An Inside Look at the Lives & Art of Those Who Guard the Met Museum

Jason Eskenazi (pictured top) knows how many figures there are in the Vanderlyn panorama. As a security guard at the Met, he spent twenty months at the museum bored out of his mind, “So bored,” he says, that he surveyed every inch of the 165-foot painting of the Versailles garden. “And so here’s the count,” he wrote in an essay, titled “Securitology and the Art of Boredom,” “403 people, 3 dogs, and 1 butterfly.”

Mr. Eskenazi recorded this observation, along with many others, in a small Moleskin notebook he carried around in his back pocket. “Standing there all day, I needed to keep my mind going,” recalls the 51-year-old documentary photographer, who took the job as a guard after a Fulbright in Russia because he needed health insurance. In addition to the Fulbright, Eskenazi also received a Guggenheim award, the Dorthea Lange prize, and countless others awards before beginning at the Met as a guard.

Mr. Eskenazi, who is short with heavy eyelids, salt and pepper curls, a full beard, and fingerless gray gloves, found countless ways to occupy himself throughout his tenure at the Museum. He created a calendar of buttons to prove to himself that “each day at the museum was different”; he invented “Smart Guards,” a petition to educate the Met’s guards during off hours (he even presented the idea to management, but was “quickly shot down”); he recorded encounters, like the time he asked Tony Bennett what was his favorite piece in the museum. “Rembrandt’s self-portraits,” said Bennett, flipping the question back on Eskenazi. When Eskenazi shared his favorite painting, “The Creation of the Universe,” Bennett replied, “I didn’t know you guards were so smart.”

Eskenazi began to collect data from the other guards. “OK,” he would begin. “You’ve died and now you’re in the afterlife. God greets you and thanks you for guarding the museum for twenty years. As a reward for your good service, he will grant you one object from the museum. It could be any object. What would you choose?” Then Eskenazi gathered his 120 responses — lots of Jackson Pollock — into his Moleskin, where other tabulations, like “Things People Like to Touch” (a lot of sculptures), filled the pages.

In the fall of 2009, the Met produced an exhibition in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Robert Frank’s famous series of photographs The Americans. Mr. Eskenazi requested a transfer in post to the Gilman Gallery, where he could spend time with works by his favorite photographer. One day, the renowned photographer Joel Meyerowitz walked into the Frank show and immediately recognized Eskenazi — as a photographer. Eskenazi clutched his Moleskin and approached his friend with a question. “What’s your favorite Frank photo?” And that was the start of “By the Glow of the Jukebox: The Americans List,” Eskenazi’s catalogue of famous photographers’ favorite Frank photos.

Mr. Meyerowitz recounted the situation in an email. “Part of what makes moments like this special in the museums of New York is that you can have a real connection with someone who actually has ideas about works on view and is passionate about life and art. A few weeks ago we were in a museum elsewhere and the guards were, well, just guards. Their attitude was negative and miserable and our experience of the museum was colored by their shitty attitude. They would have been happier in a supermarket doing security or some other meaningless place. So encounters with guards who have ideas and creative lives actually enhances one’s experience in the museum.” But, for Eskenazi, the experience at the Frank show meant something else: He needed to get the heck out and take some pictures, fast. After all, his photographs were for sale at the Museum’s bookstore downstairs.

image Peter Hoffmeister.

It was a Monday, a favorite day amongst the guards, the only day each week that the museum is closed to the public. Minding the empty museum in his polyester suit and red clip-on tie, Eskenazi turned to Dave (another guard), and said, “You know Dave, we don’t matter.” Dave protested, “We do matter! Guards matter.”

“And thus, an idea was born,” recalls Eskenazi of the founding of Sw!pe magazine, an all-guard arts journal. The title alludes to the routine act of swiping one’s ID card in and out of work. “It’s a universal term for an artist who has to work any 9-5 job to pay their rent,” says Eskenazi. Even without a single announcement or press release from the Museum, the issue, released in the spring of 2010 with an accompanying exhibition at the 25 CPW gallery, generated a considerable amount of coverage, including a New York Times mention. “I didn’t think the Met was expecting that reaction from the public,” one of the guards said. “We’ve been emboldened since.”

For the second issue of Sw!pe, released this year, editors asked guards for submissions that take the Museum into consideration. The result exposes the works of 65 artists — if you want to solicit a few eye roles from them, “guardists” — nearly double the number of participants than in the first issue of Sw!pe. Watchman Peter Hoffmeister, 25, contributed one of the more literal interpretations of the assignment, a set of deconstructed blueprints of the Museum’s architecture. “Blueprint1.0001” features two vertically aligned floor plans of the Museum, with the first floor on the bottom, much like your standard brochure. The more solid shapes in the blueprint correspond to less solid areas of the real museum (areas under construction). Squiggly lines separate each gallery. The broken key to this blueprint is in the letters A- F, which float, displaced around the frame like tumbling cards. Stare at this long enough, and you’ll start to see all sorts of creepy people: a featureless, crowned king with his trident, a puffing chimney; several cartoonish characters on the right.

Mr. Hoffmeister got the job three years ago, fresh out of college, where he studied as a painter. He works nights, which he describes as an opportunity to really connect with the art on the walls. “At night, when no one is there, it’s easy to imagine artists at work,” he said. Hoffmeister is one of the founding editors of Sw!pe. According to the guards, the third issue is due out in late 2011. They will accept submissions from artists beyond the Met’s 2,000,000-square-foot walls, since the number artists working as guards all over the city appears to be quite large.

image Carlos Delgado.

Since the 1960s, museums have hired artists as staff. Sol De Witt, Dan Flavin, and Bob Ryman, to name a few worked as guards at the Museum of Modern Art. Perhaps the most famous case was a 22-year-old kid named Koons, who sat behind the membership desk also at the MoMA in 1977. He would eventually become the most expensive living artist at auction. It was at MoMA that Jeff Koon’s “talent for self-promotion blossomed,” noted Calvin Tompkins in his 2007 profile of the artist. “At MoMA, [Koons] attracted considerable attention by wearing polka-dot shirts, floral vests, big bow ties (sometimes two at once), and, occasionally an inflatable plastic flower.”

According to Mr. Eskenazi, “It’s a known fact,” that “the Met wants to hire artists.” And why shouldn’t they? The Museum could only benefit from employing artists to watch art. A keen eye for detail translates into the observation skills necessary to detect suspicious activity. But most of all, an artist cares about the work he or she protects. Carlos Delgado, an artist, guard, and one of the editors of Sw!pe expressed his feelings on the issue. “When people get to close to the paintings, I get upset.”

Mr. Delgado describes feeling an intimate connection to the artwork: “Whatever I guard, every day I take a look at it, whether it’s the detail of a hand or a composition of a painting, and it makes me wonder, ‘What was going on the day it was made? Was it raining? Was the artist smoking? Or drinking wine?’” Born in Jackson Heights to first generation Ecuadorian parents “who jumped around from factory to factory,” Mr. Delgado (now in his mid-30s) began as an aviation engineer, but found the program he used to design and animate the airplanes far more interesting than the airplanes themselves. He realized, “This artistic thing inside of me was screaming that I needed to do something in the arts.” Eventually Delgado opted for an art education at Stoney Brook instead. Following a brief period of employment in what he calls “the world of cooperate robots,” Mr. Delgado found an ad recruiting security guards at the Met. He applied, hoping he could use the position as a stepping-stone for other, more curatorial opportunities at the museum. “Everyone tries to get their foot in at the Met, and then move on to another department.”

When asked if he felt it was a waste of his day and creative talents to stand doing nothing for so many hours, Mr. Delgado raised his brow and said, “Anyone who tells you that is a weak soul,” then added, “As a museum guard your life is not wasted away. You know what would be a waste—a cubical! Where you don’t get to think on your own. I’m guarding the history of the world, the fingerprint of mankind.”

If anything, Mr. Delgado, like many of the other guards, says the job only informs his art. Take “Trigger and Boom,” featured in the latest issue of Sw!pe. On the left of the frame of this post-apocalyptic, Hopper-esque scene, an empty picture frame hangs from a jagged slab of museum wall, but don’t worry, the security guard on duty has not left—he still stands heroic in his uniform protecting the ruins. Across from him, on the right, a man in chivalry outstretches his arm as if to gesture, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” But, because he’s wearing armor, we can’t help but ask him that very same question.

Mr. Delgado, who paints out of his basement, says the empty frame alludes to the famous art heist in Boston that occurred twenty-one years ago, when two men disguised as policemen entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and inflicted the largest single property theft in recorded history onto $500 million worth of art. (Two decades later, police are still searching for the stolen masterpieces, and broadcast desperate messages to the thieves: “Whoever is holding the stolen art that, in order to protect the artworks, they must be stored in conditions that do not allow for swings in temperature and humidity.”) In the meantime, empty frames of the missing paintings remain hanging on the walls at the Museum to commemorate the stolen works. If the Gardner incident proved one thing, it was that happy, educated guards with health benefits are an important part of protecting a museum. As the late art detective Harold Smith said in Stolen, a documentary about the Gardner heist, “The guard is the lowest paid guy in the place. This guy came from Ohio, never worked before, and all of the sudden they put him in charge of a two-billion or a three-billion dollar collection.” image Artwork by Carlos Delgado.

While there’s nothing wrong with Ohio, Mr. Smith’s point about the guard’s minimal experience and pay reflects a larger issue: many museums do not ask for more than a high school diploma for hire. A recent ad by the Guggenheim soliciting a part-time security guard required only a “high school diploma or equivalent.” The Guggenheim would not comment on whether the same educational criteria is required of its full-time security officers, but looking around the classifieds, the pattern seems to continue. Ads issued by the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria and the Fine Arts museums of San Francisco also show minimum qualifications of “high school or GED equivalent” for security guards.

Whether because of its policy, broader budget, or even broader square footage, the Metropolitan Museum of Art only hires security guards with, at minimum, a bachelors degree. In exchange, guards are provided with a full salary, benefits, and what Delgado calls a “library.” “There’s so much talent in every area,” says Delgado. “There are a lot of musicians, a lot of actors, a lot of comedians, and there are people with PhDs.”

Nora Hamilton—whom you will find at the top of the big staircase leading up to the Museum’s entrance, and whom you will think of next time you have the urge to slide down the banisters—is a prolific author with a degree in psychology obtained in Germany (note, she wrote her thesis, in German, on the language of schizophrenics). Ms. Hamilton contributed a dark, short story to this issue of Sw!pe, called “Monsieur Tanclerre’s Rouge.” “It’s so amazing how this magazine has revived our spirit among all our ranks at the Met,” says Mr. Delgado. “There are people who put their artwork aside for years, it’s almost a rebirth of them. It’s almost like we’ve given people a little bit of hope.”

But, what if you have the job and you’re not an artist? Ask Dan St. Germain, a comedian you may have caught last March on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Before making his big comedic break, Mr. St. Germain worked at the Met as a Guard for three years, but he was not an artist. “Man,” he says, “it’s got to be different for artists working at the Met than it was for me.” Mr. St. Germain remembers walking around the galleries, reciting acts to himself when he could and picking up girls’ numbers (he has a girlfriend now). But, seldom did the art generate inspiration. “It’s not like I was in competition with Francis Bacon,” he said. “But for the others, the artists, it was different. They’re so talented and many aren’t recognized for it.”

Jack Laughner, who is an artist and guard, couldn’t agree more. “There are some old timers that aren’t artists,” he says, “Now that’s got to be tough.” Mr. Laughner illustrated the covers for the past two issues of Sw!pe, and like Mr. Delgado, Laughner started out in the sciences. He had enrolled in Syracuse University not with the idea but the understanding that he’d have to give up his passion for drawing and painting in order to pursue a scientific career. “There was no guidance growing up,” he says. In Jack’s hometown of Butler, PA, a small village about 35 miles north of Pittsburgh, the public library carried a total of two art books, one on da Vinci and one on Monet.

But, four days into his first semester, Mr. Laughner learned the most valuable lesson of his college career; that anyone could make a living as an artist. So, Mr. Laughner took his portfolio of drawings and walked across campus, presented it to the art school’s president, got in, and transferred immediately. “I would have ended up as some research scientist,” Laughner chuckles. After college, Laughner headed for the Big Apple to pursue his art career, grounded by the philosophy that, “every artist needs a day job.” Jack found work at a small bookshop, but the pay was minimal and the rewards diminutive, and pretty soon jack was on the lookout for other more stimulating opportunities. “I always thought it would be great to work in a museum,” he says, “even as a guard.” A few months later, in the fall of 2005, Mr. Laughner got his wish. He landed a job as a security guard at the top museum in the country, the Met.

While training for his new position, he met his wife Megan, who is also a guard at the Met. They got married last October. “I grew up in a small town where there were only a few books and then I went to school and that opened up a whole new world,” he says. “And the world opened up at the museum is completely immeasurable because of the resources that we have there.”

Mr. Laughner is responsible for the last two covers of Sw!pe magazine. For this issue’s cover, he used pen and ink to illustrate the tower of babel, “where the information desk normally is,” at the Museum. Mr. Laughner hopes to eventually make a living solely as an artist. “It would be my dream to you know wake up, have breakfast, and sit down at the drawing board and do my artwork and hopefully that would pay the bills. But no matter what I have to do, if I have to have a day-job for the rest of my life, I’m ready for that because I’m never going to stop drawing and creating artwork.” image Christopher Boynton.

Lambert Fernando, an associate dispatcher at the Met and contributor to this issue of Sw!pe, says that he can’t imagine a better existence. For Mr. Fernando, “It’s nice not to have to worry or think about money. There’s no pressure.” A native of the Philippines, Mr. Fernando’s family moved here when he was a boy. After graduating from the School of Visual Arts, he worked a few odd jobs before learning of the security job at the Met from a friend of his who worked there. “I thought it would be a perfect place to establish myself as an artist,” he said.

In “The Hidden Complexities of Jade and Lambert,” which you can find in the latest issue of Sw!pe, Fernando shows a circuit of theatrical faces, picture frames, a cat in a mirror, and various styles of homes. None are adjoined, but all are affiliated, like a chart, through fragments of pipeline. Jade is Mr. Fernando’s wife and a professional photographer. The couple just had their first child, who Mr. Fernando says is an inspiration both for his artwork and also for his job at the Met. “The benefits are especially important given the newborn,” he explains.

While Fernando hopes to eventually gain representation for his artwork, for now things look good. “I could do this for 20 years and be happy,” he says. As for Fernando’s feelings about Sw!pe Magazine, “This is just the beginning. It’s going to be unstoppable,” he said. Yet with the journal’s latest theme set to the Met, Christopher Boynton, another guard, artist, and editor, who happens to also be the magazine’s webmaster, expressed his concern about projecting an “overtly romantic notion” of the position.

Regarding the second issue, “They wanted to have the museum affect our work,” he said. “I was against that.” Boynton, who moves with the grace and severity of a First World War British officer and speaks with a thundery, movie-preview voice, (set to the tempo of Eeyore), says the museum has little influence on his artwork and if anything, standing on guards is just sort of “a zen thing.” Besides, he says, “Most of us need to work an additional day of overtime.”

A self-taught painter and native of Pennsylvania (but if you ask him he’s a New Yorker—he’s lived here longer), Boynton took up the job at the Met right after graduating college with a degree in Art History. Like Delgado and Fernando, Boynton became a museum guard with the intention of moving up in the art world. But, things didn’t exactly work as planned. “It is sort of difficult in security to move up,” he said. “ It’s compartmentalized.” Boynton says it’s compartmentalized, that Art handlers (called “technicians”) are more likely to move up than security guards. “I blame myself for being in the position for as long as I have,” he said. “But, I don’t fit into an office environment.”

He does, however, do everything else. Besides editor, webmaster, artist, and security guard, some of Boynton’s other hats include oil painter, graphic designer, treasurer of the guards’ union, and CEO of his own small publishing firm, Boynton Media, which publishes Sw!pe. He said that ever since its launch last year, visitors have come up to him and asked about Sw!pe. “Are you an artist, too?” they’ve asked. While Boynton is still figuring out what he wants to do in life, for now, he continues to guard the some of the world’s most prized artwork. And as for his favorite shift? He loves nights. In the morning, he said, “You can hear the first footsteps of people coming in, The slow rumble.”

Jason Eskenazi is no longer at the Met. He does not regret quitting, he says, “I’m still faced with financial difficulties to get out and shoot, but it’s about the love of the craft, the need to take pictures,” which he says is “almost like a mania.” And while he gathers funds to pick up his next project in Istanbul, Eskenazi still meets regularly with the other members of the Sw!pe editorial board. “We can’t meet at the Met cafeteria anymore,” he says. “But, we meet whenever and quite often,” citing his own home in Red Hook, which he says used to be a brothel, as a common meeting place. “Each editor brings different things to the process,” Mr. Eskenazi said recently over a Chai Latte. “It’s such a collaborative effort.”

“It’s like any good band,” added Peter Hoffmeister, from across a rustic table. “Are you the lead vocals?” Mr. Eskenazi took one, long silent sip of his latte, then looked up where a long row of pendent lights led his eyes to the sunlight outside a small café by his Red Hook home. The last few trills of Fiona Apple’s extraordinary machine faded over the loudspeaker. He looked back at Mr. Hoffmeister.

“I’m the songwriter,” he said.

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