BALTIMORE — Museum guards have been a focal point of unionizing efforts and equity and safety conversations sweeping U.S. museums in the wake of Covid, Black Lives Matter protests and the recent stabbing at MoMA. Yet they have largely remained an anonymous group.
“When you’re a guard, you’re on display like everything else, but you’re kind of invisible to the public,” said the artist Fred Wilson, who worked as a guard in the 1970s at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y. Pushing for institutions to become more self-aware, he created a sculpture in 1991 called “Guarded View,” showing four Black headless mannequins wearing uniforms from different New York museums, and posed on a platform, that speaks to this paradox and its social and racial dynamics.
Now, in what may be the first show of its kind, guards at the Baltimore Museum of Art are stepping into the light as guest curators — and individuals. It is part of a national reckoning by museums striving for diversity and inclusiveness — and looking for original ways to bring in a range of voices to interpret the art.
Opening Sunday, “Guarding the Art” includes works from the museum’s encyclopedic collections selected by 17 members of the security team, for highly personal reasons. They have collaborated interdepartmentally on every aspect of the exhibition, from writing wall labels to developing brand identity to designing the installation.
“One of the reasons I wanted to be a part of the exhibition is to show people there’s more to museum guards than just, ‘Don’t touch that’,” said Kellen Johnson, 35, who has worked in security at the B.M.A. since 2013 and is a classical voice performance major graduating this spring from Towson University. “We’re filmmakers, musicians, professors, writers, artists. We know a lot more about the artwork than people would be led to believe.”
Trained to sing in German, Italian, Latin, English, Spanish and French, Johnson likes to take full advantage of the museum’s excellent acoustics while roaming the galleries. Between chorus practice and working the night shift earlier this month, he gave a preview of his two exhibition choices, paintings he knows intimately from his rounds: Max Beckmann’s “Still Life With Large Shell” (1939), a portrait of the artist’s second wife, Mathilde, who was an aspiring musician, and Hale Woodruff’s “Normandy Landscape” (1928) that reminds Johnson of African American spirituals and French art songs.
“If this painting could sing, what would it sound like?” Johnson posed. In response, he burst into an operatic passage, in full-throttled baritone, from Mozart’s “Dans un Bois Solitaire,” about a walk in a lonely forest.
The idea for “Guarding the Art” came to Amy Elias, a trustee of the museum, in early 2020 after a conversation with the museum’s chief curator, Asma Naeem, who was interested in initiating a mentorship program for the guards. “They spend more time with the art than anyone else in the museum,” Elias concluded.
She pitched the concept to the museum’s director, Christopher Bedford. With the support of his board during his six-year tenure, Bedford had reoriented the museum’s mission around issues of equity, including the controversial sale of artworks by big names to acquire those by underrepresented artists through the practice of deaccessioning. (Bedford is moving to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in June as its new director.)
“Guarding the Art” is “another embodiment of our commitment to creating a much more accessible institution,” Naeem said. “It’s a reassessment of who holds knowledge, giving the guards tools and opportunities to continue to build skills. Frankly it’s about who has a seat at the table.”
Naeem invited the veteran curator and art historian Lowery Stokes Sims, a former director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, to mentor the guards in their new roles as curators. “I was so fascinated by why the guards picked the different pieces, which very much reflected their interests, their political positions, their acute visual reactions to the art or just relating to the stories,” Sims said.
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Sims could not think of a comparable exhibition curated by guards during her 50 years in the museum field. But it reflects efforts underway at other museums to make art more relevant to people’s lives. The New-York Historical Society, for example, integrated personal impressions of artworks from nonexperts on their wall labels for a show last fall.
In Baltimore, when the guards might get a bit of pushback from different departments about the unconventional ways they wanted their objects cased or labels written, Sims would gently advocate keeping the special quality of their individual responses.
“What we’ve seen in Covid times has spoken to a strong interest and even demand that institutions get away from the usual way they do business, go beyond the usual connoisseurship and aesthetic approaches, and acknowledge other perspectives,” she said.
For Rob Kempton, 32, a guard since 2016 and a published poet, Sims’s feedback was invaluable in shaping “such a diverse and kaleidoscopic show,” he said. “She reinforced the idea that we needn’t be so fixated on themes because the theme is the guards themselves, which I thought was a beautiful idea.”
Kempton was drawn to two abstract paintings for their visual power, including Grace Hartigan’s monumental 1957 “Interior, ‘The Creeks.’”
“I can’t talk about Frank O’Hara’s poetry without talking about Hartigan and some of those Abstract Expressionist painters from the New York School,” Kempton said. He completed the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies master’s program in 2020 and had been waiting for an opportunity to potentially advance his career within the museum.
Traci Archable-Frederick, 50, who worked in screening at the airport for the Homeland Security Department before joining the B.M.A. in 2006, was initially hesitant to participate but signed on because of her interest in the installation department. “I’ve seen so many different shows here in 16 years and they make everything magical,” she said. Her selection of Mickalene Thomas’s “Resist #2” (2021), a mixed-media canvas collaged with contemporary and historical images of civil rights protests, is “dealing with all the wrongs that are happening in the world,” she said. “When I saw it, I was like, ‘This is everything that I want to say.’”
In the installation design, the work is directly juxtaposed with Mark Rothko’s “Black Over Reds [Black on Red]” (1957) with molten blocks of color, chosen by Archable-Frederick’s colleague Chris Koo. “By being next to mine, the red, to me, represents bloodshed and the black could represent the Black people,” Archable-Frederick said. “That’s just my feeling.”
Elise Tensley, 37, worked as a guard from 2017 until February, when she left for an assistant general manager position at a swimming school. In her free time, she has always painted. “My canvases just sit in the corner, they’re never seen,” said Tensley, who wanted to select something from the museum’s collection that had languished in storage. Requesting a list of works not displayed in at least 20 years, she picked three numbers at random and was delighted to discover Jane Frank’s grand, abstracted 1958 landscape “Winter’s End,” exhibited only twice before, in 1958 and 1983.
The curating experience “has definitely boosted my confidence and made me realize what I have to offer,” Tensley said. It has also fostered morale museum-wide, she added. “We’ve been able to build friendships with people we’ve worked with for years and never even knew their names,” she said. “I think it’s helped some of the senior leadership see us more as people.”
If the majority of the staff chooses to unionize (through a secret ballot election yet to be scheduled), the museum’s leadership has pledged to work with union representatives.
The B.M.A. has already made some progress on pay equity. The starting hourly rate for the security team has been raised three times since 2020, most recently from $15 to $16 in January 2022. (Maryland minimum wage is $12.50 an hour; at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where the guards are unionized, the starting hourly wage was raised to $16.50 in December.) The 17 curator-guards were paid additionally for their work on the show — from $750 to $1100 depending on their level of involvement.
Elias, the trustee, is confident that initiatives like “Guarding the Art” will continue regardless of who is appointed as the B.M.A.’s next director. “We didn’t spend all these years moving our museum along to where we are now to make an abrupt reversal,” she said. “I will die on the sword on that one.”
Fred Wilson, the guard-turned-artist, is now also a trustee of the Whitney Museum of Art. He fears that some critics may bemoan a loss of scholarship if these efforts continue at the Baltimore Museum of Art and other institutions.
“I worry that this ‘experiment’, if repeated, will be erroneously understood as a possible dumbing down of museum exhibitions,” Wilson said. He counters that by engaging with professionals and laypeople from other communities, “museum curators can peek beyond their professional silos and learn how to reach people who do not have the same background.”
Guarding the Art
Through July 10, Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore, (443) 573-1700; artbma.org.