Written by Zoe Sottile, CNN
Most days, Rob Kempton guards the many beautiful works on display at the Baltimore Art Museum – but this weekend he is curating them. Kempton is one of 17 officers participating in Guarding the Art, an exhibition of 25 works selected by members of the BMA’s security team. The exhibition, open from March 27 to July 10, gives visitors an insight into the world of art as seen by the guards who guard it.
The idea for the exhibition came from Amy Elias, one of the museum’s trustees. Talking to a friend made her wonder “how the rangers spend more time with the arts than anyone else,” she told CNN. “So I went home at night and thought, well, wouldn’t it be interesting to hear from the guards about what jobs they consider most significant?”
The exhibition will run from March to July 2022. Source: Mitro Hood / The Baltimore Museum of Art
Kempton, who joined the BMA security team in 2016, took the opportunity to attend. “I’ve never been a bodyguard before,” he told CNN. “But working at BMA surrounded by art was something that I found very important.”
In fact, his love of art “deepened” so much that after entering the museum, he graduated in museums from Johns Hopkins University.
“Guarding the Art” was an opportunity both to improve the skills he developed during his studies and “learn practical experience in the gallery,” he said.
Creating a conversation among visitors
The exhibition provides a fun and interesting look at the world of art, but is also very serious.
Participating rangers involved in a two-year process of selecting works, designing installations, creating content for catalogs and other materials, and planning tours and other public programs.
“The most interesting thing is that (through) selected works of art you learn about the guards and why they collect them, through the stories they tell that are attached to each artwork,” said Elias.
The rangers spent two years gaining practical experience in curating and installing a museum exhibit. Source: Mitro Hood / Baltimore Art Museum
Kempton selected two abstract paintings for the exhibition: Grace Hartigan’s Interior, The Creeks (1957) and Alma Thomas’ Evening Glow (1972).
“I just love that it’s such a confrontational picture,” he said of Hartigan’s work. “It’s so big that I feel like a dwarf when I look at it often.” Kempton feels drawn to “rich, opaque colors. Really intense and improvised scraping with a spatula, ”he said.
Alternatively, “The Evening Glow is an image that I knew well from working here,” he said. “And it was always an image that I could come back to and in which I could get involved.” Kempton added that he wanted to highlight Alma Thomas, “an underappreciated, underappreciated artist.”
Kempton often looks for opportunities to connect with visitors over works of art. “I’ve always thought that these were the best times to engage in a visitor conversation where we might already have something in common,” he said.
“I hope visitors will come out of this with a new experience and that seeing such different objects in conversations with each other, they feel a bit questioned and inspired,” he added.
Questioning the status quo
Asma Naeem, BMA’s chief curator, says Guarding the Art is part of the museum’s efforts to challenge the status quo and highlight under-represented voices in the museum world.
Inviting security guards to oversee the exhibition “is a simple idea,” said Naeem CNN. “But it is asking very deep questions about who is art for? Who are museums for? Who can talk about art? Who has the knowledge? Are there other types of people who have knowledge of art that we want to hear from? And the answer is yes, absolutely. “
Bodyguard and guest curator Alex Lei chose a painting by Winslow Homer Waiting for an Answer (1872). Source: Baltimore Art Museum
Naeem said the works on display at the show cover a variety of themes, including the Black Lives Matter movement, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the guards’ own relationship to their work. For example, bodyguard and guest curator Alex Lei chose Winslow’s Homer painting Waiting for an Answer (1872) as a reflection on the long waiting periods associated with his daily work.
The involvement of security guards in the treatment is “something any museum can do,” said Elias. “And, you know, I think it would be interesting if a lot of other museums did.”