A museum’s security guards are entrusted with safeguarding the institution’s priceless treasures. In the course of their jobs, they spend countless hours with these collection of art objects. What stories might they believe are the most important ones for visitors to know about the art they see daily?
“Guarding the Art,” a forthcoming exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, will answer that question when it opens next March. Curated by 17 of the museum’s guards, the show aims to highlight the perspectives of a critical yet overlooked workforce at the museum.
Conceived earlier this year, “Guarding the Art” is part of the BMA’s numerous diversity and inclusion initiatives that it has been rolling out over the past few years. These include controversial sales of artworks by white male artists to expand their holdings of works by women and artists of color in 2018 and a promise to raise wages for several of the museum’s entry-level positions.
In an interview, BMA director Christopher Bedford said that he wanted to push against the idea that the museum’s curators could be the only ones qualified to organize an exhibition. “The vast majority of people have a relationship to creative production that is intimate,” he said. “In a sense it’s an experimental show, but it’s also entirely sensible given the familiarity the guards have with the objects.”
Art historian and curator Lowery Stokes Sims will act as an advisor to the exhibition, which will present works ranging widely in medium and historical period. The guards were given their pick of the collection to form the show, and they will also be involved in producing the exhibition catalogue, the installation design, and the show’s accompanying public programming.
Though the exhibition’s planning is still in progress, a number of works to be included have already been announced. A focus on the passage of time has been a recurring theme in several of the works. So far, the curators have avoided selecting the museum’s blockbuster pieces. Instead, they will focus on spotlighting lesser-known, though still inspiring, works from the collection.
One of the guards working on the show, Dereck Mangus, chose an often overlooked painting attributed to local self-taught painter Thomas Ruckle. Titled House of Frederick Crey (1830–35), the quiet scene offers an early glimpse of Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood, with the city’s iconic Washington Monument visible in the background.
Alex Lei has selected one work that he said resonates with him while on the job. In Winslow Homer’s Waiting an Answer (1872), a man and a woman stand in the center of a lush field. Their silence hangs in the air—it’s not immediately clear which is waiting for the other to respond.
“It’s framed as this moment of waiting—I can relate to that,” Lei said. “A lot of my time is spent waiting for guests to come [into the galleries], waiting for someone to ask a question about the art. In the meantime, we’re interacting with the artworks. We spend so much time with the art that we can offer more information than what’s on the plaque.”
Lei, who is also a filmmaker, has worked at the BMA for two years—more than enough time, he said, to study the art on the walls and develop an intimate relationship with it. Many might assume that a security guard’s primary role is to keep visitors from touching the art, but in fact, very few people who come to the museum even attempt to do so. Instead, Lei said, guards at the Baltimore Museum of Art spend most of their time answering questions about the collections and helping guide the public through the galleries to help them best appreciate what’s on view.
“I think this show will help change people’s perspective on us, and the art works at the museum,” Lei said. “Security guards are literally against the background at museums. We walk by them, we know they’re there, but we don’t always realize that they’re more than just wall fixtures.”