-Diez has been doing these tours for 40 years, since graduating from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, yet he comes off as fresh as a first-year intern. He speaks warmly and enthusiastically, but there’s no dumbing down or baby talk, no matter how fidgety his audience.
“I say plain things in a clear way,” he says. “They can understand anything. You talk to them and you say, ‘I take you seriously.’ They respond to it. If you try to sort of baby them, generally, they don’t like it.”
So when he’s in the Egyptian galleries, for example, there’s this nugget: “Basically, a mummy is a dried-out person. Like a raisin. A dried grape.”
Rob Worstell, who oversees Mendez-Diez as the MFA’s head of Community and Studio Art, appreciates this approach.
“He works with them like they’re his counterparts,” says Worstell. “He doesn’t get pedantic or talk down to them. And he truly cares about the experience of the art. He wants them to discover. He’s a longtime art teacher and I think that discovery is key. He wants them to find it.”
On this day, Mendez-Diez, 67, who walks with a cane, leads the children to a gallery with a wall-length display case of Chinese ceramics. He holds a pillow version of the globe that allows him to point out where in the world they’re traveling, art-wise. In this gallery, he points to a demon in the case.
“What would you do if you walked up to a building and he was there?” he asks. “You would run to your house and lock the doors so he couldn’t get in.” “He’s a protector,” one boy says. “What did I hear?” Mendez-Diez says, seizing on the response. “That’s right. He’s a protector, he’s a guardian.”
Though he’s devoted his professional life to art, Mendez-Diez can’t share any inspiring tales of growing up in the galleries. Born in Cuba, he doesn’t remember a single museum visit as a child. Then, at the age of 13 in 1962, Mendez-Diez came to the United States as part of the massive airlift Operation Peter Pan. Not long after, he saw Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“The first thing I remember thinking was, ‘It’s so beautiful, but it’s so small,” he says.
By now, Mendez-Diez, who lived in New York, Miami and Puerto Rico during his teen years, was painting and considering a career as an artist. In 1971, he moved to Boston to enroll at the MFA’s museum school and not long after, stumbled upon a Goya show organized by Eleanor Sayre, one of the museum’s most respected curators. They spoke Spanish together and Mendez-Diez, after graduation, began working part time at the MFA even as he taught art at other local schools. In 1987, he became the manager of what became the Community Arts Initiative, a partnership with after-school programs.
“Every group is different,” he says. “Sometimes I say this group may need more art, less talking, or there are kids who come and say, ‘Hey, dude,’ and I say, ‘Come on, I treat you with respect. Don’t call me dude.’ That kid became my best supporter. But they challenge you. What I tell to all my instructors: Don’t take anything personal. They’re children. They tend to be honest, and they’re going to challenge you.”
During his tour, he throws questions at the students. “What can a lion do?” he asks. “It can bite. It can kill you and suck your blood,” one of the children respond.
“No it can’t,” says Mendez Diez. “That’s a vampire.”
That back-and-forth, he says, is good fun and part of the gig. He doesn’t hesitate when asked about the toughest part of his job.
“Dealing with adults,” he says and laughs.
“When they come through those doors, I want them to feel like artists. I also want them to feel like they have fun. It’s very important that when they come to a museum, it’s not just all rules.”
Francisco Mendez-Diez, manager of community arts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, leads students on a tour of the exhibit “Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia."