The new Baltimore Museum of Art exhibit “Guarding the Art” was curated by 17 security guards at the BMA. Photo courtesy of BMA.
The new Baltimore Museum of Art exhibit “Guarding the Art” was curated by 17 security guards at the BMA. Photo courtesy of BMA.

Christopher Bedford remembers the day when board member Amy Elias “barged” into his office at the Baltimore Museum of Art with an idea for a different kind of exhibition.

Why not let the museum’s security guards curate an exhibit showing what they’d like visitors to see? Elias suggested.

From that initial meeting came “Guarding the Art,” a homegrown exhibit that’s drawing an outsize amount of attention to the museum and Baltimore.

Even before the exhibit opens this week, articles about the show and its 17 guest curators have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, National Public Radio, The Week, People.com, Yahoo, and Baltimore Magazine.

Coverage by the “art media” has included articles in The Art Newspaper; Art in America; Hyperallergic; Frieze; Artnet News; ARTnews and the online version of Smithsonian magazine.

Catie Beck came from The Today Show on NBC to tape a feature. Kristine Johnson arrived from CBS Sunday Morning. Their pieces are expected to air on Sunday. Museum staffers, including the guards, have been interviewed by The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and BBC World Radio, among others. Three museum representatives, including one of the guest curators, flew to the West Coast this month to tape an appearance on a daytime talk show that has a national audience.

And there’s more to come, judging by the larger-than-usual crowd at the museum’s press preview for the show earlier this week.

“I’d say the number of cameras, it’s almost the John Waters restroom dedication,” Bedford quipped at the preview, referring to last fall’s much-publicized unveiling of the museum’s first all gender restrooms. “This is extraordinary.”

“It’s very exciting. All these national outlets have picked this up,” said Elias, the CEO of Profiles Inc., a marketing and public relations firm based in Baltimore.

The attention this time is about an exhibit rather than building improvements. It opens on March 27 and runs until July 10.

Unlike the museum’s current blockbuster Joan Mitchell exhibition — the product of a collaboration between the BMA and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which gathered art from multiple, international sources and will travel next to Paris — “Guarding the Art” includes 26 works that all came from the BMA’s own collection and were selected by the guards themselves.

The premise is deceptively simple: The security guards at a museum spend more time with its works of art than anyone else. Who better to let visitors know about them?

But what came out of the process was a different way of seeing art at a museum, because the works in this show were selected not by professional curators but by a diverse mix of people who represent a wide range of ages, backgrounds and experiences. The first exhibit of its kind for the BMA, it also sheds light on the job of the security guard and the many roles they play at a museum.

‘I did not barge’

The project was conceived two years ago by Elias as the outgrowth of a dinner conversation with Asma Naeem, the museum’s Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Chief Curator. Elias said she then “fleshed out” the idea and took it to Bedford and the broader museum leadership. She said she “tiptoed into” Bedford’s office: “I did not barge.”

“I was pretty sure, I felt confidant, that this idea was somewhat groundbreaking and that he would embrace it,” Elias said. “I explained to him what I thought we should do and he immediately understood, and with that we were off and running.”

“Guarding the Art” is different from most museum exhibits because of the way it’s put together and the stories it tells, Elias said.

Unlike most exhibitions where one curator collects a body of art and then shares it with viewers, “’Guarding the Art’ [has] 17 curators, each of whom lives with the art each and every day and each of whom has interesting perspectives,” Elias said. “That’s what makes this exhibition unique and very, very personal. Not only will you see great works of art, but you’ll hear what motivates the selections” and the stories behind them.”

Slowing people down

Bedford, who will step down as director of the BMA in June to head the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, said it didn’t take long to realize that Elias had a good idea. “Within 30 seconds, she had sold me on the concept.”

He said he’s intrigued by the notion that security guards at a museum may experience art in a different way than others do, because they spend so much time with it, and that makes them ideal candidates to help decide what others ought to see.

Curators and directors at a museum “place a great value on the idea of slowing people down in a museum and forcing them to think,” he said. “Certainly a lot of exhibitions that I’ve done in my life have had that idea – how to arrest attention, how to make a proposal through a presentation, that idea of slowness in a culture that moves so incredibly quickly.

“I’ve always been struck in the context of this show that in fact it is our security officers, who spend so much time as a consequence of their work lingering in galleries, that have a natural relationship to that metabolism, that slowness. They spend so much time looking and thinking, observing, viewing [art and the way people interact with it.]

“So it should come as no surprise that the result of that background in thinking [about] objects over very extended periods of time has yielded extraordinary results” in this exhibit, he said. “I think you are all about to experience a very different perspective on art, its value and its means of engagement with the public.”

17 signed up

The museum began by inviting its security guards to serve as guest curators for the exhibit and select works from the museum’s collection to display, with the understanding that they would be paid for their work as curators.

Some of the security guards and other museum staff involved with the “Guarding the Art” exhibit stand for a photo. Photo courtesy of BMA.
Some of the security guards and other museum staff involved with the “Guarding the Art” exhibit stand for a photo. Photo courtesy of BMA.

Seventeen signed up to do so: Traci Archable-Frederick; Jess Bither; Ben Bjork; Ricardo Castro; Melissa Clasing; Bret Click; Alex Dicken; Kellen Johnson; Michael Jones; Rob Kempton; Chris Koo; Alex Lei; Dominic Mallari; Dereck Mangus; Sara Ruark; Joan Smith, and Elise Tensley.

The guest curators range in age from 24 to 63. Some have been security guards for many years; others are relatively new to the staff. Besides their work as security officers, they are artists, chefs, musicians, scholars and writers.

The guest curators collaborated over the past year with staffers in the museum’s curatorial, design, education, conservation and marketing departments to select and reinterpret works from a variety of eras, genres, cultures and mediums. Each guard selected up to three objects from the museum’s collection to display.

In addition to Naeem, top-level museum curators coordinating the exhibit were Sarah Cho, BMA Curatorial Assistant for American Painting & Sculpture and Decorative Arts, and Katie Cooke, BMA Curatorial Assistant to the Chief Curator and the Curatorial Division.

The group also worked with a noted art historian and curator, Lowery Stokes Sims, who has been on the staff of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Studio Museum in Harlem; and the Museum of Arts and Design; and who frequently serves as a guest curator and lecturer. For this exhibit, she served as a consultant to the museum, providing mentorship and professional development to the guest curators.

Some of the security guards and other museum staff involved with the “Guarding the Art” exhibit stand for a photo. Photo courtesy of BMA.
Some of the security guards and other museum staff involved with the “Guarding the Art” exhibit stand for a photo. Photo courtesy of BMA.

With guidance from Sims, the group conducted research, determined the scope of the exhibition, designed the gallery floor plan, created labels, developed educational materials, generated content for a catalog, and planned visitor tours and other public programs.

“It’s been really meaningful to work with Lowery Sims,” Kempton said. “Her prestigious career and hands-on experience and knowledge have been huge to this entire process. I especially appreciate that she hasn’t limited us in terms of what we shouldn’t do, but has focused our ideas toward creating a really stellar show. She’s given us the confidence and ideas to make all the connections happen.”

A variety of perspectives

Some of the works in the exhibit were in storage. Others were on display elsewhere in the museum. One of the most telling aspects of the exhibit is the variety of reasons the guards give for selecting the pieces they did. Along with each work is a text block from the guard, explaining why he or she chose it. Those messages say as much about the guards as they do about the art and artists they wanted to highlight.

Johnson, a musician, selected two works that have a connection to music and Black artists, respectively: Max Beckmann’s 1939 “Still Life with Large Shell,” a portrait of the artist’s second wife, Mathilde, who was a violinist and singer; and Hale Woodruff’s “Normandy Landscape,” created in 1928 when the artist was living in France.

Smith appreciates objects that are both functional and beautiful and chose an early 20th century “Water Bottle” by an unidentified Mono artist in the Solomon Islands and a “Bottleneck Basket” from around 1875 by an unidentified Yokuts artist in California. Smith shows that she cares about the Earth, too: “Modern reusable items like these,” she notes, “help to keep our own environment free of a lot of unnecessary plastic and other foreign materials.”

Archable-Frederick wanted to show art that sends a message about the need for social justice after the deaths of George Floyd and others. She chose the most contemporary work in the exhibit: Mickalene Thomas’ “Resist #2,” a 2021 mixed-media piece containing images related to the 1960s civil rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, James Baldwin and the Freddie Gray riots in Baltimore, among other subjects.

Mallari chose Sam Gilliam’s Blue Edge, a 1971 painting with “bursts of color, rings of noise and the sound of music” that he describes as “a melodic mess, like hearing the instrumental battles of musicians,” and Alfred Dehodencq’s “Little Girl” from around 1850, a painting that he admires for the way it embodies “innocence with a bit of spunk.”

Click selected “Entry into the Ark,” an Italian oil painting from around 1575 that’s attributed to Jacopo Bassano with assistance from Leandro and Francesco Bassano, depicting animals heading into Noah’s Ark. Some of the figures don’t stand out at first but become apparent the more one studies the painting.

Click said he likes talking to museum visitors during his shifts as a guard and answering questions if he can. “During my time in the galleries, I always enjoy trying to find a way to interact with our guests, from talking about our African masks to sending them searching for a piece of silver crafted by famed American patriot Paul Revere.”

In his text block, Click challenges viewers to find objects that are barely visible in the painting, starting with a monkey holding a spear. “Bassano’s work is the perfect opportunity to play a very interesting game of find it,” he wrote. “In this painting there are many gems, such as a mistake between the male and female lions and a camel perfectly blended in with the environment.”

Jones said he chose the 1925 “Head of Medusa (Door Knocker),” by Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, because he was intrigued by the story of Medusa’s hair and also because he was worried about the safety of Bourdelle’s piece after frequently catching people trying to touch it. For his installation, he designed a glass case for the object and aimed a security camera at it so he could stop worrying about others “mishandling” it.

‘Tiring work’

Castro said he wanted to show a work from Puerto Rico because he is Puerto Rican. When he was told that the museum collection includes works from Puerto Rico but they weren’t available for this exhibit, he selected earthenware or stone figures from indigenous cultures in three countries that are close to Puerto Rico – Colombia, Ecuador and Costa Rica. Then he added a plinth for a fourth work and kept it empty, with an image of the flag of Puerto Rico underneath. The message was clear: This space is reserved for art from Puerto Rico.

“With leaving this one empty display vacant for Puerto Rico, I hope I can inspire Latinx artists, museum-goers and museums alike to celebrate and showcase more of the beauty that is our culture,” Castro said in his text block.

Koo said he selected two large abstract works because he admires the artists, Philip Guston and Mark Rothko. In his text block for Guston’s “The Oracle,” Koo explained that he chose that piece because Guston painted it at a time when the Jewish community was being targeted by the Ku Klux Klan and Guston, who was Jewish, wanted to call attention to the Klan’s activities. In the work, two hooded figures appear to hold a whip and face toward what may be a self-portrait of Guston.

“I chose this painting because Guston has taught the most important lesson as an artist: not to create for approval by others or the satisfaction of praise, but to create with freedom and honesty,” Koo states. “I also encourage our visitors to engage in conversations with the guards because change starts with conversation.”

In his text block for the Rothko painting, “Black over Reds [Black on Red],” Koo had just one word: “Thoughts?” He said he wanted to leave it up to each viewer to decide why Rothko’s work was worth including in the show.

Bjork brought attention to the humor in art with his choice of Jeremy Alden’s “50 Dozen” – a chair composed entirely of Ticonderoga pencils that would break if someone sat on it.

“Guarding the art is tiring work, and I am always savoring the times when I get to rest my legs,” he wrote in his text block. “I chose ’50 Dozen’ in part because it’s funny for me to think of a chair that would break if you actually sat on it, like it’s a prank on the tired guards.”

First-hand experience

The guest curators are being compensated for their time with funds directed from a lead grant from the Pearlstone Family Foundation. Other sponsors include Harriet Anne and Jeffrey Legum; Kwame Webb and Kathryn Bradley; David and Elizabeth Himelfarb Hurwitz, and Michael Sherman and Carrie Tivador.

As part of the project, the curators have planned three days of gallery talks and presentations, during which they’ll discuss how their selections were influenced by their backgrounds and experiences as security guards. The dates are April 28 for Bither, Dicken and Mangus; April 30 for Click and Kempton, and May 1 for Johnson and Ruark. Each event will include a question and answer session, and an RSVP is required.

Besides providing a different way for the general public to look at art, the guards say the process gave them a chance to learn more about museum and what goes into curating the exhibits they help protect.

“It’s been exciting to get first-hand experience in organizing an exhibition and discovering all the behind-the-scenes considerations,” Tensley said. “It gives you a new respect for how museums work and the stories they tell.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.