Megan Conway

A signal of welcome at Community Celebrations

“It’s so different seeing an artwork in person than it is googling an image and seeing it on screen—it’s important to see art in real life,” says Julia, an art school graduate, explaining why she’s excited to be a new MFA member. The MFA hopes to welcome more new members this year through a bold initiative of the MFA’s 150th anniversary in 2020: the First Year Free membership. Any visitor who has never been a member can sign up on site at one of the MFA’s free Community Celebrations and other select events throughout the year.

Dancer with hoops performing in front of an audience in Shapiro Family Courtyard
A performer at Indigenous Peoples’ Day Community Celebration, October 14, 2019. Photo courtesy of Tony Rinaldo.

Why is the Museum doing this? Megan Bernard, assistant director of membership, explains two main thoughts behind the idea: membership signals welcome and belonging, and the larger and more varied the MFA community becomes, she believes, the more everyone benefits. The decision to sign people up at Community Celebrations, a dozen or more longstanding annual events that welcome new audiences, was deliberate: many of these visitors go to the MFA just for this one event each year. “First Year Free memberships allow our invitation to the Museum to last all year, opening our doors for all and transforming our space, every day,” says Bernard.

Parent engaged with two children working on art project at table
Visitors at the Hanukkah Community Celebration, December 18, 2019. Photo courtesy of Tony Rinaldo.

The vision for the First Year Free experience is to inspire new members to explore how the MFA fits into their lives, with the hope that many will continue their relationship with the Museum after their first year and beyond. “We want all new members, including First Year Free, to find themselves in the Museum, to discover new things they’ve never seen before, to explore their own culture and find new ones,” explains Bernard.

“By giving a membership to visitors who’ve never had the experience, we’re saying, ‘This is your Museum. You belong here. Every day of the year,’” says Katie Getchell, deputy director and chief brand officer.

Couple in side-by-side embrace watching performance in Shapiro Family Courtyard
Visitors at Indigenous Peoples’ Day Community Celebration, October 14, 2019. Photo courtesy of Tony Rinaldo.

The MFA is discovering that First Year Free members have many different reasons to join. “I’ll come back for the movies and special exhibitions. And on my birthday,” said new member Walia. Others noted they’d come back to the Museum soon and explore: Carmen, a first-time MFA member after living in Boston for 17 years, hopes to bring her grandson soon, and Lisa, a public health professional, said, “I’m so excited to dive into the MFA over the next year and find refuge among the ancient art pieces, and to take advantage of this community asset so close to me.” Daniel, a college student, added: “This is a great incentive for people to come to the MFA. Museums make people feel more a part of where they’re from and also with each other.” Personal and varied, these accounts are an indication the MFA’s message is getting through: it can be a place for all to make their own.

The program is off to an impressive start: at the official launch on January 20, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Celebration, 1,717 visitors signed up for First Year Free—making the MFA community 1,717 times stronger in just one day. 


Megan Conway is an associate editor at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.