Don’t touch the art, kids. Just let it touch you.

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSEUMS - BY GE­OFF EDGERS IN BOS­TON ge­off.edgers@wash­post.com

“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

PHO­TOS BY JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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."

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