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They’re used to guarding the exhibits at Baltimore’s Museum of Art. Now, they’ve curated one.

The 17 security guards serving as guest curators for a new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art vividly remember the first time a painting or sculpture began to “talk” to them.

That conversation might have begun when a guard alone in the galleries was riveted by a 19th century painting of a familiar street corner, or a door knocker resembling the mythical monster Medusa.

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The guards stepped closer for a second look — and then a third. Soon, they were stationing themselves near the objects when they were assigned to those galleries.

“A relationship with a work of art isn’t love at first sight for me,” said BMA security guard Dereck Mangus, a Harvard University-trained artist and writer who finds his own work is enriched by his guard shifts at the BMA.

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It’s no coincidence, Mangus thinks, that several former museum guards have gone on to successful artistic careers, from Sol LeWitt to Robert Mangold.

“The more I engage with a work of art, the more times I bump into it, the more I like it,” Mangus said. “But, that’s true of any relationship. You can’t just spend five minutes with someone and think you know them.”

That experience is the impetus behind “Guarding the Art,” which runs from Sunday through July 10.

“Guards spend more time with the art than anyone else,” said BMA trustee Amy Elias, who dreamed up the exhibit two years ago following a dinner with chief curator Asma Naeem to brainstorm staff mentorship programs. “The guards live with the art every day and each one has a different perspective on it. I thought about how interesting it would be to hear about their favorite works of art.”

The small exhibit of 26 artworks drawn from the museum’s collection is making a big splash and is being featured on media outlets nationwide from CBS Sunday morning to “The Today Show.”

“This show is resonating with people on a level that exhibitions haven’t done before,” Elias said. “Because the guards are the ones telling the stories, it feels relatable.”

About half of BMA’s 40 guards volunteered for the project. Because the guards worked staggered shifts, they started meeting over Zoom in March 2021. Under the guidance of Lowery Stokes Sims, former president of The Studio Museum of Harlem, the guards participated in every aspect of mounting an exhibition: selecting art works, researching object histories, writing text labels and designing the installation. In addition to their salaries, the guards received a stipend of $750 to $1,100 depending on their involvement.

Security guard Michael Jones felt so protective of the artist Emile-Antoine Bourdelle’s 1925 “Head of Medusa (Door Knocker)” that he designed a protective case for the sculpture.

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“During my eight years of security,” he wrote in the exhibition catalog, “visitors sometimes try to touch the artworks.”

Jones noted that he could have selected any one of thousands of artworks to exhibit — perhaps a painting in the Cone collection or a piece of stained glass from the American wing.

“But seeing the afternoon sunlight hit that Medusa in the rotunda,” he said, “For me, that’s money.”

But conversations go both ways. The artworks didn’t just talk to the guards; the guards talked back.

Here is what they said.

Kellen Johnson

Kellen Johnson fell in love with opera when he was 9 years old and has been fighting to make music ever since.

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“My first exposure to opera was watching Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ on PBS,” Johnson, 35, said.

“Even way back then, it struck me that singing takes the story to a different place the spoken word can’t reach,” he said. “When I was in high school, my friends were listening to Beyoncé and I was listening to Leontyne Price and Placido Domingo.”

Not surprisingly, his two selections for “Guarding the Art” reflect that passion.

“I asked myself two questions,” Johnson said. “’If these paintings had a voice, what would their voice sound like? If these paintings could sing, what song would they choose?’”

Max Beckmann’s 1939 painting, “Still Life With Large Shell,” reminded Johnson of a German lied, or art song. The painting portrays the artist’s violinist wife, Mathilde, who sacrificed her artistic career when she married. In the painting, both the woman and the shell seem full of hidden vibrations.

The 1928 painting of a grove of trees called “Normandy Landscape” by the African American artist Hale Woodruff reminded Johnson of a Mozart melody. Bluish-green dots are arrayed on evenly spaced, vertical trunks, a pattern that resembles sheet music.

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“The green willow trees in the foreground,” Johnson noted in the catalog, “are distinctly orchestrated into their own strongly rhythmic pattern.”

Johnson has been pursuing his dreams of becoming an opera singer off and on since 2006, attending college as his finances and the pandemic have allowed. He has paid tuition by working as a BMA security guard since 2013.

He’s preparing for next week’s student recital at Towson University, one final hurdle before his upcoming college graduation. After that? Auditions, perhaps, or graduate school.

“Being around these paintings has provided a historical perspective that has influenced my performance practice,” Johnson said. “It has helped me develop characters and improved the way I move on stage.”

Jess Bither

Jess Bither is a professional watcher, someone drawn to borderlands and places in-between who takes in the world through questioning eyes.

It’s a talent that comes in handy when she’s working as a security guard at the BMA, when she’s seated inside a movie theater or when she’s teaching courses on avant-garde film and horror movies at the Maryland Institute College of Art where she is an adjunct faculty member.

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Bither, who is in her thirties, felt an immediate kinship with “Spring” a bronze sculpture created by the artist Louise Bourgeois in 1948-49, one in a series of three-dimensional objects that the artist described as “personages.”

“Spring” is 61 inches high, just two inches taller than Bither, and even more slender.

“When the sculpture is off its pedestal, I can look it right in the face,” Bither said. “I had a lot of fun when we were arranging the objects in the gallery. When you walk through the door, you see the sculpture first out of the corner of your eye and almost misinterpret it as the silhouette of a person.”

She wonders if visitors who see the sculpture will connect it to the security guards.

“We wear the dark uniform, and we stand on the periphery,” said Bither, who has worked at the BMA since 2019. “Some people don’t see us at all. Other people do. So there’s a variety.”

Not that she minds being anonymous. In fact, it’s a plus.

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“Being a security guard is not that dissimilar to being in a movie theater,” she said. “You can look around and watch people responding emotionally to something that is in front of them in this semipublic space.

“For someone who likes to watch people, this job is great.”

Ricardo Castro

Memo to Anna R. Diaz — Ricardo Castro chose the objects he did for this exhibit because he wants to tell the world how proud he is to be your son.

Castro, 35, also is telling museum-goers how amazing it is to be Puerto Rican, and for that matter, a Latino man. And, by choosing three sculptures made from clay and rock that have brown “skin” he wants to make sure kids of color realize their ancestors created art every bit as great as any painting by Picasso.

But mostly, Ms. Diaz, Castro’s contributions to this exhibit are all about you.

“My mom raised four of us all on her own,” he said.

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“She always had cleaning jobs, and we always had bills. But somehow, she made miracles happen. For Christmas, she would ask each of us what we wanted. Not what we thought she could afford — what we wanted. And on Christmas morning, all four of us would wake up to find everything we had asked for.”

Unfortunately, the BMA only owns a few works created by Puerto Rican artists and those pieces weren’t available for “Guarding the Art” because they already are on view in other shows. So Castro selected three small, ancient sculptures created by unidentified artists from Spanish-speaking nations: “Seated Male Figure” from Columbia; “Figure of a Shaman” from Costa Rica; and “Effigy Vessel of Standing Dignitary” from Ecuador.

A fourth plinth in the exhibit is decorated with the Puerto Rican flag but otherwise empty. It makes a point about which cultures are adequately represented in the BMA’s collection and which are not.

“The day I first got to see the pieces I had chosen all together, I just felt like I was there like I was with the people who created these masterpieces,” said Castro, who has worked as a guard at the museum since 2019.

“It moved me to tears.”

Another emotional moment occurred when Castro and the other guards saw the exhibit for the first time. With spotlights illuminating the artworks, Castro noticed something about the Columbian sculpture he’d never been aware of before.

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“It has a sparkle to it,” he said. “When the light is on it, it shines. I can’t wait for my mother to see it.”


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