Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) installation staff hang Sam Gilliam’s “Blue Edge” (1971), selected by security guard and Guarding the Art guest curator Dominic Mallari (photo Dereck Stafford Mangus/Hyperallergic)

BALTIMORE — A little over two years ago, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) invited its security staff to participate in Guarding the Art, an exhibition to be curated by guards. In early 2021, we were asked to attend a mandatory Zoom meeting without being informed of the agenda. As they started to roll out the concept, I remember texting my coworker friend (out of view of my laptop’s camera) to see what she thought about the proposed project. “Would you do this?” I had my own reservations as I’m not exactly a group project kind of person. However, we both agreed that it sounded like a worthwhile endeavor. The institution may have its own priorities, but perhaps we could make the show our own somehow. 

Over the following year, the 17 guards who elected to participate in Guarding the Art, worked on the various phases of the project: object selection and conservation reviews; exhibition design and installation; research and writing for wall texts and catalog entries; creating public programs and receiving media training. Each guest curator got involved in the process to whatever level they felt comfortable. 

The opening reception was exciting: We were wined and dined and felt like kings and queens for a night, momentary art world celebrities. We were proud of our accomplishment and looking forward to its many unfolding phases: the public programs, gallery tours, media spots; the happenstance encounters in the galleries, and explaining the show’s concept to visitors who hadn’t heard about the exhibition. A year later, it all feels like a dream — a dream worthy of recurring. 

The huge media response was more than what anyone at the museum expected. At the risk of sounding like a jaded celebrity, it even got to be a little tedious. All the major news outlets wanted to interview the guest curators of Guarding the Art. Some of our team were even flown out to Los Angeles to appear on the Kelly Clarkson Show

Not all the media attention was glowing. In her review for Dilettante Army, Siân Evans recognizes how Guarding the Art “makes the guards visible, as individual persons,” while further comparing the show with the concurrent union organizing effort at the museum: “[W]hat the BMA Union offers is to make their work visible, to make them visible as art workers, to support and strengthen all work that makes the art happen.” And writing for Momus, X. Amy Zhang asks, “What kind of culture produces enthusiasm for this project? What has trained us to respond appreciatively to this blatantly tokenizing gesture, and with such moral certitude?”

As with any exhibition, there were unavoidable limitations to the project. We weren’t allowed to choose works on paper, for example. Collages, drawings, photographs, and prints are light-sensitive and can only be exhibited for a few weeks at a time. There were several rounds of choosing objects, and some of our earliest selections were denied due to legal or logistical matters, either regarding the estates of certain artists or whether or not a given work was going to be on loan or scheduled for cleaning during the show’s run. After researching the museum database, some of us selected works that hadn’t seen the light of day in years. 

Other limits felt a little superfluous. For example, we were told that we could eventually change the name of the show, or at least add a subtitle, like Guarding the Art: Essential Work or whatever. This would make sense, in a way, as we would not be guarding the art for the show, but rather curating it. Conceptual clarity aside, the renaming business got complicated with too many ideas, and in the end, we were told it was going to stay just Guarding the Art

We all began using “GTA” as an abbreviation for the exhibition title in our emails and file names, etc. A few of us picked up on the fact that GTA also stands for Grand Theft Auto, the popular video game. Seeing as we couldn’t rename the show, we thought it might be funny to use the Grand Theft Auto typeface in our brand. We even looked it up and learned that the video game font is called “Pricedown,” after its early appearance on the Price Is Right game show, and free for anyone to download and use. Despite making our case to department heads overseeing the project, the idea was shot down because many thought it might become confusing due to its association with another aspect of visual culture. We tried to take a risk and were denied.

If I have one major regret from this project, it may be that we missed an opportunity to play up the idiosyncratic nature of such a unique exhibition. In other words, the inherent subjectivity of a show curated by multiple guards could have been showcased more. It could have been, for lack of a better word, more “punk.” The security team tends to be the most diverse department of an art museum. Guards have their own unique backgrounds, tastes, and pastimes. A couple of us went to art school; most of us did not. A few of us were in the military and even served overseas. We are artists, chefs, gamers, parents, filmmakers, poets, professors, and singers. The eclectic range of objects we selected reflects the diversity of our own biographies. That’s what sets a show like this apart. 

With the recent announcement that the Phoenix Art Museum (PhxArt) will be the second site of Guarding the Art, the show has gone national. Two of the guards who participated in GTA 1 were hired to create a guide that will help our colleagues at PhxArt plan their vision of the show, scheduled to open in 2024. I’m curious to see how other institutions will advance the project. I wish our fellow guards at PhxArt well. May you take Guarding the Art to the next level… Let your freak flags fly! 

Originally from Boston, Dereck Stafford Mangus is a visual artist and writer based in Baltimore. His artwork has been exhibited in select galleries throughout Charm City, and his writing has appeared in...