Guarding the Art: A Frontline Perspective Opens in Phoenix
When the Baltimore Museum of Art announced it was inviting its security guards to curate an exhibition, the enthusiasm for this initiative promptly crashed the Museum’s website. The guards were thrilled to have this unexpected professional development opportunity and more recognition for their appreciation and knowledge of the collection. Throughout the duration of Guarding the Art in spring/summer 2022, visitors, journalists, and museum professionals from around the world were captivated by the personal stories the guards shared about the objects they selected.
Guarding the Art was the brainchild of longtime BMA Trustee Amy Elias, in response to a conversation with then chief curator Asma Naeem about ways to better engage the security officers. After the extraordinarily successful Baltimore debut, Elias was convinced other museums would also benefit from the abundant goodwill that the mentoring experience and exhibition generated amongst staff and visitors.
Fast forward to Guarding the Art: A Frontline Perspective at the Phoenix Art Museum (PhxArt), the first national iteration of the groundbreaking initiative. Thanks to generous support from the Pearlstone Family Fund, 13 security, retail-services, and event-rentals staff at PhxArt worked for a year with Susana Torruella Leval, Director Emerita and former chief curator of El Museo del Barrio, to curate an exhibition from the museum’s collection. They selected 20 objects and worked with staff across the museum to learn about the exhibition development process.
In addition to including frontline staff, PhxArt’s distinct contributions to the project include a bilingual catalog and wall texts in English and Spanish plus new content recorded by the guest curators for the Bloomberg Connects app, a free mobile museum guide. Guarding the Art is particularly unique among museum experiences because visitors not only get to see an interesting exhibition, they also gain deeper insights about why the works were selected from a human perspective rather than an art historical one. This breaking down the wall of who gets to decide what is on view encourages new affinities for art for people who don’t consider themselves “museum people.”
Through Bloomberg Connects, we find out gallery attendants Brielle Lee and Rachel Hawthorne both selected Erica Deeman’s Untitled 18 (2013),a stunning photographic portrait of a Black woman in profile. Though they have different life experiences, both responded to this work with a feeling of finally being seen. Gallery attendant Martha Montour chose Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Kiss (1886, this cast 1904-18) and fondly recalls visitors responding to this romantic work. She also connected with the tragic ending of the lovers’ story as she lost the love of her life to cancer relatively young. Retail sales supervisor Teresa Andreno selected A Sketch of a Crag in the Catskills (1861-68), a luminous landscape by Sanford Robinson Gifford, because it reminds her of home and a summer internship at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. Gallery attendants John Hatch and Saul Millan used this opportunity to highlight works by Arizona-based artists Lew Davis and Hector Ruiz. You can hear Millan discuss City Life/Progress (2005) with Ruiz, as well as the artist’s own reflections about this work.
The opening celebration was a joyous event as the guest curators’ work was unveiled for family and friends. Elias noted, “It was exciting to see how Guarding the Art empowered PhxArt’s frontline staff members to engage in the curatorial process and especially gratifying to see how the exhibition they created reflects their unique perspectives. I know their work will resonate as strongly with the Phoenix community as it did in Baltimore.”
Guarding the Art: A Frontline Perspective is on view at Phoenix Art Museum from January 20 through December 1, 2024. The presentation of Guarding the Art at Phoenix Art Museum is made possible through the generosity of Presenting Sponsor PNC Bank.
Guarding the Art was founded by the Baltimore Museum of Art with generous support from the Pearlstone Family Fund. Its presentation at Phoenix Art Museum is made possible through the generosity of Presenting Sponsor PNC Bank.