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Drawn to the badge

At museums, guard uniforms often cloak painters, photographers and other practicing artists. Even if it's not a short cut to the permanent collection, there are benefits to keeping an eye on masterpieces.

April 16, 2006|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON graphic artist Karl Stevens, 27, has found a way to get his foot in the door of the museum world -- the back door.

Stevens, who dropped out of two prestigious art schools to pursue his career his own way, is also a guard for the Harvard University Art Museums. His favorite parts of the job are the Tuesday and Thursday late shifts, 7:30 to 11 p.m., when he can be found fortifying the back entrances of the Fogg Art Museum and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, respectively.

Stevens -- who has self-published a graphic novel about youthful slackers, "Guilty," and whose comics are regularly featured in the Boston Phoenix -- has a studio in Boston, but the guard booth provides another sort of studio. "I can actually work on my projects here, unbeknownst to my bosses," he jokes, then adds hastily, "Nah, they know -- it's not a big deal."

Stevens is hardly unique in possessing a sketch pad and a security badge. When it comes to the people who guard art, visitors might be surprised to find that in more than a few cases, underneath that stern visage and pressed uniform there beats the heart of an artist.

No one seems to keep statistics on what percentage of museum guards may be artists. As Stevens jokes, it's not like there's an association of guard-artists or an Internet chat room called, say, "artcops.com."

Still, guards and their supervisors are quick to report that the incidence of artists among the guard ranks is high enough to be more than coincidental. At museums in California and nationwide, artists are very much a part of the security corps.

Many say they take the jobs because they want to lose themselves among objects of beauty. For some, like Stevens, a job as a guard may serve the same purpose as a mailroom position at the William Morris Agency for a Michael Ovitz wannabe -- a steppingstone into the upper echelons of the art world. "I'm completely shameless," Stevens offers. And it appears to be working: The Fogg's former print curator, Marjorie Cohn, bought some of the original pages of "Guilty" that feature scenes at the Fogg and has loaned them to the museum, where they are held in the archives.

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A show of force

CREATIVE types attracted to the work of protecting cultural treasures don't all come from the visual arts; actors, dancers, poets and rock stars also find their way into the ranks. Indie rock musicians David Berman, a member of the band Silver Jews, and Stephen Malkmus, a founder of the now-defunct California alternative rock band Pavement, both worked as guards at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in the early '90s.

Berman, who is also a writer, penned a stream-of-consciousness essay called "Clip-On Tie: The Diary of a New York Art Museum Security Guard," published in 1995 in the Chicago-based literary journal the Baffler: "Sometimes, when a beautiful Italian girl wanders into an empty gallery I fantasize about walking over and kissing her on the neck. When she turned around and saw I was a guard, I would straighten up and whisper: 'no kissing allowed,' " Berman wrote.

John Kieltyka, a Seattle musician and artist, was a guard at the Seattle Art Museum in the early '90s and found his fellow guards such an eclectic bunch that he was inspired to create the photo series "Guard This Entry," shooting his compatriots during lunch breaks.

"In my experience, it was actually more unusual to find somebody who wasn't involved in art at all being a guard," Kieltyka says. "Everybody had all this education and all these great ideas, and the common thread was that everybody wanted to be around the art."

Michael Raysson, a photographer, painter and collage artist who has stood guard at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for more than 15 years, says artists make the best guards. "We take our jobs seriously compared to other people, because we appreciate the paintings, and guarding the paintings, they are things that we have a feeling for," Raysson says. "And if someone wants some information on a painting, we tell them."

Jim Knipfel, a columnist for the New York Press who once guarded at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in that city, might tend to disagree. "With artists, you get attitude," he observes with a laugh.

When the Guggenheim reopened after its restoration project in 1992, Knipfel was among a group of artists hired as part of an effort to provide art-savvy guards who could not only see to security but answer visitor questions. "We had writers and filmmakers, painters and sculptors -- it was an amazing crew of people," Knipfel recalls. "They gave us these nice Armani suits with padded shoulders and silk ties instead of guard uniforms. It was ridiculous. We looked like mobsters -- really geeky mobsters.

"Problem was, we weren't exactly the world's best security personnel, and we enjoyed the occasional practical joke."

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