You are on page 1of 11

An Inside Look at the Lives & Art of Those Who Guard the Met Museum

By Rena Silverman | Published June 8, 2011 | BlackBookMag.com

[Photo by Rena Silverman.]

Jason Eskenazi (pictured top) knows how many gures there are in the V anderlyn panorama. As a security guard at the Met, he spent twenty months at the museum bored out of his mind, So bored, he says, that he surveyed every inch of the 165-foot painting of the Versailles garden. And so heres the count, he wrote in an essay, titled Securitology and the Art of Boredom, 403 people, 3 dogs, and 1 buttery. Mr. Eskenazi recorded this observation, along with many others, in a small Moleskin notebook he carried around in his back pocket. Standing there all day, I needed to keep
Met Guards 1

my mind going, recalls the 51-year-old documentary photographer, who took the job as a guard after his Fulbright in Russia because he needed health insurance. In addition to the Fulbright, Eskenazi also received a Guggenheim award, the Dorthea Lange prize, and countless others awards before beginning at the Met as a guard. Mr. Eskenazi, who is short with heavy eyelids, salt and pepper curls, a full beard and ngerless gray gloves, found countless ways to occupy himself throughout his tenure at the museum. He created a calendar of buttons to prove to himself that each day at the museum was dierent, he invented Smart Guards, a petition to educate the Mets guards during o hours (he even presented the idea to management, but was quickly shot down), he recorded encounters, like the time he asked Tony Bennett about his favorite piece at the museum. Rembrandts self-portraits, said Bennett, ipping the question back on Eskenazi. When Eskenazi shared his favorite painting, The Creation of the Universe, Bennett replied, I didnt know you guards were so smart. Eskenazi also collected data from the other guards in his Moleskin. OK, he would begin. Youve died and now youre in the afterlife. God greets you and thanks you for guarding the museum for twenty years. As a reward for your good service, he will grant you one object from the museum. It could be any object. What would you choose? Then he gathered all 120 responseslots of Jackson Pollockinto the journal, next to other tabulations, like Things People Like to Touch (a lot of sculptures). In the fall of 2009, the Met produced an exhibition in honor of the 50th anniversary of Robert Franks famous series of photographs The Americans. Mr. Eskenazi, being a documentary photographer, requested a transfer in post to the Gilman Gallery, where he could spend time with works by his idols. One day, the renowned photographer Joel Meyerowitz walked into the Frank show and immediately recognized Eskenazi, not as a guard, but as a photographer. Eskenazi clutched his Moleskin and approached his friend with a question. Whats your favorite Frank photo? And that was the start of By the Glow of the Jukebox: The Americans List, Eskenazis catalogue of famous photographers favorite Frank photos. Mr. Meyerowitz recounted the situation in an email. Part of what makes moments like this special in the museums of New York is that you can have a real connection with someone who actually has ideas about works on view and is passionate about life and art. A few weeks ago we were in a museum elsewhere and the guards were, well, just guards. Their attitude was negative and miserable and our experience of the museum was colored by their shitty attitude. They would have been happier in a supermarket doing security or some other meaningless place. So encounters with guards who have ideas and creative lives actually enhances ones experience in the museum. But, for Eskenazi, the
Met Guards 2

experience at the Frank show meant something else: He needed to get the heck out of the Met and take some pictures and fast.

Peter Hoffmeister. [Photo by Rena Silverman]

It was a Monday, a favorite day amongst the guards, the only day each week that the museum is closed to the public. Minding the empty museum in his polyester suit and red clip-on tie, Eskenazi turned to another guard named Dave, and said, You know Dave, we dont matter. Dave protested, We do matter! Guards matter. And thus, an idea was born, recalls Eskenazi. Soon they would create Sw!pe magazine, an all-guard arts journal. Sw!pe alludes to the routine act of swiping ones ID card in and out of work. Its a universal term for an artist who has to work any 9-5 job to pay their rent, says Eskenazi. Even without a single announcement or press release from the museum, the issue, released in the spring of 2010 with an accompanying exhibition at the 25 CPW gallery, generated a considerable amount of coverage, including a New York Times mention. I didnt think the Met was expecting that reaction from the public, one of the guards said. Weve been emboldened since.

Met Guards

For the second issue of Sw!pe, released this year, editors asked guards for submissions that take the Met Museum into consideration. The result exposes the works of 65 artists if you want to solicit a few eye rolls from them, guardistsnearly double the number of participants than in the rst issue of Sw!pe. Watchman Peter Homeister, 25, contributed one of the more literal interpretations of the assignment, a set of deconstructed blueprints of the museums architecture. Blueprint1.0001 features two vertically aligned oor plans of the museum, with the rst oor on the bottom, much like your standard brochure. The more solid shapes in the blueprint correspond to less solid areas of the real museum (areas under construction). Squiggly lines separate each gallery. The broken key to this blueprint is in the letters AF, which oat, displaced around the frame like tumbling cards. Stare at this long enough, and youll start to see all sorts of creepy people: a featureless, crowned king with his trident, a pung chimney; several cartoonish characters on the right. Mr. Homeister got the job three years ago, shortly after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology where he studied painting. Homeister works the graveyard shift, which he describes as an opportunity to really connect with the art on the walls. At night, when no one is there, its easy to imagine artists at work, he said. Homeister is also one of the founding editors of Sw!pe. The third issue of Sw!pe is due out in late 2011. At this point, the editors will accept submissions from guardists beyond the Mets 2,000,000-square-foot walls, since the number artists working as guards all over the city appears to be quite large. Since the 1960s, museums have hired artists as sta. Sol De Witt, Dan Flavin, and Bob Ryman are just a few examples of famous artists who got their start as museum guards at the Museum of Modern Art. Perhaps the most famous case was a 22-year-old kid named Koons, who sat behind the membership desk at the MoMA in 1977. Who knew at the time that the kid would eventually become the most expensive living artist at auction? As Calvin Tompkins noted in his 2007 New Yorker prole of the artist, At MoMA, [Koons] attracted considerable attention by wearing polka-dot shirts, oral vests, big bow ties (sometimes two at once), and, occasionally an inatable plastic ower. Its a known fact that the Met wants to hire artists, said Eskenazi. And why shouldnt they? The museum could only benet from employing artists to watch the precious art. A keen eye for detail translates into the observation skills necessary to detect suspicious activity. But most of all, an artist cares about the work he or she protects. Carlos Delgado, an artist, guard, and one of the editors of Sw!pe expressed his feelings on the issue. When people get to close to the paintings, I get upset.
Met Guards 4

Carlos Delgado. [Photo by Rena Silverman.]

Mr. Delgado describes feeling an intimate connection to the artwork: Whatever I guard, every day I take a look at it, whether its the detail of a hand or a composition of a painting, and it makes me wonder, What was going on the day it was made? Was it raining? Was the artist smoking? Or drinking wine? Born in Jackson Heights to rst generation Ecuadorian parents who jumped around from factory to factory, Mr. Delgado (now in his mid-30s) began as an aviation engineer, but found the program he used to design and animate the airplanes far more interesting than the airplanes themselves. This artistic thing inside of me was screaming that I needed to do something in the arts. Eventually Delgado opted for an art education at Stony Brook instead. Following a brief period of employment in what he calls the world of cooperate robots, Mr. Delgado found an ad recruiting security guards at the Met. He applied, hoping he could use the position as a stepping-stone for other, more curatorial opportunities at the museum. Everyone tries to get their foot in at the Met, and then move on to another department. When asked if he felt it was a waste of his day and creative talents to stand doing nothing for so many hours, Mr. Delgado raised his brow and said, Anyone who tells you

Met Guards

that is a weak soul, then added, As a museum guard your life is not wasted away. You know what would be a wastea cubicle! Where you dont get to think on your own. Im guarding the history of the world, the ngerprint of mankind. If anything, Mr. Delgado, like many of the other guards, says the job only informs his art. Take Tri$er and Boom, featured in the latest issue of Sw!pe. On the left of the frame of this post-apocalyptic, Hopper-esque scene, an empty picture frame hangs from a jagged slab of museum wall, but dont worry, the security guard on duty has not lefthe still stands heroic in his uniform protecting the ruins. Across from him, on the right, a man in chivalry outstretches his arm as if to gesture, What the hell do you think youre doing? But, because hes wearing armor, we cant help but ask him that very same question. Mr. Delgado, who paints out of his basement, says the empty frame alludes to the famous art heist in Boston that occurred twenty-one years ago, when two men disguised as policemen entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and inicted the largest single property theft in recorded history onto $500 million worth of art. (Two decades later, police are still searching for the stolen masterpieces, and broadcast desperate messages to the thieves: Whoever is holding the stolen art that, in order to protect the artworks, they must be stored in conditions that do not allow for swings in temperature and humidity.) In the meantime, empty frames of the missing paintings remain hanging on the walls at the museum to commemorate the stolen works. If the Gardner incident proved one thing, it was that happy, educated guards with health benets are an important part of protecting a museum. As the late art detective Harold Smith said in Stolen, a documentary about the Gardner heist, The guard is the lowest paid guy in the place. This guy came from Ohio, never worked before, and all of the sudden they put him in charge of a two-billion or a three-billion dollar collection. While theres nothing wrong with Ohio, Mr. Smiths point about the guards minimal experience and pay reects a larger issue: many museums do not ask for more than a high school diploma for hire. A recent ad by the Guggenheim soliciting a part-time security guard required only a high school diploma or equivalent. The Guggenheim would not comment on whether the same educational criteria is required of its full-time security ocers, but looking around the classieds, the pattern seems to continue. Ads issued by the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria and the Fine Arts museums of San Francisco also show minimum qualications of high school or GED equivalent for security guards. Whether because of its policy, broader budget, or even broader square footage, the Metropolitan Museum of Art only hires security guards with, at minimum, a bachelors
Met Guards 6

degree. In exchange, guards are provided with a full salary, benets, and what Delgado calls a library. Theres so much talent in every area, says Delgado. There are a lot of

Artwork by Carlos Delgado.

musicians, a lot of actors, a lot of comedians, and there are people with PhDs. Nora Hamiltonwhom you will nd at the top of the big staircase leading up to the Met Museums entrance, and whom you will think of next time you have the urge to slide down the banistersis a prolic author with a degree in psychology obtained in Germany (note, she wrote her thesis, in German, on the language of schizophrenics). Ms. Hamilton contributed a dark, short story to this issue of Sw!pe, called Monsieur Tanclerres Rouge. Its so amazing how this magazine has revived our spirit among all our ranks at the Met, says Mr. Delgado. There are people who put their artwork aside for years, its almost a rebirth of them. Its almost like weve given people a little bit of hope.

Met Guards

But, what if you have the job and youre not an artist? Ask Dan St. Germain, a comedian you may have caught last March on Late Night with Jimmy Fa&on. Before making his big comedic break, Mr. St. Germain worked at the Met as a Guard for three years, but he was not an artist. Man, he says, its got to be dierent for artists working at the Met than it was for me. Mr. St. Germain remembers walking around the galleries, reciting acts to himself when he could and picking up girls numbers (he has a girlfriend now). But, seldom did the art generate inspiration. Its not like I was in competition with Francis Bacon, he said. But for the others, the artists, it was dierent. Theyre so talented and many arent recognized for it. Jack Laughner, who is an artist and guard, couldnt agree more. There are some old timers that arent artists, he says, Now thats got to be tough. Mr. Laughner illustrated the covers for the past two issues of Sw!pe, and like Mr. Delgado, Laughner started out in the sciences. He had enrolled in Syracuse University not with the idea but the understanding that hed have to give up his passion for drawing and painting in order to pursue a scientic career. There was no guidance growing up, he says. In Jacks hometown of Butler, PA, a small village about 35 miles north of Pittsburgh, the public library carried a total of two art books, one on da Vinci and one on Monet. But, four days into his rst semester, Mr. Laughner learned the most valuable lesson of his college career; that anyone could make a living as an artist. So, Mr. Laughner took his portfolio of drawings and walked across campus, presented it to the art schools president, got in, and transferred immediately. I would have ended up as some research scientist, Laughner chuckles. After college, Laughner headed for the Big Apple to pursue his art career, grounded by the philosophy that, every artist needs a day job. Jack found work at a small bookshop, but the pay was minimal and the rewards diminutive, and pretty soon jack was on the lookout for other more stimulating opportunities. I always thought it would be great to work in a museum, he says, even as a guard. A few months later, in the fall of 2005, Mr. Laughner got his wish. He landed a job as a security guard at the top museum in the country, the Met. While training for his new position, he met his wife Megan, who is also a guard at the Met. They got married last October. I grew up in a small town where there were only a few books and then I went to school and that opened up a whole new world, he says. And the world opened up at the museum is completely immeasurable because of the resources that we have there. Mr. Laughner is responsible for the last two covers of Sw!pe magazine. For this issues cover, he used pen and ink to illustrate the tower of babel, where the information desk normally is, at the museum. Mr. Laughner hopes to eventually make a living solely as an
Met Guards 8

artist. It would be my dream to you know wake up, have breakfast, and sit down at the drawing board and do my artwork and hopefully that would pay the bills. But no matter

Jack Laughner [Photo by Rena Silverman.]

what I have to do, if I have to have a day-job for the rest of my life, Im ready for that because Im never going to stop drawing and creating artwork. Lambert Fernando, an associate dispatcher at the Met and contributor to this issue of Sw!pe, says that he cant imagine a better existence. For Mr. Fernando, Its nice not to have to worry or think about money. Theres no pressure. A native of the Philippines, Mr. Fernandos family moved here when he was a boy. After graduating from the School of Visual Arts, he worked a few odd jobs before learning of the security job at the Met from a friend of his who worked there. I thought it would be a perfect place to establish myself as an artist, he said. In The Hidden Complexities of Jade and Lambert, which you can nd in the latest issue of Sw!pe, Fernando shows a circuit of theatrical faces, picture frames, a cat in a mirror, and various styles of homes. None are adjoined, but all are aliated, like a chart, through
Met Guards 9

fragments of pipeline. Jade is Mr. Fernandos wife and a professional photographer. The couple just had their rst child, who Mr. Fernando says is an inspiration both for his artwork and also for his job at the Met. The benets are especially important given the newborn, he explains. While Fernando hopes to eventually gain representation for his artwork, for now things look good. I could do this for 20 years and be happy, he says. As for Fernandos feelings about Sw!pe Magazine, This is just the beginning. Its going to be unstoppable, he said. Yet with the journals latest theme set to the Met, Christopher Boynton, another guard, artist, and editor, who happens to also be the magazines webmaster, expressed his concern about projecting an overtly romantic notion of the position. Regarding the second issue, They wanted to have the museum aect our work, he said. I was against that. Boynton, who moves with the grace and severity of a First World War British ocer and speaks with a thundery, movie-preview voice, (set to the tempo of Eeyore), says the museum has little inuence on his artwork and if anything, standing on guards is just sort of a zen thing. Besides, he says, Most of us need to work an additional day of overtime. A self-taught painter and native of Pennsylvania (but if you ask him hes a New Yorker hes lived here longer), Boynton took up the job at the Met right after graduating college with a degree in Art History. Like Delgado and Fernando, Boynton became a museum guard with the intention of moving up in the art world. But, things didnt exactly work as planned. It is sort of dicult in security to move up, he said. Its compartmentalized. Boynton says its compartmentalized, that Art handlers (called technicians) are more likely to move up than security guards. I blame myself for being in the position for as long as I have, he said. But, I dont t into an oce environment. He does, however, do everything else. Besides editor, webmaster, artist, and security guard, some of Boyntons other hats include oil painter, graphic designer, treasurer of the guards union, and CEO of his own small publishing rm, Boynton Media, which publishes Sw!pe. He said that ever since its launch last year, visitors have come up to him and asked about Sw!pe. Are you an artist, too? theyve asked. While Boynton is still guring out what he wants to do in life, for now, he continues to guard the some of the worlds most prized artwork. And as for his favorite shift? He loves nights. In the morning, he said, You can hear the rst footsteps of people coming in, The slow rumble.

Met Guards

10

Christopher Boynton. [Photo by Rena Silverman.]

Jason Eskenazi is no longer at the Met and he does not regret quitting. Im still faced with nancial diculties to get out and shoot, but its about the love of the craft, the need to take pictures, which he says is almost like a mania. And while he gathers funds to pick up his next project in Istanbul, Eskenazi still meets regularly with the other members of the Sw!pe editorial board. We cant meet at the Met cafeteria anymore, he says. But, we meet whenever and quite often, citing his own home in Red Hook, which he says used to be a brothel, as a common meeting place. Each editor brings dierent things to the process, Mr. Eskenazi said recently over a Chai Latte. Its such a collaborative eort. Its like any good band, added Peter Homeister, from across a rustic table. Are you the lead vocals? Mr. Eskenazi took one, long silent sip of his latte, then looked up where a long row of pendent lights led his eyes to the sunlight outside a small caf by his Red Hook home. The last few trills of Fiona Apples Extraordinary Machine, faded over the loudspeaker. He looked back at Mr. Homeister and said, Im the songwriter.
This article can be found online: http://www.blackbookmag.com/art/met-guards-swpe-1.23854

Met Guards

11