Stop Guarding the Art

Attributed to Thomas Ruckle, "House of Frederick Crey." 1830-35. Courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art.

The Baltimore Museum of Art will open an exhibition guest-curated by 17 of the museum’s security officers next March. Titled Guarding the Art, art historian and curator Lowery Stokes Sims will guide the exhibition’s execution as well as provide mentorship and professional development to the temporarily relocated staff. The guest curators will select work “based on personal resonances and direct engagement in the galleries,” and provide input into nearly every professional activity and department in the museum, including marketing, installation design, and public programming. The BMA says that the project gives security staff an “opportunity to have their voices heard” and anticipates an exhibition seen through a uniquely “human-centered lens.” Replies to the announcements I read on social media were nearly uniformly laudatory (“incredible,” “inspiring,” and “BRILLIANT”), but I found myself gripped with unease and a dull anger.

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? Art museums desperately want art to be for everyone, despite the fairly plain fact that the art world is highly elite-driven – and elite-derived. The idea that anyone’s perspective on art is equally valid and valuable is quite literally the opposite of how it works. When established North-Atlantic art museums make this kind of claim, they appear at best delusional and at worst deeply cynical.

A handful of skeptics questioned whether the security guards would be paid comparably to curators; the BMA replied that they would be awarded stipends from an endowed fund. This also represents, to me, an incurious critical stance. Reformers are presently experimenting with a variety of goals and tactics. The most self-assured demands at this moment seem to be for equity and more just labor conditions within art institutions, made with a view towards improving the institution itself. Beyond this, things seem to get hazy. A more searching question may be whether engagement with the BMA’s permanent collection requires training or assimilation into a social world – one traditionally requiring exclusivity.  While noble and necessary, advocacy for just workplaces seems a slightly arbitrary demand, a nervously drawn line, placed precisely where one hopes the institution can meet it. Asking whether any institution deserves to be an authority on such a notional thing as art may be too treacherous for those invested in some amount of institutional continuity. Though some have recently ventured (i.e., Strike MoMA), those queries are deserved.

The conceit of the exhibition itself is self-defeating. What is there to so eagerly expect in this show that is not premised on how the interior lives of security staff are fundamentally different than curatorial staff? When members of the ‘professional museum class’ co-curate an exhibition, we anticipate their idiosyncrasies and personal brands. Rarely, if ever, do their shows function as the voice of a professional group, or that of a particular class vector. But in Guarding the Art, the BMA appears to imagine the 17-member curatorial collective as representing an undifferentiated population unit – “marginalized groups,” perhaps, or maybe just, “the people.” As a result, the show addresses identity with genuine confusion, ambivalently celebrating human commonality while insisting on distinctions. But it should not matter that tastes and temperaments differ. Unless you subscribe to a hierarchy of cultural forms, it is not intrinsically good or bad to be a partisan of this one or that one.

This exhibition provides a foil to a scholarly mode of curating, promising instead to reveal effects that emerge through long cohabitation with works of art. It’s an interesting premise that oddly mirrors collectors’ narratives about living with art and it is not a trivial assertion. I hope that the guest curators enjoy and find satisfaction through the project as it is certain that the art museum will benefit from working-class people professing their enjoyment of art or echoing professional shibboleths about transformative experiences invoked by the aura of the real object. The planned exhibition wishes to democratize the museum by positing that anyone with prolonged ‎exposure to art can be a curator, but curiously it does not entertain that anything can be art (or, indeed, ‎that the objects already in the museum are art by virtue of somewhat arbitrary causes). ‎As the exhibition will be a rehang of the BMA’s permanent collection, Guarding the Art ultimately affirms the ahistorical and universal value of institutionally legitimated art (which, conveniently, the museum already has a great deal of).

Shifting public and professional consensus on practices from restitution to representation have destabilized many key functions of the museum, but there are reasons to question their primary role as well – as containers that permanently separate a special category of objects from the non-art exterior world. Museums display art for the public, and art produces transformative extra-ordinary aesthetic experiences not found elsewhere. Only in a museum, they assure us, can one see the brushstrokes. However, without confidence in the art museum’s traditional sorting function, their didactic task becomes impossibly confused.

One response from museums has been to divest themselves of their own authority through artist-curated exhibitions (even occasionally, a risqué Institutional Critique artist-curated exhibition.) A forerunner to the BMA show is Beyond the Uniform, a project executed last year at the Museum of Modern Art where social practice artist Chemi Rosado-Seijo recruited and co-produced an audio guide, with commentary from nine MoMA security staff. Several of them were also artists, and one such artist, Chet Gold, speaks about a Sol Lewitt drawing. Lewitt, he notes suggestively, also worked as a guard at MoMA “before his artistic practice helped him fly away.”

In listening to the audio guides, I understand them as artifacts of a breach of trust. Art museums have amassed a store of goodwill based on the presumption that art and museums are simply – and consistently – beneficent. (Consider how the rhetoric of “giving back” drives patrons and benefactors to support the arts, rather than status maintenance, PR, and reducing tax burdens.) Exhibitions like Guarding the Art aim to set sail on the winds of that goodwill.

I’m sure I will enjoy hearing the perspectives of the guards at the BMA, as I have enjoyed hearing guards’ anecdotes and reflections from the MoMA project. But their stories leave me wanting something else. Let’s assume the grant money was given to all the security staff, and was not contingent on participation and that participation was not perceived as a hedge against the prospects of redundancy, furlough, or retaliation for labor organizing. (It should be noted that the BMA has admirably made the most effort out of its peer institutions to avoid Covid-19-driven staff cuts.) Imagine that the mundane pressure of compliance in a workplace did not exist. Still, I don’t just want to hear from the security staff who gamely got on board with the project, for whatever reason. I would like to hear from the surliest guard who did not see anything worthwhile in it, and maybe even sneered contemptuously at the invitation.

Guarding the Art may be a virtuous project, but it is not a vital one. It is exhibition-making at its most defensive.  If the motivations are sincere, it’s obnoxious; it’s much worse if they’re cynical. So, consider this a plea to art museums to stop using security staff to reaffirm your missions. And to those of us who wish to reform the structures that propel us: what are we defending? It’s incumbent on all of us to reject the most established and elitist instititions’ paternalistic gestures of inclusion, and the notion that these are the most, not the least, of what they can do.