Meet the moonlighting security guards as curators at the Baltimore Museum of Art
The BMA has 45 guards. The 17 who applied for the project chose works of art ranging from pre-Columbian sculpture from the 6th century, to a French door knocker from 1925, to a protest painting from 2021. The various guards themselves have a extensive experience. They published poetry, majored in philosophy, ran a bar, walked dogs, smiled at nine grandchildren, and served in the military.
The veteran among them is Traci Archbale-Frederick. She has been with BMA since 2006, after a stint with the Department of Homeland Security at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. Outside of work, her museum biography says, she likes to eat crabs (Maryland, where she was born, is famous for them; a beloved local joke says Virginia is for lovers, Maryland is for lovers. crabs).
She wanted her pick to “address the ongoing protests and racial tensions in the United States.” Protest artwork by artist Mickalene Thomas is adorned with sequins, rhinestones, photos and the face of author James Baldwin.
“All I want to say is in this piece,” says Archbale-Frederick. And she quotes James Baldwin: “All that is confronted cannot be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is confronted.
Change was a theme behind many of the artworks that security guards chose for the exhibit. Many of the pieces had never or rarely been on display at the museum before. Changing the walls of the museum was on the mind of guest curator/curator Elise Tensley.
In their day job, Tensley and the other guards are not on duty in the same gallery for months; they turn. But I wondered if, despite the rotation, she sometimes stood out looking at the same works. “Sometimes I do,” she says. “But I use it for exercise. I walk through the galleries. I take my steps.
BMA director Christopher Bedford observed that guards spend more time with these works than anyone else in the museum. And Chief Curator Asma Naeem, one of the people who came up with the idea for security/curators, says they collect a lot of information and pass it on to visitors.
Naeem remembers his beginnings in museums. “For me, entering a museum for the first time was very intimidating.” The guards helped. “I felt like I could go up to one of the guards and hear their observations and comments, and just become a visitor.” Now, as a professional curator, Naeem says guards still play an important role for her. “Every time you talk to one it just becomes this glorious break from the monotony of the museum.”
Art historian and curator Lowery Stokes Sims appreciates the security guards of this BMA project for a different, perhaps more personal reason. Former director of the Studio Museum of Harlem, she spent 50 years in the art world. Sometimes, she says, it felt like a very long time. Then she attended meetings where the BMA guards pitched their picks. “I was so energized and excited to hear these extraordinary personal reactions to the art. It was so beyond the artistic language I’m used to. It was fresh, immediate, personal and insightful. It had a profound effect, she says. “It happened to me at a time when I really needed to be stimulated by art again.”
When it opens, visitors to “Guarding the Art” can also be energized by these choices of security guards. And maybe go up to one of them for a little chat.