March 07, 2010

On Invisibility

museum track lighting

Photo by Rebar

Certain bits of a museum are there for practicality and comfort – track lighting, plugs, elevators, thermostats, water fountains. Unlike the museum building or the work it houses, these niche spaces are designed to fade away into relative invisibility, to support the museum-going experience, and certainly aren’t meant to inspire or represent our cultural values. (Objectively one could read the presence of exit signs and wheelchair ramps as a culture’s endorsement of safety and accessibility, but that might be reading too much into things.)

On the other hand, our behavior is certainly, if subtly, shaped by these things we’ve been trained through repetition and exposure to ignore. No one stops in front of the unmarked door painted the same color as the wall in the corner of the gallery; one politely steps past it, and on to the next piece. A visual language composed of neutral paint and the most utilitarian of door knobs signals that this is not part of the show.

a door in a gallery at SFMOMA

Photo by Rebar

If there’s one ubiquitous invisible fixture of the museum who invariably shapes behavior, it’s the museum guard. As fixtures, guards carry a host of responsibilities – they’re protectors, explainers, and wayfinders; their presence implies that artwork is worthy of protection, and we act accordingly.

Because they’re perceived as such a part of the institution, it’s not often that we give much thought to a guard’s experiences in the museum space, which must be unique, being both a part of the social code and exposed to it at the same time. So it’s exciting that a group of museum guards at the NY Met, many of whom are artists themselves, have decided to launch an art journal called Sw!pe, in which to showcase their own creative endeavors. According to 25CPW, the gallery where the launch party and opening was held on Thursday, “through this publication, the journal and its editors, hope to provide a platform and inspiration for other cultural institutions to showcase their own creative workforce.”

a museum guard at SFMOMA

photo by Rebar

More than just talking about being museum guards, these artists are taking their position and leveraging it, processing it, activating a part of the museum infrastructure that simply wasn’t obvious before in a creative, engaging way. Out of the niche and into the spotlight.

While this intervention isn’t happening in the museum space itself, it has the potential to change the scripted social code of the museum nonetheless. Imagine engaging in a conversation with your helpful museum guard, not about the nearest bathroom or photography policies, but about their latest work or favorite masterpiece. It never really crossed our minds before, but now we wonder – why so invisible? When is the next employee show?

Comments (4)

  • I’m one of the Met guards in the new magazine. As part of their coverage of the accompanying Gallery Exhibition of our work, I recently had a painting (a portrait of E.A. Poe) appear in the NY Times. This has been a wonderful experience in an “art” way — but I have to say — I’m so happy to see its also got people putting themselves, however temporarily and imaginarily, in the beat-up shoes of the guards at their favorite museums!

    Mac – I’d guess that 20% of the workforce at any museum… in any department… will be comprised of people with an interest in creating art; not just appreciating it. We do have a LOT of talent in our group though… a few, genuine, stand-outs…

    Nancy – So sorry your experience wasn’t what you’d hoped, talking to the guards at SFMOMA. The longer a guard works at ANY institution… the less likely they are to want to speak to the public. Try and find someone who looks new! New guards are still relatively affable, b/c they haven’t been mistreated or condescended to, the way the old-timers (inevitably, always) have been. One word “questions,” barked at you day after day… “BATHROOM!?” or “EXIT!?” wear you down. They chip away at your trust in the civility of your fellow man… until you, yourself, become a 1-word-barker. But give it another try! Somewhere in SF MOMA there’s a guard who WANTs to talk to somebody. Who can’t wait until the next break… so she can sit down and tell someone about the crazy conversation she just overheard in front of the Rubens’ oil-sketch…

  • I tried talking to the guards at SF MOMA and it was a complete bust. I like knowing what people who stand in those rooms all day long think but conversation seemed impossible. I didn’t bother them when there were a lot of people around. I didn’t want to impede with them doing their jobs but the guards were not very friendly and certainly not interested in any conversation. The only significant interaction that I’ve had with any of them was when I pulled out a small ball point pen to jot down some notes on a painting. I got a scowl, a stern warning, a hostile look and the offer of an even smaller pencil which was worn down to a stub. So, when I read the article about the museum guards in NY, I was amazed. But maybe the guards in NY are artists first and guards second while “our” guards are guards and not artists at all – although some of them may be. I haven’t taken an sample and this is by no means a comprehensive survey, just an observation.

  • Mac McGinnes says:

    The Metropolitan isn’t the only museum to have a roster of painters as guards. In the early 60s, Robert Ryman, Dan Flavin Robert Huot and several others toiled as guards at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

    I suspect other institutions have a contingency of guard/artists.

  • Vance Maverick says:

    I like the photo of the dead space in front of the white door. The way we ignore that, and the guards, is easy enough to understand in terms of the elevation of the singular object. If the Matisse or whatever in its frame is the reason for the existence of the building, and for our gathering there, then the space is instrumental — a mechanism more or less efficient for mediating between us and the object. And if it needs to be guarded like a jewel, then we need people to watch over it; and this static function, and the location in the midst of that merely instrumental place, will tend to relegate those people to instrumentality too.

    So does this inevitably follow? I’m as devoted as anyone to the fetish of the Great Artist and the Great Work: is the only space for them and me a gappy incoherent one, staffed by silent anonymous guardians with whom I stand in a relation of tacit mutual disregard?

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