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Wroth About the Tate’s Rothko: Where Are the Guards?

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“The Sleeping Guard,” taken on a Saturday afternoon at a museum’s entrance
All photos by Lee Rosenbaum

I briefly mentioned in an update to this post that an arrest has been made of a suspect in the defacement of one of the Tate Modern’s Seagram Murals by Mark Rothko. The Tate has now confirmed to me that the affected painting was “Black on Maroon,” 1958 (one of several with that name and title) but if you click the link to see its image, you will also see that it is still, at this writing, described on the museum’s website as “on display at Tate Modern,” which it hasn’t been since the Oct. 7 incident.

The suspected graffitist is 26-year-old Wlodzimierz Umaniec, a Polish national who had reportedly characterized himself as Russian and had called himself Vladimir
Umanets
(the name scrawled on the painting—an anagram for “I’m True Vandalism,” as noted here). [Note to media: Don't take as reliable the word of suspected lawbreakers and don't dignify their delusory views of themselves and their actions with serious, extensive coverage.]

This shocking act of vandalism has focused needed attention on the question of whether museums are adequately fulfilling what is arguably their preeminent role—to preserve and protect the works they hold in the public trust. On Monday, the Guardian posted a reader’s poll, asking an inane question: “Do public art and museum collections need more, or less, protection?” (For the record, 60% said “More”; 40%, “Less.”)

A more cogent question, which we can only hope museums around the world are urgently asking themselves, is: “How can we improve security?”

No amount of high-tech alarms, barriers and security cameras can trump the importance of the foot soldiers on the ground—the guards. It may be impossible to stop a nimble vandal from attacking an artwork. But if a museum has an adequate security staff in place, it should be impossible for that vandal to flee the museum unapprehended.

The other line of defense should be the visitors themselves. Museums need their own version of, “If you see something, say something.” One of the troubling mysteries surrounding both the recent Menil and Tate incidents is how and why the observers who videoed (in the case of the Menil’s Picasso) or photographed (in the case of the Tate’s Rothko) the vandalism didn’t at least yell in protest or rapidly seek the assistance of a guard (supplying a quick description of the alleged perpetrator). Were there no other witnesses to these acts who could have sprung into action?

Ideally, the in-gallery security staff should be so plentiful and visible as to be a powerful deterrent to any would-be thief or vandal. But from my lifetime of wandering through museums around the world, I can say that I have often looked around me and asked myself, “Where are the guards?” It happened six years ago at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and it happened last June at the Barnes Foundation. If museums are paring down their guard staffs, due to financial exigencies, in the belief that high-tech monitoring is an adequate substitute for a robust in-gallery security presence, they’re making a big mistake. The need for a robust guard presence shouldn’t be weighed against other priorities. It should be THE priority.

But the mere presence of guards is not enough. They need to be constantly vigilant. I’ve been increasingly encountering guards who are chatting and joking amongst themselves…

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texting, web browsing and e-mailing…

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…and let us not forget (although we wish we could) sleeping—including the snoozer at the top of this post and this one, sprawled on a gallery bench:

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An inattentive security staff is a telling indicator of a laxly run institution. Responsible museum administrators must let it be known, on no uncertain terms, that there will be zero tolerance for any of the behavior illustrated in the rogues’ gallery above. They must enforce that edict with frequent spot checks by on-the-ground administrators.

I’ve obscured the faces of the derelict watchdogs and omitted the names of their (recognizable) institutions, because my goal here is not to get these people fired or to point a finger at individual museums. My purpose is to impel all museums to review their policies and practices and not be lured into false complacency with high-tech gadgetry, while neglecting the most basic, essential component of art stewardship—the eyes and ears of people like this:

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