Can an exhibition curated by museum curators tackle inequality in museums?

Nobody ever says they want to be a museum curator when they grow up. Still, while I didn’t anticipate embarking on such a career path, this is exactly the path my professional life has taken. I have now held vigils at several art museums and have begun to refer to each station as part of an ongoing series of performances in which I play the role at various art institutions: Museum Guard #1: Harvard Art Museums (2001-2008); Museum Warden #2: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (2009-2015). Check out the latest release at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), Wednesday through Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

The author’s ID from his time at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

All public-facing jobs are performative, since workers in these jobs are required to behave or “perform” in ways they otherwise would not. This is what the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre means by “bad faith” when he describes the actions of his café waiter:

Its movement is fast and forward, a little too precise, a little too fast…. He plays, he enjoys himself. But what is he playing? We don’t have to watch long before we can explain it: he plays His a waiter in a cafe.

As Shakespeare wrote: All the world is a stage / And all men and women are just players…

For an artist like me, guarding is an ideal day job that allows for many hours of viewing, reflecting, and being inspired by great works of art. I get paid to hang out with art all day! The path from security guard to established artist is well-trodden. Both Sol LeWitt and Robert Mangold were security guards at MoMA in New York City before becoming hugely successful artists. Andrea Fraser was also a gallery owner at Dia Chelsea before becoming an established artist. In her play Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk (1989), Fraser plays the role of a museum docent who tours the Philadelphia Museum of Art. During her performance, Fraser overly dramatizes even the most mundane museum space, describing, for example, a shared water fountain for the group as “a work of astonishing parsimony and monumentality… it stands in bold contrast to the austere and highly stylized productions of this form!” ”

An art museum is in many ways a microcosm of modern society. As in the non-art world, a rigorous hierarchy of different classes structures the museum: board, director, department heads and other senior executives are the one percent, upper-class elites who are very well paid. Education staff, conservators and curators represent the upper middle class and are fairly well paid. Further down, curatorial assistants, exhibition and graphic designers, plumbers and taxidermists make up the lower middle class and are decently paid. And finally, at the very bottom, alongside the wardens, gift shop staff and visitor services, are the wardens—the working-class members of the museum—who are paid the least. In terms of its pecking order, an art museum is essentially the non-art world in miniature. The further down the ladder you go, the more manual and service-oriented the work becomes.

As such, many of the problems that plague society at large are to be found within the walls of art museums (albeit on a much smaller scale). There is no big problem with the division of labour. How else should cultural institutions be organized? But stratified pay could of course be greatly improved, and better efforts can be made to advance museum staff careers within the institution. But the main problem that plagues museum workers today is the lack of dignity that members of the lower ranks endure on a daily basis. For many of the better-paid museum employees, guards are “helpers” at best and good-for-nothings at worst, unfortunate afterthoughts whose presence mars the purity of otherwise perfectly curated exhibitions. This position is untenable.

One way to mitigate this situation is to curb the more eager middle managers who seem hell-bent on writing guards for almost every infraction. Certain supervisors who were Guardians themselves until they wormed their way into positions of leadership take a little too much pleasure in reprimanding their charges. The fact of the matter is there’s a lot of downtime as a warden, and bitching about minor offenses like the occasional glance at the phone or scribbling on a sketchpad when absolutely no one is in the galleries makes us feel like we’re children of parents abused. Guards are expected to behave in a certain prescribed manner. (Outside of an art museum, where else would you expect someone to tell you not to touch something?) But it just doesn’t follow that they deserve to be disrespected.

Museum attendant in front of a display case in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s European Gallery

To his credit, the BMA has not furloughed or fired any of its employees for the entire duration of the quarantine due to the coronavirus. As the museum began its phased reopening after its second closure early last year, it was even announced that all base pay would be raised to an hourly rate of $15. Given that many other museums across the country have laid off much of their staff during the pandemic, the pay rise was particularly welcome news. In addition, the wardens were offered the opportunity to curate their own exhibition based on their connections to works from the collection. Planned opening in March 2022, guarding the art will present the work of the 17 BMA Guardians, including myself, who have chosen to participate in this unique opportunity.

However, for it to be truly successful and worthwhile, guarding the art must be the prototype and not the final product. Nor should it be a gesture of reconciliation by the museum or just a PR stunt. Nor can it be an exercise in virtue signalling. In other words, it cannot be done in bad faith. guarding the art has the chance to become a model of how museums honor and respect the dignity of their custodians – not just at the BMA, but in museums around the world.

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