Museum guards are often unobtrusive presences. Visitors peering at paintings and scoping out sculptures may hardly notice them at their posts. But they notice a lot. They hear gallery-goers scoffing at pieces they think a kid could create. They see people weeping in front of works that move them. And they spend more time around art than almost anyone. We spoke to pros at five local museums to learn about their work—and about their favorite works of art.
Institute of Contemporary Art
Boston-born artist Liz Deschenes’ Green Screen #4 captures something that’s on camera all the time, but rarely seen. “I like that she’s making what is usually invisible visible to us,” says gallery supervisor Tom Maio. Simultaneously image and sculpture, the 15-foot-long photograph was acquired by the Institute of Contemporary Art in 2016, the year the ICA presented the first midcareer survey of Deschenes’ work—an exhibit that led to a favorite moment from Maio’s six years in the galleries.
“There was this group of visitors, maybe early 30s,” Maio recalls. “A lot of Deschenes’ work is squares of color, to put it very simply. And they were just kind of laughing.” But a member of the group broke off; Maio offered her some background about the art, and she asked questions in return. “It was a good conversation. Then I saw this visitor walk away, find her group and share what I shared. And I saw that group walk back into the exhibition. I saw them slow down and really look at the work.”
A performance artist who’s worked with materials such as plastic vampire fangs and gold-painted pizza, Maio understands that contemporary art isn’t always easy to “get” right away. That’s one reason the visitor assistants who safeguard the ICA’s art also act as educators, giving 15-minute pop-up talks, leading art-themed story times for tots and having impromptu conversations in the galleries. “A lot of people we interact with have never been to a contemporary art museum,” Maio says. “I want those people to visit and feel safe and comfortable asking questions, because we’re so happy to talk to them.”
Harvard Art Museums
Harvard Art Museums’ Wertheim gallery is filled with masterpieces, including Maggie Cedarstrom’s favorite: Henri Matisse’s 1910 oil painting Geraniums. “It’s in the most popular room, but it’s not the first thing people notice—they always go straight to the Van Gogh or the Picasso,” she says. The small still-life hangs in a corner, dwarfed by its neighbor, Renoir’s voluptuous Seated Bather. But for Cedarstrom, its beauty belies its size. “Matisse is just my dude. He’s a very joyful painter.”
Cedarstrom is an oil painter and printmaker, and flowers cover many of her own canvases—blossoms might burst out of wallpaper or bloom in thin air. To make a living while pursuing a creative life, she’s taken on gigs like kneading dough in Cambridge and Brookline bakeries. And since 2016, she’s been a museum attendant at Harvard Art Museums. “It’s a nice way to be in a system that gives you a lot of benefits and puts you in a position to learn and talk to experts,” Cedarstrom says, noting that conversations with curatorial fellows have been a highlight.
Cedarstrom has also made connections with other artists on staff, like senior exhibition specialist Jill Comer, who introduced her to Somerville’s Washington Street art space. Now Cedarstrom has a studio there and serves as Washington Street’s gallery coordinator. Last summer, she presented an exhibition of paintings by her sister Caitlyn, who died in 2014 after battling breast cancer. “That was something I’d been working toward for years,” Cedarstrom says. “And it all happened because of this place.”
Museum of Fine Arts
During his 18 years as a security officer at the Museum of Fine Arts, Stephen Holness has had ample time to study Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1873 painting L’Eminence Grise. “It’s one of the best examples of 1800s French realism in the collection,” Holness says. “The brushwork is just so dazzling. Everything is real. The flesh tones look like flesh. The garments shimmer and glow. You can tell what each individual is thinking.”
He appreciates the layers of meaning as much as the beautiful brushwork. The painting depicts François Le Clerc du Trembly, the Capuchin friar who was chief adviser to Cardinal Richelieu, de facto ruler of France during Louis XIII’s childhood. Clad in a humble robe, he buries his nose in a book as elegant courtiers bow before him. “One thing I think Gérôme is saying is that knowledge is power, because he’s just so consumed, so deep into the book,” Holness says. “But is he really reading something this deeply, or is he just using it as a tool to not pay attention to them?”
A musician and artist, Holness hews to realism in his own paintings. For several years, he’s exhibited them with Opus, a group of artists who guard the MFA by day. To Holness, it’s but one example of the manifold talents of the security team. “We have people who are engineers, lawyers, retired military personnel, teachers, musicians. We’re the most diverse department, with people coming from many different regions of the world, speaking many different languages.” He emphasizes the vital role they play not only in safeguarding the art, but in guiding and welcoming visitors. “One could call me a security officer,” Holness says. “I refer to myself as ambassador of the arts.”
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the first painting visitors encounter is often John Singer Sargent’s monumental 1882 work El Jaleo, roughly translated as “The Ruckus.” Claiming an entire wall on the ground floor of Gardner’s palace, the painting gives viewers a front-row seat for a flamenco performance. For gallery officer Peter Bass, it also offers a master class in composition. “You have a sense of balance,” he says, noting “all the nice contrasts—a lot of blank space combined with a line of detail, the motion and the stillness, the lights and the blacks, the bit of color in the corner. You just look at the painting, and, ‘Oh! That works.’ And you try to think about what makes it work.”
His job provides him time to think. “You can be very creatively productive standing still,” says Bass, a watercolor painter who’s worked at the Gardner Museum for two and a half years. At his post, he often plans out paintings in his head, many of them city scenes that find beauty in the busy blur of coffee shops, the choreography of pedestrians and the glow of streetscapes at twilight.
“I think a lot of people feel like most of their world is ugly. And I wonder if that was not true for people with disposable income in previous centuries; I wonder if, in Sargent’s day, people felt like there were a lot of beautiful things in the world. So I spend a lot of time thinking about what visual imagery can be used for,” Bass says. “I feel like that’s a big part of having a creative career: picking the right thing to focus on.”
Peabody Essex Museum
During the Edo period, Japanese families would place images of Shoki the Demon Queller on eaves and entryways, hoping he would guard their homes. More recently, Lev McClain has returned the favor by guarding over Shoki—or at least this 19th-century bamboo root carving of the deity.
“It’s a piece I’ve had an opportunity to spend a lot of time with over the years,” says McClain, who interned at the Peabody Essex Museum in college and started working as a guard in 2005. Today, he serves as the associate director of security, maintaining a surveillance system that spans 22 historic properties, off-site storage facilities and a three-block main campus that will expand come September, when a 40,000-square-foot wing with 13 new galleries is slated to debut.
For McClain, the carving exemplifies the unique character of the museum’s collection, which began as a cabinet of curiosities brought home by Salem’s 19th-century seafarers. But it’s also just plain cool. “To have looked at this stump of a root and been able to see that in it, and to carve it out while maintaining the natural characteristics? It’s such a masterful piece of craft.”