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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Art Museum Guards

Guarding millions in art for minimum wage or less. Nationally, museum security guards earn about $24,000 per year, but some earn as little as $16,000. The workday is often twelve hours long.

The day before yesterday I spent about six hours lost (more or less) in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Having bought my ticket, I next located the elevators and restrooms. Then I set about looking for surprises and photographing them for a future posting dealing with the unexpected treasures of the Met. In the course of doing so, I became aware of an element of the art museum experience that has seldom been discussed, and for many, goes completely unnoticed unless you happen to forget to turn off your camera's flash, or get uncomfortably close to the museum's prized possessions. I'm talking about museum security guards. My first question as I began to make friendly conversation with these underpaid, underrated, underappreciated watchdogs was simply: "How do you stand it?" (pun intended). They stand around, virtually immobile, watchfully alert, stoic, and often keenly knowledgeable as to the art they protect and the human nature which is the key to protecting it.
I talked with guards at the Met and the Guggenheim in
New York, who are paid somewhat above the national average,
yet cannot afford to live in the city in which they work.
It's a weird mix of boredom, authority, and a need to avoid angering visitors. It's a job that attracts odd ducks (or possibly drives normal people mad). It's also a thankless job that gets little appreciation from either the public or the higher-ups. There are a fair share of weirdoes on the team, but with the pay, hours, and working conditions being what they are, it's not likely any museum is going to get the valedictorians of the Ivy League lining up to apply. Yet at least one guard, a young woman I talked to this morning, who worked at the Guggenheim I had a master's degree in art (not art history). She had applied for a rare opening (and promotion) in another department of the museum. She didn't sound too optimistic.
Friendly but firm. Knowledgeable but not all-knowing.
It's a boring job but
someone has to do it.
Most wear clip-on ties.
However, another guard I talked to standing watch over equestrian knights in armor at the Met was optimistic. He was looking forward to retirement in just 14 months. As I watched, he reprimanded a young boy of about five and the boy's father because his son had dared to touch the toe of one of the mounted figures. Even I was not immune to such oversight. I momentarily left my walker unattended to take a photo--an apparent no-no. Who knew? My newfound friend at the Met explained a security guard's worst nightmare--a whole class of art-loving first-graders, too numerous for a single teacher or chaperone to supervise and too young to read the "Do not touch" signs. The guard took note of the fact that the Met even had a art exposure program for toddlers--something about baby carriages. I wasn't taking notes.

"Back off, kids, or I'll tell your dad." Security guards get a sit-down break every 45 minutes.
"What's the most common question asked of security guards?" I asked. He smiled, "Where's the nearest restroom?" I should have known without asking. Several visitors like myself asked directions to various exhibits. I asked, instead, what portion of the Met's holdings were on display at any given time? (approximately ten-percent out of about half a million pieces). I was informed by my uniformed friend that Met had five warehouses in Brooklyn crammed full of art, most of it having never displayed and not likely to ever be. A lot of it, he ventured, is simply junk. The Met, he said, seems never to turn down any donated item. I asked the same question at the Guggenheim and the young security guards there couldn't give me a figure. A computer geek all but hidden behind the information counter placed their figure at about one percent.

When they say no flash photography, they
really mean it. A guard at LACMA once
threatened to confiscate my camera.

Sometimes security guards
are not what they seem to be,
especially those by super-realist
sculptor, Duane Hanson.


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