Watching You Watch Art: Gallery Guard Reflections
by Aaminah Shakur
“Please don’t touch,” I say. Over and over and over again. I am stationed near Alison Stigora’s award-winning “The Phoenix” in the KCAD Fed Galleries. Crowds of people walk through the narrow space made smaller and darker, almost cozy, by Stigora’s installation. I repeat “please don’t touch” a dozen or more times an hour over the course of each six-hour shift.
“Please don’t touch,” I overhear other gallery guards say to viewers of “Maya” by SeungMo Park. “Please watch your head” is the most common utterance of guards around “Unremarkable Circumstances” by Dietmar Krumrey. “Please be gentle with the paper” is the catch-phrase we have to say constantly in Christopher Baker’s “Murmur Study”. I witness people walk right into the pieces of Krumrey’s work, kicking the small silver ball from its station on the floor or turning from taking selfies in the mirror, to walking face-first into the scales; visitors say there should be a barrier to properly mark out the pathway within the installation if we don’t want people touching the various items. A barrier in that display would ruin the aesthetics of the piece, but then again I also see people strain against the unobtrusive barrier meant to keep people an arm’s length from the delicate plates in Julie Green’s “The Last Supper.” I watch people glance around before stepping one foot inside the barrier to get closer to the plates. Most common is the tendency to reach across the barrier to point at individual plates while talking to a companion. Sometimes the gesturing is downright nerve wracking to watch as guests aren’t even looking where they are gesturing. If someone were to bump into them from behind, it could be catastrophic. People have poked, gripped, grabbed, run a finger or brochure along a branch, and bent down to sniff “The Phoenix”. I am told, that on a day I wasn’t working, someone had to be stopped in their attempt to scale the wood structure.
ArtPrize brings out crowds of people, the vast majority of whom do not engage publicly with art on a regular basis. It shouldn’t surprise us to realize they may not know the “rules” of institutions that we take for granted. It is also interesting to me to note how frequently “misbehavior” was tied to a sense of entitlement from people who I recognized as professionals, and most certainly do know the rules and have access to art on a regular basis. On the one hand, there are people who legitimately don’t have regular access to these spaces and feel awkward in them, and therefore might make mistakes in their excitement. On the other hand we have people who are comfortable in these spaces, regularly accessing this culture, and familiar with the rules of engagement but feel they can disregard them, often while speaking ill of the “ignorant masses”, or complaining loudly about “some people”.
The role of a gallery guard varies depending on the space and the circumstances. In general, museum and gallery guests probably pay little to no attention to guards. They are the silent background people that keep us safe but are not acknowledged as equals. They are, perhaps, still viewed as “the help”. In museums they typically do not interact with visitors beyond giving directions and reminding school groups to step back from the displayed work. I have been lucky to have gallery guards talk to me when I was viewing art at other museums and personally enjoy hearing their insights about the work. I am aware it probably doesn’t occur to most guests to speak to a guard, and I have also been sensitive to not “force” guards to entertain me. Gallery guards may or may not even be especially interested in or knowledgeable about art, and in many spaces are explicitly discouraged from such conversations.
In the KCAD Fed Galleries, especially during ArtPrize, our job as guards included all the aforementioned tasks, as well as engaging with viewers about the art itself. We studied the pieces, the artist statements and the critiques of the work so we could talk with guests about intent, ideas and results. I enjoyed the opportunity, as an artist, critic, and KCAD art history student, to talk with diverse people about their reactions to the eight pieces featured in Sightlines, curated by Michele Bosak. I had a chance to observe both silently and actively how people interact with the art, and to overhear conversations amongst guests. I found discussions with the guests’ about their interpretations to be very informative. More than once I was thanked by regular staff for freely talking with guests about work, because many guards don’t feel comfortable to do so, even when they know it is expected in that particular space.
When I greeted people I was frequently told I had startled them. They either said they had not seen me – an example of the invisible guard – or they thought I was “part of the installation” (this often included kind compliments about my style or how I “looked artistic”.) Far too many people evidently really didn’t see me and attempted to walk right through me as if I was not there. Others said they didn’t realize I was a “real person” despite the bright green vest all gallery guards wore as a uniform, and despite there being at least seven of us spread throughout the gallery at all times. Those who did see me, frequently assumed I was the creator of the piece I was “guarding”, and were disappointed to learn otherwise.
For three weeks I observed the observers – I watched you while you watched the art – and I have come to some surprising conclusions about how the public interacts with art, and how we facilitate or discourage interactions via installation choices, space design and staff’s willingness to speak beyond “please don’t touch” reminders. My observations have caused me to think a lot about spatial relations in curating, power dynamics and assumptions we may have about who “behaves appropriately” around art that affect how accessible we make our spaces. These observations provide me a practical sense of the effort it takes to curate and install work, as well as how institutions could – and perhaps should – be engaging and educating guests more actively.
What would galleries and museums look like if we were truly trying to be accessible to everyone, all year long? What would our community look like if we didn’t wait for ArtPrize to actively invite everyone into our spaces, make them welcome, and provide educational opportunities for them to take the next step in engaging with the art offered? What do we need to do in both design and marketing to make this possible? I have thoughts about this, but I’d love to hear what ideas others have, and I’d like to know why those ideas haven’t yet been implemented in our institutions.
Sightlines is on view at The Fed Galleries through December 5, 2015.
The Fed Galleries
KCAD Woodbridge N. Ferris Building 17 Pearl St NW
Tu, W, Th, 11AM-8PM
F, Sa, 11AM-6PM
Admission is free and open to the public