Still Life with Large Shell by Max Beckmann, one of the works chosen for ‘Guarding the Art.’
Still Life with Large Shell by Max Beckmann, one of the works chosen for ‘Guarding the Art.’

At most museums, security guards watch over the art on display. At the Baltimore Museum of Art next year, the security guards will decide what visitors see.

The BMA announced that one of its exhibits for 2022 will be Guarding the Art, a show that will be curated entirely by 17 members of its security team.

Scheduled to go on view from March 27 to July 10 next year, the exhibit will draw from works of art in the museum’s collection, with each work selected by one of the participating officers. Considered a professional development initiative for the staff, it’s the first exhibit of its kind for the BMA.

As guest curators, the officers will collaborate with staffers from across the museum to select and reinterpret works from a variety of eras, genres, cultures, and mediums — offering what directors promise will be “a particularly human-centered lens” through which to consider the objects.

In addition, the team will work with an outside 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 frequently serves as a guest curator and lecturer. For this exhibit, she will serve as a consultant to the museum, providing mentorship and professional development to the guest curators.

“Our security officers spend more time in our galleries and living among our collection than any other staff within the institution,” said Christopher Bedford, BMA Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director, in a statement. “It is their perspectives, their insights, and their relationships with the art and daily interactions with our visitors that will set the stage for Guarding the Art to be an exceptional experience.”

Guarding the Art was conceived earlier this year by Asma Naeem, BMA Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Chief Curator, as part of a conversation with museum trustee Amy Elias about ways to fulfill the museum’s commitment to be more diverse, more inclusive, and more representative of the community it serves.

According to the museum, an inquiry was subsequently sent to all members of the BMA’s security team to gauge their interest in developing an exhibition that would provide them with an opportunity to have their voices heard through their perspectives about the museum’s collection.

The 17 officers who chose to participate are 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 group reflects a broad range of backgrounds and interests, with guards who are also artists, chefs, musicians, scholars and writers.

“There is so much more to see in the BMA’s collection than what’s on the gallery walls,” said Tensley, in a statement about the show. “It’s been exciting to get first-hand experience in organizing an exhibition and discovering all the behind-the-scenes considerations. It gives you a new respect for how museums work and the stories they tell. I cannot wait to see all the objects we’ve selected on display.”

To develop the exhibit, the guest curators are collaborating with staffers in the museum’s curatorial, design, education, conservation, and marketing departments. With guidance from Sims, the group is conducting object research, determining the scope of the exhibition, weighing in on installation design, developing educational materials, generating content for a catalog, and planning visitor tours and other public programs.

Top-level museum curators working on the exhibit include Naeem; Sarah Cho, BMA Curatorial Assistant for Decorative Arts and American Painting and Sculpture; and Katie Cooke, BMA Curatorial Assistant to the Chief Curator.

Each guest curator is 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.

Although the exhibition is in the early stages of development, directors say, the curators have started to select works to include, based on their time spent guarding the galleries and what stands out and is meaningful to them.

Selections so far include the House of Frederick Crey (1830-35) by Thomas Ruckle, which provides an early glimpse of Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood, and Still Life with Large Shell (1939), Max Beckmann’s portrait of his wife, Mathilde, who was a violinist and singer.

Alex Lei chose Winslow Homer’s Waiting an Answer (1872). “The Homer piece is one you may not notice until you stop moving when you’re not distracted by showier works demanding your attention,” he said. “It’s a painting of people caught in a moment of waiting, noticed by those who stop and wait, and strangely reflective of the experience of being a guard—a job mostly made up of waiting.”

Several guest curators have expressed interest in works that speak to social justice, resilience during times of crisis, and the environment. A desire to see more works by underrepresented artists in the collection, for example, prompted one guard to choose a seated male figure (6th- to 10th-c.) from the Quimbaya civilization in Colombia.

Works such as Emile-Antoine Bourdelle’s Head of Medusa (Door Knocker) (1925), Jeremy Alden’s 50 Dozen (2005/2008), and Sam Gilliam’s Blue Edge (1971) were chosen in response to specific interactions that guards have had with visitors, or because of the time they spent looking at the works while on the job.

“I am honored to be working with the security staff as the curators of this innovative and groundbreaking exhibition,” Sims said. “It sends a potent message to the art world at large about the BMA’s commitment to present diverse voices that expand our experience of familiar works of art in the collection. The security staff’s relationship to the art they safeguard and their interactions with visitors are essential elements of this project.”

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Ed Gunts

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