The museum invited their security officers to curate an exhibition of their own. The result is a show filled with art from the sixth to the 21st century.



We're now going to hear two stories about art and inclusion, and they both happen to be centered in Baltimore. First, the Baltimore Museum of Art has come up with an idea that aims to broaden diversity, attract visitors and let some men and women who aren't trained in art get the chance to make major artistic decisions. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg explains.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: I love this story. It is such a great idea. The Baltimore Museum of Art has invited their guards to curate an exhibition. For the past year, BMA security officers have been working on a show, with guidance from professional curators and other staffers. Going through various museum departments, they've learned what it takes to put up an exhibition and got paid for it, in addition to their regular salaries, and had a terrific time, at least the ones I spoke with. One of them, in fact, burst into song.

KELLEN JOHNSON: (Singing in non-English language).

STAMBERG: Kellen Johnson is studying vocal performance at Towson University in Maryland. He's been a guard at the BMA for almost nine years. He loves music - also, the extra money for the project. I'm working my way through college, he says. His passion for music informed his choice for the exhibition. Kellen asked himself a question.

JOHNSON: If these paintings could sing, what would these paintings sound like?

STAMBERG: He picked a landscape by Hale Woodruff - made him think about walking along a row of trees on a darkish day. It sang Mozart to him.

JOHNSON: (Singing in non-English language).

STAMBERG: Seventeen of the BMA's 45 guards applied for the project. With most of the museum's fine collection to choose from, they picked artworks from sixth-century pre-Columbian sculpture through a 1925 French door knocker to a 2021 protest painting. The various guards themselves have a wide range of experience. They've published poetry, majored in philosophy, tended bar, walked dogs, smiled at nine grandchildren, served in the Army. That veteran is Traci Archbale-Frederick. At BMA since 2006, Traci had a goal for her choice as curator.

TRACI ARCHBALE-FREDERICK: I want something about social injustice - not be treated differently because you're Black.

STAMBERG: She picked Mickalene Thomas's collage, Resist #2 - cops with nightsticks, fearful protesters, the words I can't breathe painted on the stripes of a flag and a photo of African American writer James Baldwin.

ARCHBALE-FREDERICK: This piece is really saying everything that I wanted to say.

STAMBERG: Traci quotes Baldwin. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it's faced. Change was on guard-curator Elise Tensley's mind. She paints and wants museums to take women's art more seriously. Her pick is an abstract by Jane Frank. Elise doesn't guard the same gallery for months on end. They rotate, but don't they ever just zone out?

ELISE TENSLEY: Sometimes I do. Usually I use it to get my exercise in, and I walk around the galleries and get my steps in.

STAMBERG: The guards spend more time with the art than anyone else in the museum, and chief curator Asma Naeem, who had the idea of security curators, says they pick up lots of insights and pass them along to visitors and to her.

ASMA NAEEM: Any time you talk to them, it becomes, you know, just this glorious break from all of the monotony of the museum.

STAMBERG: Art historian and curator Lowery Stokes Sims, former director of the Studio Museum of Harlem, helped mentor the guards. She says hearing them respond to the art was a revelation.

LOWERY STOKES SIMS: To sort of hear these extraordinarily personal reactions to art that was so beyond the art-speak that I'm so used to - it just was so fresh, immediate, personal and perceptive.

STAMBERG: After 50 years in the art world, this had a profound effect on her.

STOKES SIMS: It happened to me at a point where I really needed to be energized about art again.

STAMBERG: Visitors to "Guarding The Art" at the Baltimore Museum of Art may also be energized by the choices of the security guards and maybe go up to one of them just for a little chat.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.