Featured in
Issue 225

Switching of the Old Guard: How Baltimore’s Museum of Art Security Team Became the Curators

Kellen Johnson speaks to Ian Bourland about how his work on the museum’s security staff has informed his decisions for curating a show at the BMA

BY Kellen Johnson AND Ian Bourland in Features , Interviews | 18 MAR 22

For ‘Guarding the Art’ (on view from 27 March to 10 July), the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) invited its security officers to collaborate with museum staff to curate an exhibition of works from the permanent collection. Contributing editor Ian Bourland spoke with BMA guard and Baltimore local Kellen Johnson about his work there, and his experience with the project.

I worked security for five years at the Marlborough Apartments in Bolton Hill, Maryland, which is where the Cone sisters lived – the collectors who donated their vast modernist collection to the BMA. My cousin, who was studying art at the time, suggested I apply to work at the BMA, and I’ve now been with the museum for eight years.

When I first started at the BMA, I was in the mindset of being seen and not heard. But, eventually, that got boring, so I took the initiative to engage with visitors and ask them questions. I also attended docent training and museum functions to improve my knowledge. Security guards have a reputation for being stern, intimidating figures, so I try to break that stereotype. Many of us know a thing or two about the art, so visitors should come and talk to us. I especially enjoy talking about objects where there is more to know than what is on the wall labels. Many patrons say: ‘You’re so knowledgeable about the objects, are you a curator?’ I always reply: ‘No, I’m just a guard.’

Hale Woodruff, Normandy Landscape, 1928, oil on canvas, 54 × 65 cm. Courtesy: Baltimore Museum of Art

During the process of developing our exhibition, ‘Guarding the Art’, we learned about the curatorial side, from contract negotiations to choosing which objects to include. My security colleagues and I worked with the curatorial staff on logistics: arranging works on the walls, considering how people would move in the space. One area where our work as guards proved to be helpful was knowing how the public engages – or, in some instances, over-engages – with the artworks. Unlike curators, we are the only staff members on the floor at all times, so we see how people really interact with the art. For instance, it’s not always obvious to curators that people want to walk up to Émile-Antoine Bourdelle’s Head of Medusa (1925) door knocker and try to use it. So, our advice to the curators is practical: ‘Maybe this sculpture should be in a case,’ or ‘Maybe we shouldn’t hang a painting on this wall.’

I am also a senior at Towson University, training to sing opera, spirituals and art songs. It’s been useful to be around art from earlier centuries; the works help me build characters when interpreting classical musical styles and developing my own performances. So, my three selections for the show are all works where music is depicted or was influential in their creation. One is Normandy Landscape (1928) – a forest scene in winter – by the Black artist Hale Woodruff. The work is often on display at BMA and I’ve always admired its arrangement and composition. When looking at it, I would imagine the painting singing back to me in French, or maybe something by an African American poet-composer that speaks to the identity of the artist. I wanted to be sure to include African American artists in the exhibition because representation matters. Visitors of all socioeconomic backgrounds should be able to see art that is made by them and for them: the exhibition should be representative of Baltimore as a whole.

Kellen Johnson in the Baltimore Museum of Art with Hale Woodruff, Normandy Landscape, 1928. Courtesy: Baltimore Museum of Art; photograph: Mitro Hood

I have a passion for historical scholarship and researching the works was an important part of this process. I learned that Woodruff painted Normandy Landscape on a trip to France that was funded by a US$100 Harmon Foundation Award. In writing the wall label, it was important for me that people knew he didn’t have to rely on charity, but that he earned that trip by winning a contest for Black artists. I wanted aspiring young artists of colour to think: ‘Someone that looks like me made this work hanging in this museum right now. I want that to happen for me, too.’

If more museums did something like this, it would allow curatorial and installation departments to find ways to appeal not just to scholars or critics or professors, but to people of all backgrounds, to everyone. The works on view can reflect the community. I’ve appreciated having a voice as a security guard and being able to encourage people to come talk to me and my co-workers, because there’s more to us than just standing around and telling people not to touch anything.

'Guarding the Art’, an exhibition in which the Baltimore Museum of Art invited its security officers to collaborate with museum staff to curate an exhibition of works from the permanent collection, is on view from 27 March to 10 July.

As told to Ian Bourland.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 225 with the headline ‘Art Guards’.

Main image: Émile-Antoine Bourdelle, Head of Medusa (Door Knocker), 1925, bronze, 20 × 51 × 19 cm. Courtesy: Baltimore Museum of Art

Kellen Johnson is a security officer at the Baltimore Museum of Art, USA, and a student
in the department of music at Towson University, USA.

Ian Bourland is a critic and associate professor of art history at Georgetown University, USA. He writes widely on art, pop culture and aesthetics, and has published two books, Bloodflowers (Duke University Press, 2019) and Blue Lines (Bloomsbury, 2019).