February 14, 2011 · Print This Article
Which museum job is the hardest? It’s a question that can be endlessly debated; for my part, I’ve always thought that museum guards have a pretty tough go of it. Guards always have to be the bad guy, telling people to step back from the painted white line, put away that camera, back up from that sculpture. And if an artwork gets damaged, who do you think is on the front line of blame? Yep, the older woman in uniform who requested a wooden stool to sit on during non-peak traffic hours. What a lot of people tend to forget — or don’t realize in the first place — is that many museum guards are also practicing artists who are as keenly invested in the works on the walls as are museum patrons and institutional staff. Robert Ryman worked as a vacation relief guard at MoMA. Numerous other artists, famous and not, have served their time guarding the objects that give white cubes their meaning. For about a year now the magazine SW!PE has focused on work by New York-area visual artists, writers and performers who were, or still are, working as museum guards in New York at the time their work was made. From SW!PE’s mission statement:
This magazine exists to disseminate and exhibit the artistic output of workers, in turn exposing the dignity, humanity, and brilliance of these works and the people who created them. It is both a celebration and a battle cry, not only of the artists showcased inside, but for all workers.
Guards Matter not only calls attention to the simple fact that the guards (workers) matter, but that the matter they produce is important. It was in this grand tradition that SW!PE was created. We hope for it to act as encouragement and at the same time, a platform, for a very special group of artists to be seen, but more importantly – heard.
Starting with their fourth issue, due out in early 2012, SW!PE will expand its scope to accept submissions from people employed as museum guards all across the US. Submission guidelines can be found here. The one thing I did note with this magazine is that the artists included are predominantly male. I’m assuming that’s simply because there are more male-artist-museum guards out there than female ones? Though I don’t know why that should be.
Related: Check out this article from the Los Angeles Times from last January – it discusses a special radio documentary made by Portuguese broadcaster Sofia Saldhana called “The Sleeping Fool” produced for local NPR station KCRW. The Sleeping Fool offers glimpses into the various thoughts that drift through the heads of museum guards while on duty; it won the best new artist award at the Third Coast International Audio Festival last year. You can listen to “The Sleeping Fool” here.
Also: Esopus has an ongoing series in its magazine (all print issues) called “Guarded Opinions” in which a museum guard is invited to give his or her impression of the art they oversee. (Here’s where issues of Esopus are sold; in Chicago, it’s available at Quimby’s, The Art Institute, and a bunch of other places).
And finally: An artist’s book by the late conceptual artist Don Celender –known for his interviews with filmmakers, prison wardens, religious leaders and labor figures about the art they like — titled Observations, protestations and lamentations of museum guards throughout the world; it’s hard to find, but you can hear a podcast discussion of the book produced by The Art Gallery of Knoxville by clicking here. (Celender is #10 on the list).