Museums don’t usually need seventeen curators to mount one exhibit, but that’s how many worked on an eclectic new show at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA). Exclusively curated by museum guards, Guarding the Art features nearly thirty works of art handpicked from the BMA’s collection.
“Our security officers spend more time in our galleries and living among our collection than any other staff within the institution,” said Christopher Bedford, the museum’s Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director. “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 is more personal than typical museum shows as it gives visitors a unique opportunity to see, listen and learn the personal histories and motivations of guest curators,” said museum board member Amy Elias, whom Bedford credits with the idea for the show.
The works on display include ancient earthenware figures from Colombia and Ecuador; a water bottle from the Solomon Islands, a bronze door knocker shaped like Medusa’s hair, and a chair made out of pencils. Among the selected paintings are works by Grace Hartigan, Mark Rothko, Winslow Homer, Sam Gilliam, and Mickalene Thomas.
According to the museum, Guarding the Art was conceived by Elias as the result of a conversation with Asma Naeem, BMA Eddie C., and C. Sylvia Brown Chief Curator, about ways to fulfill the museum’s commitment to increased diversity. Considered a professional development initiative for the staff, it’s the first exhibit of its kind for the BMA.
The project began with an inquiry sent to all members of the museum’s security team gauging their interest in serving as guest curators. Seventeen security officers chose to participate: 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. These guest curators reflect a broad mix of backgrounds and interests. They range in age from twenty-four to sixty-three. Besides working as security guards, they are artists, chefs, musicians, scholars, and writers.
Over the past year, guards collaborated with the museum’s curatorial, design, education, conservation, and marketing departments to select and reinterpret a wide variety of works. The museum also brought in noted art historian and curator Lowery Stokes Sims to serve as mentor and consultant. With guidance from Sims, the group conducted research, determined the scope of the exhibition, designed the gallery floor plan, created labels, developed educational materials, and planned visitor tours as well as other public programs.
“It’s been exciting to get first-hand experience in organizing an exhibition and discovering all the behind-the-scenes considerations,” Elise Tensley said. “It gives you a new respect for how museums work and the stories they tell.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of the show is the variety of reasons curators gave for selecting their pieces. Curatorial statements that detail this selection process accompany each work. These blocks of text, some highly personal, reveal as much about the guards as they do about the artists they chose to feature.
Guard Ricardo Castro said he wanted to show a work from Puerto Rico because he is Puerto Rican. When he was told that the museum’s 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 fourth display plinth and kept it empty, with an image of the Puerto Rican flag underneath. The message is clear: He wants to see works representing his heritage.
“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.
Chris 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, he 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 stated. “I also encourage our visitors to engage in conversations with the guards because change starts with conversation.”
Michael 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.
On his guard shifts, Jones explained, he would constantly catch people trying to touch the knocker and he had to tell them to keep hands-off. In his installation, he put the knocker in a glass case (which he designed) and aimed a security camera at it so he could finally experience the object without worrying about it being “mishandled” by others.
Bret Click selected an Italian oil painting attributed to Jacopo Bassano with the assistance of Leandro and Francesco Bassano, dating from around 1575 and called Entry into the Ark. Though it’s filled with figures of people and animals heading toward Noah’s Ark, some don’t stand out at first but become apparent the more one studies the painting.
Click said he likes talking to museum visitors, answering questions, even sending them around the museum to see various works of art. “I always enjoy trying to find ways 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 hidden “gems” in the painting, as if it were a sixteenth-century Where’s Waldo puzzle. As a starting point, he suggests: “Look for the monkey holding a spear.”
Ben Bjork had a personal reason for choosing 50 Dozen, the chair made out of pencils by designer and manufacturer Jeremy Alden.
“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.”
Traci Archable-Frederick said she wanted the piece she chose to send a message about social justice after the recent deaths of George Floyd and others brought new attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. Conferring with the staff, she learned that the museum had just acquired a 2021 work by Mickalene Thomas—Resist #2—that contains imagery related to, among other subjects, the 1960s civil rights movement, the Freddie Gray riots in Baltimore, and Floyd’s last words. It’s the most contemporary piece in the show.
In terms of the message she wanted to convey, Archable-Frederick said Resist #2 was perfect. As she learned about Thomas, she was delighted to discover a random commonality she shares with the artist: “We’re the same age!”
With so many different choices and perspectives, viewers may wonder how the exhibit holds together. But its diversity is what makes it so engaging and relatable: The juxtaposition of pieces seems to be a metaphor for the different guest curators who chose them and what matters to them.
“The stories are what hold it together,” Amy Elias concludes. “The art is great. You’re going to see good art. But what’s really important is that you’re going to hear the stories that went behind the selection, and that’s what brings out the art.”