Museum guards are an under-appreciated bunch. They're essential to protecting and preserving art, but we art lovers barely acknowledge their presence. They are trained to be inconspicuous, and we may pass right by them without seeing them. That's bad. Not only are we denying their physicality, we are also failing to notice the details of the entire picture. They, and us, deserve more.
Artist Fred Wilson's experience as a museum guard in college lead him to create a piece that put the dynamic of the hidden guard front and center. His 1991 work "Guarded View" (now in the Whitney Museum of Art's permanent collection) shows four headless black mannequins in real uniforms from New York City museums. As Wilson remarked, "[There's] something funny about being a guard in a museum. You're on display but you're also invisible." Wilson further proved his point by showing up to give a tour of the Whitney in a guard's uniform. He was well-known in the art world at the time, but the people who eagerly awaited his tour failed to recognize him.
If museums train us to "see," shouldn't we start with the people inside them? We need to embrace an entirely new etiquette, I think, regarding our interactions with the people who help make public viewing of art possible. A polite head nod or a smile would probably do it.
Some guards are so spatially talented, you want to applaud them. At the Louise Lawler show, WHY PICTURES NOW currently at MoMA, I was struck by how the guard (photo above) made graphic performance art by inhabiting the door space under an exit sign. It reminded me of the guards in their booths at Buckingham Palace. This guard's act of geometric occupation counterbalanced the spatial relationships in Lawler's adhesive vinyl wall piece, "Triangle (traced)." Impeccably dressed in black-and-white, he extends rather than distracts from the monochrome wall piece. His white shirt beneath his blazer mirrors Lawler's triangle, and his clever positioning creates a three-dimensional triangle with the black-clad art observer as the point. Thanks to this stealth performance artist, aka museum guard, I had a stunning moment where art and life perfectly intersected.