The 17 security guards serving as guest curators for a new exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art vividly remember the first time a painting or sculpture began to “speak” to them.

This conversation may have started when a lone guard in the galleries was fascinated by a 19th century painting of a familiar street corner or door knocker resembling the mythical monster Medusa.

The guards closed in for a second look – then a third. Soon they were stationed near the objects when they were assigned to these galleries.

“For me, a relationship with a work of art is not love at first sight,” said BMA security guard Dereck Mangus, a Harvard University-trained artist and writer who finds his own work is enriched by his guard shifts at the BMA.

It is no coincidence, thinks Mangus, that several former museum keepers have gone on to successful artistic careers, from Sol LeWitt to Robert Mangold.

“The more I engage with a work of art, the more I encounter it, the more I love it,” Mangus said. “But, that’s true of any relationship. You can’t spend five minutes with someone and think you know them.

This experience is the origin of “Guarding the Art”, which runs from Sunday to July 10.

“Guards spend more time with art than anyone else,” said BMA trustee Amy Elias, who dreamed up the exhibit two years ago after having dinner with chief curator Asma Naeem to brainstorm curricula. staff mentoring. “Guards live with art every day and everyone has a different take on it. I thought how interesting it would be to hear about their favorite pieces of art.

The small exhibit of 26 works of art drawn from the museum’s collection is causing a stir and is featured in media nationwide, from CBS Sunday morning to “The Today Show.”

“This show resonates with people on a level that exhibits haven’t reached before,” Elias said. “Because the guards are the ones telling the stories, it seems relatable.”

About half of BMA’s 40 guards have volunteered for the project. Because the guards worked in staggered teams, they began meeting on Zoom in March 2021. Under the direction of Lowery Stokes Sims, former president of the Studio Museum of Harlem, the guards were involved in all aspects of putting together a exhibition: selection of works of art, research of historical objects, drafting of text labels and design of the installation. In addition to their salary, guards received an allowance of $750 to $1,100 depending on their involvement.

Security guard Michael Jones felt so protective of artist Emile-Antoine Bourdelle’s 1925 “Head of Medusa (Knocker)” that he designed a protective case for the sculpture.

“During my eight years of security,” he wrote in the exhibition catalog, “visitors sometimes try to touch the works.”

Jones noted that he could have selected one of thousands of works of art for display – perhaps a painting from the Cone collection or a piece of stained glass from the American Wing.

“But to see the afternoon sunlight hit that Medusa in the rotunda,” he said, “To me, that’s money.”

But the conversations go both ways. The artwork didn’t just speak to the guards; the guards responded.

Here is what they said.

Kellen Johnson fell in love with opera at the age of 9 and has been struggling to make music ever since.

“My first exposure to opera was watching Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ on PBS,” Johnson, 35, said.

“Even then, I was struck by the fact that singing takes the story to a different place that the spoken word cannot reach,” he said. “When I was in high school my friends would listen to Beyoncé and I would listen to Leontyne Price and Placido Domingo.”

Unsurprisingly, his two selections for “Guarding the Art” reflect this passion.

“I asked myself two questions,” Johnson said. “’If these paintings had a voice, what would their voices sound like? If these paintings could sing, what song would they choose? »

Max Beckmann’s 1939 painting “Still Life with a Large Shell” reminded Johnson of a German lied or art song. The painting depicts the artist’s violinist wife, Mathilde, who sacrificed her artistic career when she married. In the painting, the woman and the shell seem filled with hidden vibrations.

The 1928 painting of a grove of trees called “Landscape of Normandy” by African-American artist Hale Woodruff reminded Johnson of a Mozart melody. Blue-green dots are arranged on evenly spaced vertical trunks, a pattern that resembles a musical score.

“The green willows in the foreground,” Johnson noted in the catalog, “are distinctly orchestrated in their own strongly rhythmic pattern.”

Johnson has been pursuing his dream of becoming an opera singer on and off since 2006, attending college as his finances and the pandemic allowed. He paid his tuition by working as a BMA security guard since 2013.

He’s preparing for next week’s student recital at Towson University, one last hurdle before his next college degree. After that? Auditions, maybe, or graduate school.

“Being around these paintings provided a historical perspective that influenced my performance practice,” Johnson said. “It helped me develop characters and improve the way I move on stage.”

Jess Bither is a professional observer, a person drawn to frontier regions and places in between who gazes at the world through questioning eyes.

It’s a talent that comes in handy when she’s working as a security guard at the BMA, when she’s sitting in a movie theater, or when she’s teaching lessons about avant-garde cinema and movies. horror at the Maryland Institute College of Art where she is an assistant. faculty member.

Bither, who is in her thirties, felt an immediate kinship with “Spring”, a bronze sculpture created by artist Louise Bourgeois in 1948-49, part of a series of three-dimensional objects the artist described as “characters”.

“Spring” is 61 inches tall, just two inches taller than Bither and even slimmer.

“When the sculpture is off its pedestal, I can look it straight in the eye,” Bither said. “I had a lot of fun arranging the objects in the gallery. When you walk through the door, you first see the sculpture out of the corner of your eye and almost misinterpret it as the silhouette of a person.

She wonders if visitors who see the sculpture will connect it to the security guards.

“We wear the dark uniform and stand on the periphery,” said Bither, who has worked at the BMA since 2019. “Some people don’t see us at all. Other people do. So there’s a variety .

Not that she is reluctant to remain anonymous. In fact, it’s a plus.

“Being a security guard isn’t that different from being in a movie theater,” she said. “You can look around and watch people react emotionally to something in front of them in this semi-public space.

“For someone who likes people watching, this job is great.”

Memo to Anna R. Diaz — Ricardo Castro chose the objects he made for this exhibit because he wants to tell the world how proud he is to be your son.

Castro, 35, also tells museum visitors how amazing it is to be Puerto Rican, and for that matter, a Latino man. And, by choosing three sculptures made of clay and rock that have a brown “skin,” he wants to make sure kids of color realize that their ancestors created art that is just as awesome as any Picasso painting. .

Most importantly, Ms. Diaz, Castro’s contributions to this exhibit are about you.

“My mother raised the four of us alone,” he said.

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“She always had cleaning jobs and we always had bills. But somehow she worked miracles. For Christmas, she asked each of us what we wanted. Not what we thought she could afford – what we wanted. And on Christmas morning, the four of us woke up to find everything we asked for.

Unfortunately, the BMA only has a few works created by Puerto Rican artists and these pieces were not available for “Guarding the Art” as they are already on display in other exhibitions. Castro therefore selected three small ancient sculptures created by unidentified artists from Spanish-speaking countries: “Seated Male Figure” from Colombia; “Figure of a Shaman” from Costa Rica; and “Effigy Vessel of Standing Dignitary” from Ecuador.

A fourth pedestal in the exhibit is decorated with the Puerto Rican flag but otherwise empty. It specifies which cultures are adequately represented in the BMA collection and which are not.

“The day I got to see the pieces I had chosen all together for the first time, I just felt like I was there like I was with the people who created these masterpieces. ‘work,’ said Castro, who has worked as a caretaker at the museum since 2019.

“It made me cry.”

Another emotional moment occurred when Castro and the other guards saw the exhibit for the first time. With spotlights illuminating the artwork, Castro noticed something about Colombian sculpture he had never been aware of before.

“It has sparkle,” he said. “When the light is on, it shines. I can’t wait for my mother to see it.