Nobody ever says they want to be a museum guard when they grow up. Nonetheless, though I did not foresee following such a career path, this is exactly the trajectory my professional life has taken. I have guarded at several art museums now and have begun referring to each stint as part of an ongoing series of performances wherein I play the part at different art institutions: Museum Guard #1: Harvard Art Museums (2001–2008); Museum Guard #2: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (2009–2015). Come catch the latest iteration Wednesday through Sunday from 10am–5pm at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA).
All public-facing jobs are performative, as the workers of those occupations must behave or “perform” in a manner they would not otherwise. This is what the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre means by “bad faith” when describing the actions of his café waiter:
His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid…. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: He is playing at being a waiter in a café.
As Shakespeare wrote: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players …”
For an artist like myself, guarding is an ideal day job allowing for many hours of looking at, reflecting on, and being inspired by great works of art. I get paid to hang around art all day! The path from guard to established artist is well-trodden. Both Sol LeWitt and Robert Mangold were security guards at MoMA in New York City before becoming hugely successful artists. Andrea Fraser, too, was a gallery attendant at Dia Chelsea before becoming an established artist. In her piece “Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk” (1989), Fraser plays the part of a museum docent leading a tour through the Philadelphia Museum of Art. During her performance, Fraser overly dramatizes each museum space, no matter how banal, describing for instance a common water fountain to the group as “a work of astonishing economy and monumentality … it boldly contrasts with the severe and highly stylized productions of this form!”
In many ways, an art museum is a microcosm of modern society. As with the non-art world, a rigorous hierarchy of distinct classes structures the museum: the board, director, department heads and other senior leadership are the one percent, upper-crust elites who are paid very well. The education staff, conservators, and curators represent the upper-middle class and are paid fairly well. Further down, curatorial assistants, exhibition and graphic designers, installers and preparators make up the lower-middle class, and are paid decently. And finally, at the bottom, alongside custodians, gift shop and visitor services staff, are the guards — the working-class members of the museum — who are paid the least. In terms of its pecking order, an art museum is essentially the non-art world in miniature. The work becomes more manual and service-oriented the further down the ladder you go.
As such, many of the problems that afflict society at large can be found within the walls of art museums (albeit on a much smaller scale). There is no major issue with the division of labor. Indeed, how else should cultural institutions be organized? But the stratified pay could be greatly improved, of course, and better efforts can be made to advance the careers of museum workers from within the institution. But the main thing plaguing the contemporary museum workforce is found in the lack of dignity that members of the lower ranks must endure on a daily basis. To many of the better-paid museum staff, guards are, at best, “the help,” and at worst, ne’er-do-wells, unfortunate afterthoughts whose presence disturbs the purity of otherwise perfectly curated exhibitions. This position is untenable.
One way this situation could be alleviated is by curbing the more zealous middle managers who seem hell-bent on writing up guards for nearly any infraction. Certain supervisors, who were themselves guards until they schmoozed their way into managerial positions, take just a little too much joy in reprimanding their charges. The fact of the matter is there is a lot of downtime as a guard, and harping on minor infractions, like occasionally looking at one’s phone or doodling in a sketch pad, when there is absolutely nobody in the galleries, makes us feel like children being scolded by parents. Guards are expected to behave a certain prescribed way. (Outside of an art museum, where else would you expect someone to tell you not to touch something?) But it simply does not follow that they deserve to be treated disrespectfully.
To its credit, the BMA did not furlough or lay off any of its workers throughout the duration of the quarantine due to the Coronavirus. In fact, as the museum began reopening in stages after its second closure early last year, it was announced that all base pay would be increased to an hourly rate of $15. Considering many other museums across the country have laid off much of their staff during the pandemic, the pay increase was especially welcome news. Further, guards were offered the chance to curate their own exhibition based on connections they have with works from the collection. Scheduled to open in March 2022, Guarding the Art will showcase the work of the 17 BMA guards, including myself, who elected to participate in this unique opportunity.
For it to be truly successful and worthwhile, however, Guarding the Art needs to be the prototype, and not the final product. Nor should it be a conciliatory gesture on the part of the museum, or simply a public relations stunt. Nor can it be an exercise in virtue signaling. In other words, it cannot be done in bad faith. Guarding the Art has the chance to become the model for how museums honor and respect the dignity of their guards moving forward — not just at the BMA, but at museums around the world.