The Museum Guards
Words & Photograph by Celina Colby
A group of friends sit at a corner table in Pavement Coffeehouse on Boylston Street in Boston. Two men relax in chairs; others lounge on black leather couches. Bags and portfolio cases litter the floor. This might look like a bohemian daydream but in reality it’s a group of artists taking a break from their day jobs as security guards at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
At one end of the table, a competition fervently ensues.
“Wait, wait, wait,” says Jeff Ellse, raising his hand to catch the attention of his cohorts. “One time I saw John Kerry. I checked his umbrella for him.”
Loud applause. More names are thrown in: Ralph Lauren. Antonio Lopez Garcia. Mario Testino.
But it’s guard Steve Holness who takes the cake. “I once met Dennis Hopper,” he says, looking pleased. “We took a selfie.”
The group cheers, high-fiving.
Of the hundreds of security guards employed by the museum, a splinter group—about twenty or so—has become tight friends. Five or six at a time get together to share stories, play games, and, yes, talk about art.
Ellse, 33, and Matt Zappala, 31, sit next to one another at one end of the table. They studied art in college and applied as museum guards to supplement their artistic careers. They met at work and have been close ever since.
“I’d say about 60 percent of the guards are artists in some capacity,” says Ellse, “and about 25 percent are regular, practicing artists.” He adjusts his yamaka and turns to the group for confirmation.
Zappala, prone to existential musings, fiddles with his crayons. He’s a paradox, sitting in a sea of flannel and denim clad hipsters, still wearing his guard uniform—a crisp, black suit and comfortable Doc Marten boots.
“But aren’t even dabblers artists?” he says. “Aren’t we all artists?”
His compatriots exchange amused glances.
When the MFA canceled the staff’s long-running art show in 2006, the security department created an alternative. In the summer of 2014, the group put on an all-guard show at Cambridge College called Opus 13.
“We had a great turnout,” says Zappala. “We had a lot of artwork and Steve played. We even had a few performances.”
Holness, humble about his musical abilities, nods. You’d never know that on nights and weekends this quiet, gentle man plays in the reggae band Mighty Mystic.
Not only are the guards inspired by the art they’re hired to protect, they are inspired by the museum itself. Ellse did a series of drawings of the ventilation system in the museum’s attic, intrigued by the hidden equipment that keeps the institution running. Bruno Faria, a composer, created a musical arrangement by recording a group of guards saying different words in their native languages. The guard population is the most diverse sector within the museum.
Ellse has also drawn several portraits of his guard friends. Often a crowd will gather for dinner. While they eat and work through a bottle of wine, they sketch each other or the objects around them, sharing tips and becoming inspired by their collective creations.
The MFA guard friends were inspired to stage Opus 13 after hearing about the guard show done by the Metropolitan Museum of Art security at the 25CPW Gallery in New York.
In New England, the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, NH, also has a group of security guards who double as artists. They exhibit in an annual museum staff show, too.
Back at Pavement Coffeehouse, the conversation takes a devilish turn as the guards swap stories about their on-the-job shenanigans.
“We do have codes to navigate away from the ‘capital’ as it were—codes that only the guards know,” says Holness.
Ellse laughs. “This is starting to sound like the Freemasons, man.”
Zappala, the real prankster of the group, likes to convince visitors that the guards read poetry over the radio.
It’s not all fun and games, though.
“It’s a lot of long hours on your feet, and some days the only question you get asked is Where’s the bathroom?” says Jim Kennedy.
Often visitors don’t think to ask the guards real questions about the artwork. They assume the guards don’t know anything about the art.
In fact, many are artists, educators and art scholars. Ellse studied at the Art Institute of Boston and teaches at the museum school, yet his most frequently asked questions are Where’s the Da Vinci? and What’s the most expensive piece of art here?
However, the benefits may outweigh the difficulties for this talented group.
“I got my job teaching at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts from another guard,” says Ellse, whose focus is portrait painting.
“Even as artists,” says Holness, “being an officer greatly informs our skills. We get to be around the art for so long, it gives us a chance to critique it and learn from it.”
“We’re around the art more than anyone else in the museum,” says Ellse, “We spend more time with the art than the curators do. And that time doesn’t go to waste.”
A few nights later Holness works his eight-hour shift in the Americas Wing. People drift in and out of the galleries, snapping pictures on their iPhones and asking for the bathroom. He’s contemplating the soft light on the faces of The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit when a visitor approaches him.
“Excuse me, where’s the Mona Lisa?”
Sure, there are some misguided visitors, and sure, the long hours of standing are tough. But what he experiences here—the art, the visitor interactions and even the building itself—feed into his own artwork, and inspire him.