August 9, 2015

I Was Not a Good Art Guard


There was a story in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal or some other quasi-respectable news outlet recently concerning a new trend among the nation’s retirees. It seems more and more of them are volunteering their services as docents at some of the country’s more notable art museums. Sounds like a nice thing, right? These people calling upon a lifetime of experience and wisdom to enlighten and educate tourist groups as to the wonders and subtleties of some of the world’s finest paintings and sculptures.

            The problem with this, though, is that it turns out quite a few of these retired art loving volunteers don’t really have a clue what they’re talking about. They’re misidentifying works, doling out questionable and oddball interpretations even when they do get the artist’s name right, casually dropping misguided and imaginary bits of trivia into their spiels, telling long, rambling stories with no point and no connection to the works in question, and in some cases turning downright abusive toward the paying tour groups.

            It all sounds very familiar.

            In 1991, when the Guggenheim Museum here in New York reopened after a deeply ill-conceived major renovation project, they decided to hire starving artists to be their security guards. It was the European model, the idea that artist guards could discuss the works on hand intelligently with visitors, thus saving money on hiring tour guides. It was a model the museum had used in the past—I think it was Jackson Pollock who worked as an elevator operator at the Guggenheim before he cracked it big with whatever it was he did.

            At the time I may have been struggling and starving and drunk, but I was no artist by any stretch. My saving grace come time for the interview was that I was married to a woman who was a Frank Lloyd Wright scholar so I could talk at undue lengths about the building’s history and design, which was why most of the losers visited the museum anyway. So I got the damn job with about fifty starving artists in their twenties and thirties. There were painters and sculptors and musicians and printmakers and architects and actors and photographers. They dressed us all up in matching Armani suits and silk ties and dispersed us throughout the museum to protect the non-representational art and edify Iowans and the Japanese.

            It seemed simple enough, and apart from the “standing on an incline for ten hours a day” part, it was. Maybe things are different in Europe, but what the money-hungry bastards who ran the museum didn’t take into account—not in 1991 and not whenever it was they hired Jackson Pollock—is that young artists by nature tend to be fuckups, pranksters, and wiseacres, with a few smartasses and schizophrenics thrown in for good measure. They also tend to be highly opinionated, especially when it comes to art. Simple fact was most of them (with good reason) didn’t much care for the things the museum had chosen to highlight in their major central exhibits. If asked by a visitor, the more serious of the security guard docents were perfectly happy to discuss the Picassos and Kandinskys and Francis Bacons at length and quite eloquently, but tended to use terms like “bullshit,” “lazy,” “fraud,” and “utterly pointless” when asked to explain the importance of the contemporary works on display in the rotunda. Sometimes they did this when the responsible artist was not only on the premises, but within earshot.

            Of course a lot of us weren’t quite that serious, but were simply more interested in keeping ourselves entertained during what could be some mighty brutal shifts. This helps explain why at least one Japanese tourist group left the Guggenheim believing a particularly obscure and obtuse installation which filled the entire rotunda was in fact “a celebration of popular American snack foods.”

            It also may help explain why, shortly after that Japanese group left, a memo came down from on high announcing that security guards were no longer allowed to discuss the artwork with the visitors. Should any visitor approach us with an aesthetic question—that is, any question that wasn’t “where’s the bathroom?” “where’s the gift shop?” or “where’s the cafe?”—we were to direct them to one of the museum’s new crop of official docents.

            Well, things didn’t really improve much after that. The guards may have been a motley crew of ornery and cynical wise-asses, but most of them at least knew what they were talking about. The new docents tended to be chirpy young things in their early twenties, bubbleheads who would have better served society if they’d stuck with their jobs working the cosmetics counter at Bloomingdale's or as infomercial spokespeople. They knew hairstyles and fashion, but precious little about Twentieth Century art.

            Despite having been told to keep their damn mouths shut, some of those above-mentioned more serious guards couldn’t help themselves. When a docent stopped on their post with a tour group and began spouting a geyser of misinformed gibberish about a painting the guard in question had been studying for ten hours a day, well, it was impossible to stay quiet, often loudly correcting or shouting down the official guide.

            The rest of us who weren’t quite so serious but who nevertheless had come to learn a thing or two during our stint there (thanks mostly to the other guards) were often content to make funny faces behind the docent’s back, rolling our eyes or shaking our heads in disbelief at any particularly boneheaded comments.

            That’s what I was doing when I suddenly found myself nose-to-nose with a young docent furiously clutching her clipboard to her chest.

            “Do you have a problem?” she asked in a squeaky voice nevertheless quivering with outrage.

            See, without getting into all the historical, philosophical and architectural ramifications, let’s just say she was explaining to a group of twenty tourists that Wright’s building was called an example of “organic architecture” on account of the latex paint that was used in the rotunda, “which, if you feel it, feels like skin.”

            I guess some rat fink in the group of stupid tourists pointed out my eye rolling and head shaking, which is probably for the best as it likely stopped me from whacking Barbie there with a Calder.

            As her tour group watched, she yelled and yelled about how I was “undermining her authority” and what-not. Then she went to my supervisors and told them I was undermining her authority. Then my supervisors stopped by my post and told me I shouldn’t undermine her authority. I told them sure, I’d stop. And from that point on whenever she came by with a group, I let her blather on about whatever kind of stupid wrong-headed flapdoodle she wanted and I never blinked an eye. I undermined the authority of other docents instead.

            Clearly some kind of reckoning was due. Amid the museum’s upper management, they had to decide if they wanted to go with sometimes surly guards who knew what they were talking about but didn’t hesitate to be brutally honest and occasionally absurdist about it, or with pretty perky young things who didn’t know squat from squat.

            A few months after I left they sent their final decision along in yet another memo. They got rid of the Armani suits and the artist guards who filled them and brought in rent-a-cops instead. Not long after that they put up highly publicized and extremely popular shows about Armani’s fashion designs and the history of motorcycles, both of which were explained to the public by dead-eyed tweety birds who at long last might have actually known what the fuck they were talking about.


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