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Menil Menace: What Not to Do When You Spot Someone Spray-Painting a Picasso

Detail from YouTube video screenshot (Photoshop enhanced) of vandal spray-painting the Menil Collection’s Picasso, “Woman in a Red Armchair,” 1929

What would you do if you witnessed someone on the verge of damaging an artwork hanging in a museum?

Would you record the event on your cellphone and murmur “WTF?” into its microphone, like the person at the Menil Collection last week who witnessed the defacing of a Picasso?

Or would you do something like what I did, when I saw a clueless student at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who was about to employ a Cézanne portrait of his wife as the ideal surface against which to rest his worksheet while filling in its blanks?

I screamed, “NO-O-O-O-O-O!!!“—loud enough to stop the student and to attract the attention of the nearby guard. I didn’t need to think about this. It just happened.

My unstated reaction when I viewed the video taken at the Houston museum has now been given voice in an Associated Press follow-up article (which also provides details about the Menil’s conservation efforts).

Juan Lozano reports:

Once the man [who vandalized the Picasso] walks away, the person taking the video walks up to the
painting, recording the damage. This, plus the fact that the witness
happened to film the vandal at the moment he damaged the painting, has
some speculating whether the two were working together.

have wondered if this YouTube was shot by a bystander who just
happened to be there at that moment or if it’s more akin to
perpetrators, plural,” [Vance] Muse [the Menil’s press spokesperson] said. “I just don’t know. But I hope we
find out.”

Maybe this documentation of a crime was complicity, or maybe stupidity. We’ve become a nation so obsessed with our electronic devices that we sometimes forget to privilege the real world over the digital.

Speaking of which, I have three times, at three separate museums, witnessed museum guards fixated on their smartphones instead of eyeing the galleries. Here’s one, at a place where I wouldn’t have expected this to happen—the National Gallery, Washington:

Don’t walk into that Serra!

I propose that guards be forbidden to carry smartphones while on duty. They’re just too addictively distracting.

But back to Houston: Lovano also reported that the Menil “will review its security measures, which include surveillance cameras and two dozen guards.” I have asked the museum how many of those guards were actually on duty at the time of the incident. I’ll update if and when I receive a reply.

an ArtsJournal blog