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Elon F. Joseph (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

Elon F. Joseph, a kind, caring, and a genuinely good person, passed away. He was born on November 19, 1936, and emigrated from Trinidad to New York City in 1973. Some of you reading this surely know him from the New Museum where he worked since 1983 as a security guard. He was a true professional, never missed a shift, loved the museum, and was sincerely interested in art exhibitions. He frequently engaged in conversations with the visitors.

I had the chance to work with Elon between 2001 to 2008 at the New Museum. Somehow, all our colleagues felt a very special connection with him. He was soft-spoken yet charming, good-humored and welcoming. He would carry his harmonica on his belt and played beautiful tunes every time he had a chance. During staff parties, he teamed up with Tom (Brumley) to play beautiful songs for all of us.

Amidst production deadlines and frantic day-to-day operations at the museum, he always made us feel good. When he saw me running around, he would say “here is the Turkish Warrior,” he knew that I would stop and laugh out loud every time I heard that. During the early days of 9/11 anxieties, we would have long conversations about world politics, which he closely followed. He would have interesting things to say or curious question about Middle Eastern politics.

Elon and the author

He was a generous person and would always bring extra fruits to share with us. I know that women colleagues got a bit of extra special attention from him, in a most charming and non-threatening way. He loved talking. I loved listening to him. His sentence would always start as “Hakan, you know … ”

I always wanted to conduct an interview with him to record his life story. I wanted to hear his story from the time that he arrived in New York as an immigrant, and his long career at the New Museum. In fact, Elon had been the longest serving staff member and had wonderful relationships with staff, artists, and visitors.

While we keep complaining about the brutal transformation of New York City, changing institutions, and the transformation of Soho, among other neighborhoods, I believe that one needs to write institutional histories and this transformation from the bottom up. Institutions are never soulless structures. They are made up of real people who contribute their characters into the production, maintenance, and growth of these places. In our hysterically competitive world, where everything changes so fast, and youth is glamorized, I loved the fact that Elon was there at the New Museum every time I visited. He somehow inhabited the spirit of the New York we all long for.

I knew he was sick, in May I called him to say ‘hi’ and asked him for an interview. He said he wanted to do it, but he was too weak to talk, even to eat. Elon was such a treasure, he knew everything, but told little and I regret that I waited too long to ask him for this interview.

I will miss you dearly, I know from many remarks from our colleagues, everybody who had the privilege to know you will too!

Goodbye, Elon!

Hakan Topal

Hakan Topal (born in Turkey) is an artist living and working in Brooklyn, NY. He was the co-founder of international art collective, xurban_collective (2000-12). Trained as a civil engineer (B.S.), he...

2 replies on “Remembering a Beloved New Museum Security Guard”

  1. Elon was the last of the crew I had worked with during my tenure as curator of education at N. M. in 1998-99, in those days the museum was quite a different place with a culture that harkened back to its roots in the alternative space movement and Elon could often be heard even before he was seen as he guarded the rooms playing his ever-present harmonica. I really can’t play myself but will get an old harp out of the spoon and fork draw and try to belt out something of a good by to a good man.

  2. Echoing Gregory, Elon was part of my day almost every day from 1996-2000 and 2002-2005, 2007 when I worked at the New Museum in the curatorial department. When I would return to the New Museum, it was Elon who welcomed me. Elon knew the Museum like no one else. He met the staff and frequent visitors where we were, and once he learned our stories, he remembered and celebrated them. It sounds trite, but it is true, he was slight in stature and big of heart.

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