3 Tigers among curators of BMA's ‘Guarding the Art’ exhibition

By Rebecca Kirkman on June 22, 2022

Baltimore Museum of Art security guard-curated show runs through July 10

Collage of three portraits in a museum
Sara Ruark ’15, Kellen Johnson ’22 and Bret Click are among 17 security officers who curated the Baltimore Museum of Art exhibition "Guarding the Art." (Christopher Myers / BMA)

The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) made waves across the art world and garnered international press with “Guarding the Art,” an exhibition curated by 17 of its security officers, on view through July 10.
Among the curators are three Towson University Tigers: Kellen Johnson ’22, Sara Ruark ’15 and Bret Click.
In what may be the first show of its kind, the officers collaborated with leadership and staff across the museum as guest curators to select and reinterpret works. For many of the guards, that meant highlighting works from artists with traditionally underrepresented backgrounds.

Johnson, who has worked at the BMA for nine years, graduated from TU in May with a music degree and concentration in voice performance.

“What we all wanted to do was go into the collection, the catalogs, and find works that people would not have seen before, especially when it comes to works by women, people of color, works that haven’t been seen in the museum but have been sitting in storage for decades," says Johnson.
During the process, they conducted object research, determined the scope of the exhibition, contributed to installation design, the catalog, visitor tours and other public programs. 

For Johnson, guest curating was an opportunity to merge his classical musical training and knowledge of art.
“My process for selecting the objects for the exhibition came from a very unique classical voice major viewpoint,” says Johnson. “I asked myself, if these paintings could sing, what would these paintings sound like?”
He selected two paintings that reflect his musical interest: Max Beckmann’s “Still Life with Large Shell” (1939), which features the artist’s wife, Mathilde, who was a violinist and singer, and Hale Woodruff’s “Normandy Landscape” (1928), which reminds him of African American spirituals and French art songs. He was also pleased to learn that Woodruff received fellowships to move to Paris, demonstrating that there was support for Black artists that came before him.

As part of coverage highlighting the exhibition, Johnson and his colleagues have been interviewed by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, and People magazine as well as appeared as a guest on the TODAY show, CBS Sunday Morning, and the Kelly Clarkson Show, where Clarkson described “Guarding the Art” as “one of the most talked about exhibitions in the country.”

Click, who studied art history at TU in 2018, says acting as a guest curator gave him an appreciation for the behind-the-scenes work that goes into an exhibition. 
He also hopes it gives more recognition to museum guards.
“We’re always in the picture, but you may not notice us,” he says. “Guarding the Art” gives visitors the chance to see art from a new perspective. “Until now, they never thought about asking the people who spend all day watching the art. We notice things that the curators, the people in conservation, haven’t realized.”

Click chose “Entry into the Ark” (c. 1575-80), attributed to Italian artist Jacopo Bassano, because he enjoys interacting with visitors who take a moment to observe the monumental painting. He often provides clues for them to find intriguing details missed by the casual observer.
He hopes the exhibition inspires other museums to follow in the BMA’s footsteps. “There are a lot of people who love art and have interesting perspectives to share.”
Ruark, who majored in electronic media and film at TU, says the exhibition has brought a sense of unity, camaraderie and access to the museum.
“We've gotten more people in the community comfortable coming in the doors,” she says, noting that the exhibition inspires more understanding among the works of art and their connections to the people in the institution. 
She also hopes it inspires visitors to interact with the guards. “When people go into museum, they can talk to a guard and have a wonderful conversation and make the experience more fruitful.”