Guarding the Art
July 20, 2021 10:27 AM   Subscribe

Next March, the Baltimore Museum of Art is opening an exhibition curated entirely by 17 members of the museum's security team. “Our security officers spend more time in our galleries and living among our collection than any other staff within the institution,” said Christopher Bedford, BMA Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director. “It is their perspectives, their insights, and their relationships with the art and daily interactions with our visitors that will set the stage for Guarding the Art to be an exceptional experience.”

The 17 officers who elected to participate are Traci Archable-Frederick, Jess Bither, Ben Bjork, Ricardo Castro, Melissa Clasing, Bret Click, Alex Dicken, Kellen Johnson, Michael Jones, Rob Kempton, Chris Koo, Alex Lei, Dominic Mallari, Dereck Mangus, Sara Ruark, Joan Smith, and Elise Tensley. The group reflects a broad range of backgrounds and interests with officers who are also artists, chefs, musicians, scholars, and writers.
posted by adrianhon (32 comments total) 92 users marked this as a favorite
Well, gotta add BMA to the list of galleries to go to in 2022. I'm looking forward to viewing their perspectives and reading about their choices.
posted by Tardis_Spin at 10:36 AM on July 20 [5 favorites]

Huh, that's a really neat idea for an exhibition focus!
posted by tavella at 10:38 AM on July 20 [10 favorites]

"Revelatory" is the word I've been looking for, that particular kind of brilliance where something - in this case, someone - present but invisible the whole time becomes unavoidably, jaw-droppingly obvious once seen and spoken of aloud.

I was reading this thinking, "Of course. Obviously, security spends their whole days here, watching the art and the people. Of course hearing from them would be fascinating." But, of course, it wasn't obvious.
posted by mhoye at 10:41 AM on July 20 [36 favorites]

Definitely do not touch the guards' hand-selected favorite art pieces.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:57 AM on July 20 [17 favorites]

Obligatory link to Andy Freeberg's photos of museum guards in Russia.
posted by PhineasGage at 11:19 AM on July 20 [4 favorites]

A few days ago I came across an article on how museums in Italy are testing a system which will tell curators which art people look at most, about which a friend of mine tweeted "why don't they just ask the guards"?
posted by madcaptenor at 11:32 AM on July 20 [22 favorites]

This is a great idea. Also good point madcaptenor I learn so much about sites from ordinary 'low level', but usually in spite of management.
posted by unearthed at 12:05 PM on July 20

That's so cool!

My sisters and I were visiting a museum once - it was years ago now, and I can't actually remember which museum it was, but I'll always remember the security guard who overheard us talking about one of the exhibits and walked up to ask, "Hey, do you guys want to see the oldest thing in this museum?" We obviously said yes, and she led us to a tiny blue figurine of a hippopotamus in a glass case that we would have completely missed otherwise.

It's one of my favorite interactions I've ever had with a stranger in public. I wish this exhibition wasn't on the other side of the country from me - I bet it's going to be super interesting.
posted by darchildre at 12:16 PM on July 20 [33 favorites]

I'm always a little suspicious of "outsider art" projects, as they have a tendency to treat people without much respect. (Artists usually, curators here.) I do hope it includes a chance to spend time exploring what's not currently on display. But, this seems sincere and thoughtful. Neat!
posted by eotvos at 12:45 PM on July 20

I guess I needed an excuse to Baltimore next year. :)
posted by drewbage1847 at 12:50 PM on July 20

darchildre, I wonder if it was William the faience hippopotamus at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art!
posted by IcarusFloats at 12:57 PM on July 20 [15 favorites]

A few of the museums in Philadelphia are in some stage of the process of unionizing, and the employees want more input into exhibits. Like this it seems to me like that can only improve the museums with new and varied perspectives.
posted by sepviva at 1:28 PM on July 20 [8 favorites]

I love this idea! What a great concept, and what a cool way to make staff feel included, too.
posted by cadge at 1:30 PM on July 20

IcarusFloats, I believe that was it! Thank you!
posted by darchildre at 2:00 PM on July 20 [4 favorites]

darchildre, if you want a memento of that occasion, William is basically the Met's mascot and there is quite a bit of merch.

I like the idea of this exhibit very much. Security lives with the art in a way that no one else gets to.
posted by praemunire at 2:11 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]

IcarusFloats: I wonder if it was William the faience hippopotamus at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art!

So, today I learned that the blue hippopotamus my parents had for 60+ years that is now in my possession is a figurine of William made for the MMA by Bitossi (different from the ones currently sold by the MMA). Pretty cool.
posted by slkinsey at 2:21 PM on July 20 [7 favorites]

I love this idea. People who spend all their time surrounded by something like this have deeply fascinating thoughts about it. (Like, have you ever talked to someone who does janitorial work at the Lyric Opera? They have a lotttttttt of opera opinions, even if they don't have any formal knowledge of opera.) One of the things I like about Chicago is that architecture is such public art that everybody walks around living with/in it every day, and you uncover the most surprising people with very strong opinions about architecture.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:22 PM on July 20 [10 favorites]

I would love to hear stories from the guard I saw watching over Ai Wei Wei's Bowls of Pearls at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. a few years ago.

Or maybe a piece of art that you have to constantly keep people's hands out of (the urge to jam your hands in and go clack clack clack like a tourist shop's tumbled rocks bin was overpowering) is more annoying than anything else...
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 2:23 PM on July 20 [3 favorites]

This exhibit's premise reminds me strongly of one of my favorite poems, "Visiting Hours" by Essex Hemphill, which is about the racialized separation between the respected white male artists/art in our museums and the often BIPOC security guards who protect those works of art:
The government pays me
nine thousand dollars a year
to protect the East Wing
So I haunt it.

Visiting hours are over.
The silent sentry is on duty.
An electric eye patrols the premises.
I’m just here
putting mouth on the place.

Modigliani whispers to Matisse.
Matisse whispers to Picasso.
I kiss the Rose in my pocket
and tip easy through this tomb of thieves.

I’m weighted down with keys,
flashlight, walkie-talkie, a gun.
I’m expected to die, if necessary,
protecting European artwork
that robbed color and movement
from my life.

I’m the ghost in the Capitol.
I did Vietnam.
My head is rigged with land mines,
but I keep cool,
waiting on every other Friday,
kissing the rose,
catching some trim.

I’m not protecting any more Europeans
with my life.
I’ll give this shit in here away
before I die for it.
Fuck a Remb-randt!

And if I ever go off,
you’d better look out, Mona Lisa.
I’ll run through this gallery
with a can of red enamel paint
and spray everything in sight
like a cat in heat.
I love the idea of this exhibit.
posted by lysimache at 2:56 PM on July 20 [24 favorites]

This is wonderful. Back in the 1990s I was taking an art history course at Wayne State University in Detroit and was camped out in one of the galleries in the Detroit Institute of Arts studying a Henry Moore reclining figure. The security guard came up to me and asked me if I knew about Moore's background, specifically his relationship with his mother and how that influenced many of his pieces. The guy proceeded to give me one of the most in-depth art lessons I've ever had. He explained that he had suffered an on-the-job injury a year before and during recuperation he decided to do a deep dive into all the works that he had seen everyday but never thought much about. We discussed a few other pieces before he had to go back on his rounds. It was a magical experience that I'll never forget. And I got an "A" on the assignment!
posted by majorsteel at 3:47 PM on July 20 [49 favorites]

about damn time someone did this!
posted by lapolla at 5:03 PM on July 20 [2 favorites]

This is really neat. I hope it brings real joy to the guards and their families.

That said, I wonder if they’ll let the janitors do the same thing, and if that’s how we ended up with this.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 5:43 PM on July 20

This is a great idea.

I've met some Museum/Gallery Installation Techs, and they were pretty well all of them practicing artists on the side, just not as famous. I've always thought that they should get a big show too.
posted by ovvl at 7:31 PM on July 20 [2 favorites]

A security guard
Stopped me to offer an overview on phenomenal nature
She said, "Sculpture is not just formed from penetration
You see, men have lost touch with the feminine"
And with her pink lipstick
And her Queens accent
She went on for a while about our president

-Cassandra Jenkins, Hard Drive
posted by MrVisible at 7:40 PM on July 20 [4 favorites]

I was at the BMA in fall 2018 and one of the security guards must have noticed that I was studying a certain painting closely. (I wish I remembered the name. It was a large canvas.) She glided over, guided my attention to a fascinating detail I hadn’t noticed, and then slipped away. It was a wonderful moment.

Also: having worked as a museum security guard in college, I’m guessing that these curators will not select anything with sound loops. You can’t imagine how painful a 60 second sound loop is during an eight hour shift.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 7:48 PM on July 20 [12 favorites]

That said, I wonder if they’ll let the janitors do the same thing.

James Hampton, a janitor, made one of the most remarkable objects in the Smithsonian's American Art Museum.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:08 PM on July 20 [10 favorites]

“Our security officers spend more time in our galleries and living among our collection than any other staff within the institution,” said Christopher Bedford, BMA Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director. “It is their perspectives, their insights, and their relationships with the art and daily interactions with our visitors that will set the stage for Guarding the Art to be an exceptional experience.”

It's always struck me as a job that has the potential to be full of tedium coupled with brief moments of "HOLY SHIT THEY'RE GOING TO TOUCH IT," but at the same time you get to see all of the art that comes and goes, either in and out of the permanent collection, or touring exhibits that are brought in.


Mr. Conspiracy and I were on a guided touch tour of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and one of the pieces of sculpture he was allowed to touch (as a blind patron, while wearing gloves) was a Giacometti. It might have been Woman Standing or Man Pointing. Can't remember exactly, but it was one of his more delicate-looking standing figures.

What I do remember exactly:

The guide we had would typically flash her staff badge lanyard at the security guard in each room we entered where a touching was going to happen, but in this case had neglected to do so since all three of us were chatting away (she was a sculptor herself, and was really interesting and fun).

As she starts to guide my husband's hands towards the Giacometti, the security guard in the room sprang from his corner, with his hands outstretched, going "Whoa! Whoa! No touching!"

Our guide, realizing her oversight, started waving her badge, saying "Touch tour! Touch tour!"

He, immediately realizing what the situation was, stepped back and raised his hands, going "Sorry! No problem!"

All four of us had a laugh, and the touch tour resumed, with the guard taking a keen interest in her description and the normally-forbidden feeling-up of the Giacometti.

Once the officially-sanctioned groping of the Giacometti was complete, the guard said, "You know, I've been working here for ten years, and they never let me touch anything!"
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:39 PM on July 20 [18 favorites]

This is the idea I had for a coffee table book, actually. Security guards well familiar with works of art describe them. Like all great ideas, I wasn’t the only one to have it.
posted by Capt. Renault at 6:08 AM on July 21

This is great!

Another example of the BMA being decent: My mom volunteers as a docent at the BMA and helps with an education program they run with Baltimore's inner-city schools. When the BMA got wind that some of the participating schools were using the program as a reward for "good" students, and not letting students with detentions or write-ups participate, they put their foot down - they made clear to the schools that in order to be part of the program, all students had to be able to participate, because everyone deserves art. I could go on, but it's a well-run and thoughtful program. They also treat their docents really well, and the security staff more generally - like getting invited to "first looks" and intimate talks with the artists.
posted by coffeecat at 11:29 AM on July 21 [5 favorites]

I love this idea!
posted by WalkerWestridge at 2:48 PM on July 21

I'm always a little suspicious of "outsider art" projects, as they have a tendency to treat people without much respect.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Baltimore is also home to the American Visionary Art Museum.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:56 PM on July 22 [1 favorite]

What a cool idea.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:53 PM on July 25

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