Baltimore museum guards take their places at the curators’ table


BALTIMORE — Museum guards have been at the center of organizing efforts and conversations about fairness and safety that have swept across American museums in the wake of Covid, Black Lives Matter protests and the recent stabbings at MoMA . Yet they remained largely an anonymous group.

“When you’re a keeper, you’re on display like everything else, but you’re kind of invisible to the public,” artist Fred Wilson, who worked as a keeper in the 1970s at the Neuberger Museum of Art, told Buy. , NY Pushing institutions to become more self-aware, he created a sculpture in 1991 called “Guarded View”, showing four headless black mannequins wearing uniforms from different New York museums, and posed on a platform. form, which speaks of this paradox and its social and racial dynamics.

Now, in what may be the first show of its kind, Baltimore Museum of Art guards emerge as guest curators — and individuals. It’s part of a national tally of museums striving for diversity and inclusivity – and looking for creative ways to bring a range of voices to interpret art.

Inaugurated on Sunday, “Guarding the Art” brings together works from the museum’s encyclopedic collections selected by 17 members of the security team, for very personal reasons. They collaborated cross-departmentally on all aspects of the exhibition, from the writing of the wall labels to the development of the brand identity to the design of the installation.

“One of the reasons I wanted to be part of the exhibit is to show people that there’s more to museum guards than ‘don’t touch this,'” said Kellen Johnson, 35, who works in security at the BMA since 2013 and is a classical vocal performance major graduating this spring from Towson University. “We are filmmakers, musicians, teachers, 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 browsing the galleries. Between choir rehearsal and night work at the beginning of the month, he gave a preview of his two exhibition choices, paintings he knows intimately from his tours: “Still life with a large seashell” by Max Beckmann (1939 ), a portrait of the artist’s second wife, Mathilde, who was an aspiring musician, and Hale Woodruff’s “Normandy Landscape” (1928) which reminded Johnson of African-American spirituals and French art songs.

“If this painting could sing, what would it look like?” Johnson posed. In response, he burst into an operatic passage, in full-throttle baritone, from Mozart’s “In a Lonely Wood,” about a walk in a lonely forest.

The idea of ​​”guarding the art” came to Amy Elias, a museum trustee, in early 2020 after a conversation with the museum’s chief curator, Asma Naeem, who wanted to start a mentorship program for custodians. “They spend more time with the art than anyone else in the museum,” Elias concluded.

She pitched the concept to museum director Christopher Bedford. With the support of his board of trustees during his six-year tenure, Bedford had refocused the museum’s mission around issues of equity, including the controversial sale of big-name artworks to acquire those of artists underrepresented by the practice of alienation. (Bedford moves 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 the knowledge, giving guards tools and opportunities to continue developing their skills. Frankly, it’s about who has a seat at the table.

Naeem invited veteran curator and art historian Lowery Stokes Sims, 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 chose the different pieces, which very much reflected their interests, their political positions, their acute visual reactions to art or just related to stories,” Sims said.

Sims couldn’t think of a comparable exhibit curated by guards during his 50 years in the museum business. But it reflects ongoing efforts in other museums to make art more relevant to people’s lives. The New York Historical Society, for example, incorporated personal impressions of non-expert artwork on its wall labels for an exhibit last fall.

In Baltimore, when guards might get pushed around a bit by different departments over unconventional ways they wanted their items wrapped or written on tags, Sims gently advocated keeping the particular quality of their individual responses.

“What we have seen in the time of Covid has generated great interest and even demanded that institutions move away from the usual way they do business, go beyond the usual connoisseur and aesthetic approaches, and recognize other perspectives,” she said.

For Rob Kempton, 32, a guard since 2016 and a published poet, Sims’ feedback has been invaluable in shaping “such a diverse and kaleidoscopic show,” he said. “She reinforced the idea that we don’t need to be so obsessed with themes because the theme is the guards themselves, which I thought was a nice idea.”

Kempton was drawn to two abstract paintings for their visual power, including the monumental “Interior, ‘The Creeks'” by Grace Hartigan in 1957.

“I can’t talk about the poetry of Frank O’Hara without talking about Hartigan and some of those New York School abstract expressionist painters,” Kempton said. He completed the Johns Hopkins Master of Museum Studies program in 2020 and was waiting for an opportunity to potentially advance his career with the museum.

Traci Archable-Frederick, 50, who worked in airport screening for the Department of Homeland Security before joining the BMA in 2006, was initially reluctant to participate but signed on due to her interest in the installation department. “I’ve seen so many different shows here in 16 years and they make everything magical,” she said. His selection of “Resist #2” (2021) by Mickalene Thomas, a multimedia canvas pasted with contemporary and historical imagery of civil rights protests, “deals with all the evils that occur in the world”, he said. she stated. “When I saw it, I was like, ‘That’s all I want to say. “”

In the design of the installation, the work is directly juxtaposed with “Black Over Reds” by Mark Rothko. [Black on Red](1957) with faded blocks of color, chosen by Archable-Frederick colleague Chris Koo. “Being next to mine, red, to me, represents bloodshed and black could represent black people,” Archable-Frederick said. “It’s just my feeling.”

Elise Tensley, 37, worked as a caretaker from 2017 until February when she left for a position as assistant general manager at a swimming school. In her spare time, she always painted. “My canvases just sit in a corner, never seen,” said Tensley, who wanted to select something from the museum’s collection that had languished in storage. Asking for a list of works not exhibited for at least 20 years, she picked three numbers at random and was delighted to discover Jane Frank’s large 1958 abstract landscape “Winter’s End”, exhibited only twice before, in 1958 and 1983.

The conservation experience “definitely boosted my confidence and made me realize what I have to offer,” Tensley said. It also boosted morale museum-wide, she added. “We were able to form friendships with people we’ve worked with for years and whose names we didn’t even know,” she said. “I think it helped some of the senior leaders to see us more as people.”

If the majority of the staff chooses to unionize (through a secret ballot election which is not yet scheduled), the management of the museum is committed to working with the union representatives.

The BMA has already made progress on pay equity. The security team’s starting hourly rate has been increased three times since 2020, most recently from $15 to $16 in January 2022. (Maryland’s minimum wage is $12.50 per hour; at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where guards are unionized, the starting hourly wage was increased 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 administrator, is confident that initiatives such as “Guarding the Art” will continue, whoever the next BMA director is named. “We didn’t spend all these years moving our museum to where we are now only to do a sudden reversal,” she said. “I’ll die on the sword on that one.”

Fred Wilson, the caretaker-turned-artist, is now also a trustee of the Whitney Museum of Art. He fears that some critics will lament a loss of scholarship if these efforts continue at the Baltimore Museum of Art and other institutions.

“I fear that this ‘experiment’, if repeated, will be misunderstood as a possible dumbing down of museum exhibits,” Wilson said. He counters that by engaging with professionals and laypersons from other communities, “museum curators can look beyond their professional silos and learn to reach people who don’t have the same course”.

keep the art

Through July 10, Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore, (443) 573-1700;


Comments are closed.