This season, in partnership with ARTS.BLACK, ArtSlant is publishing a series of essays on security, guards, labor, and privilege in museum spaces.
- • Series introduction, and “Security // An Evidence Locker” | Sarah Rose Sharp
- • “No Photos Please: Finding Respect and Value in Museum Communities” | Adriel Luis
- • “The Trappings of a Museum Guard Grind” | Andre Torres
In my experience, when you tell someone that you’re a gallery guide at a museum, they think you’re a tour guide. “No, no,” you tell them. “That is the job of the docents.”
“What the hell do you do then?” they ask.
I worked as a part-time gallery guide in an unnamed museum from October 2015 to March 2016, and I’m still not totally sure what I was doing there. To be fair, I was probably the worst gallery guide to ever grace that place. A more dedicated gallery guide could give you a detailed, poetic summation of our duties. When I explain the job to people, I just say that the gallery guide is, basically, a combination of a guard, a docent, and a janitor.
Officially, our main task was to have deep, meaningful one-on-one conversations with museum visitors about the displays and the works in the collection. This supposedly deepens their connection to the museum and makes them more likely to come back, or God willing, buy a membership. If I’m being completely honest though, I probably had a deep connection with a visitor about twice during the six months I worked at the museum. The bulk of my day was spent picking up used tissues, telling visitors where the bathrooms were, and herding children.
Over a quarter of the visitors to this museum were students on field trips. They were invariably accompanied by chaperones who hid in crevices and stared at their smart phones. Dear Lord, how they loved to stare at their smart phones! Why!? I can’t tell you how many times a class of sixth or seventh graders (the most spiteful and malicious of all age groups) would come in and be set loose like so many wild animals. One time a chaperone responsible for ten middle school boys just flopped down on a couch with his phone at the entrance of the gallery. Every time I would run into the boys trying to climb up to the ceiling beams or tearing down didactics from the wall, I would escort them back to the chaperone. He would walk with them a few feet, then sit on another bench and go back to Candy Crush or Tinder or whatever the hell he was doing.
The museum where I worked was a little unusual as it had an art section, a history section, and a science section. I was most often in the art section as my glorious Master of Fine Arts degree made me an “expert.” The art gallery was the real action zone because it had the most objects that were likely to be destroyed by visitors. That section was also where my favorite security officer, let’s call her Paula, was often stationed. She and I would team up and force every school group into total submission.
Museum Guide, Video by the author
Let me digress for a moment and explain the complex relationship between the gallery guide and the security officer. The main duty of the gallery guide is to provide customer service. We had to make sure the displays in the museum were protected, but we were instructed to do that in the most amiable way possible so that the visitor didn’t feel that they’d been chastised. Security officers, from what I saw, were more concerned with keeping order than glad-handing visitors. Paula never seemed to give a fuck if a visitor was feeling chastised or not; her priority was to keep people from touching shit. If someone touched something, she would sometimes holler at them from across the gallery. “Sir! No touching,” she would yell, brazenly. I got a sick sort of pleasure from seeing her drop the hammer on visitors in a way I only wished I could.
Paula would sometimes catch a visitor violating a rule and tell me to go deal with them. She called me her kickboxer. I guess because I’m big and tall. This was a pretty silly nickname for me though since I was totally sheepish to rule-breaking visitors.
“Hey there,” I would whisper, “I’m so sorry to have to ask you this, but could you please wear your backpack on the front or hold it to the side. We have this weird rule about backpacks. I know it’s a hassle. Actually, I could run it out to a locker if you want! Sorry! Love you!”
“... That day I saw a child beat a painting with both hands as if he were playing a bongo drum.”
The security officers usually didn’t mess around like that. They would just tell people to act right and if the behavior continued, the officers would call in their supervisor. The whole thing was sort of set up in a good-cop, bad-cop configuration. This was explicitly stated by our supervisor: “If a gallery guide needs to ask a visitor to stop breaking a rule,” she said, “they can say something like, ‘if it was up to me, I would just let you rub your face on this hundred-year-old tapestry, but the security guard will yell at me.’”
Paula and I faced all kinds of strange situations together. Once a class of practically unsupervised third graders visited. Every time Paula and I turned a corner we were faced with a child doing unspeakable acts to an artwork. That day I saw a child beat a painting with both hands as if he were playing a bongo drum. Children climbed up on plinths and tried to rip headphones out of the interactive displays. It was pandemonium. Whenever someone would touch a work of art, I would have to file a report with an app on my museum-issued iPad and Paula would radio it in to her supervisor. We probably made over a dozen reports that day. I tried to make my reports really jazzy, with a lot of dramatic flourishes. Here’s an example: Young child rubbed his open palm on the sculpture, and regretted it immediately. No visible damage to the sculpture, but you never know. Likelihood of a repeat offense: 30%
Field trip groups would usually be cleared out of the museum by lunchtime so during weekdays the museum was pretty empty for half the day. If I was stationed with Paula, we would chitchat about her family and movies we wanted to see. This was against the rules though and, some weeks, if a guard got reprimanded for chatting with a gallery guide, we would have to ignore each other for a day until things cooled off. During slow times I would walk aimlessly around the gallery and read art history PDFs on my iPad. Sometimes I would find broken things to fix. Things were always broken, especially pencil sharpeners and digital interactive displays. Trying to fix these things was also an opportune moment to sit down. Gallery guides are on their feet all day. Though, we get more breaks than security; we had it really easy compared to the security officers.
“Get your shit together, museums!
It’s ridiculous to have exhibitions about social justice and radical politics when you’re not even treating your own workers equitably.”
This is what I learned in my time as a gallery guide: security officers are getting totally fucked by the museum. A security officer might articulate all this more accurately. Gallery guides are paid more than security officers even though gallery guiding is an easier job. Officers were constantly getting berated by visitors who were raging that they had to wear their backpack on the front or leave their drink outside the gallery. At the museum where I worked, security officers weren’t actually employees of the museum. They were independent contractors from a separate security company. So, they didn’t get any of the benefits of being museum staff. There were also several instances when officers were denied their legal minimum breaks because someone had called in sick that day. This was especially infuriating because the museum I worked for, and most art museums, are supposedly in support of progressive politics.
Get your shit together, museums! It’s ridiculous to have exhibitions about social justice and radical politics when you’re not even treating your own workers equitably.
I ended my short stint as a gallery guide and haven’t been back to my museum since. I didn’t officially say goodbye to Paula and I feel a little regretful about that. I did leave a giant piece of pound cake (her favorite) in her lunch bag on my last day of work. When I go to other art museums now I leave my backpack at the fucking coat check. I keep my admission sticker clearly visible, and when accompanying a child, I keep them within arm’s length at all times. I try to engage gallery guides in deep, meaningful conversations about all the works on display, and if a security officer asks me to stop being an asshole, I tenderly comply.
Kate Rhoades is an interdisciplinary artist. Influenced by a background in comic books and YouTube videos, Rhoades uses paint, publications, and digital media to probe the absurdity of the art world in all its social and institutional facets.
Tags: Arts.Black security guard roundtable gallery guide security