The Art Institute employs approximately 900 people who work across many different departments—from curatorial to art packing to information technology. It’s easy to forget how big the museum is and how it takes many kinds of jobs to keep it running smoothly. It’s also easy to take for granted the work of our colleagues who have some of the toughest jobs: those who work on the front line, whether as security officers, visitor services staff, or volunteers. That’s why when the Department of Protection Services announced its inaugural Appreciation Day, I was more than excited to sign up.
I was assigned to shadow Officer Dew (above) for an hour last Monday in Gallery 292, which is where Charles Ray’s massive Hinoki (below) resides. When I arrived, she explained how to take inventory of the paintings, sculptures, light levels, and installations in the room. She also gave me some tips: be alert, pay attention to the visitors, listen to your radio, and keep a smile on your face.
You might think it’s a luxury to spend all day looking at art, but in truth, it’s not that simple. Far from mere art appreciation, your attention is constantly alternating from one thing to another: is that visitor walking too close to the artwork? Did someone just call for me on the radio? Yes, the bathrooms are just around the corner. No, you cannot take flash photography.
For the first half of my shift, our gallery remained pretty quiet. Hinoki is one of the harder posts, I learned, for a number of reasons. For starters, it’s a big, textured, hollowed out log set in the middle of the room with no barriers or visible alarms. Your first instinct is to touch it—which many people try to do. Next instinct: smell it (no joke, I saw people attempting to do this!). In addition to the sensory draw this carved tree commands, it’s got branches that jut out in unexpected places, making the hapless visitor prone to brushing against it, or even walking over a low-lying section. It’s also hollow in the middle, inviting visitors to look through to the other end, take photos, and get as close to inside the tree as possible. Suffice to say, this gallery is not your typical paintings-on-the-wall kind of space.
About 15 minutes before my shift ended, a large group of visitors breezed in to see Hinoki, the final stop on their guided tour. While the 40 or so visitors listened attentively to a museum education lecturer, Officer Dew and I made constant circles around the room, whispering to visitors to remain two to three feet from the art, please, and reminding them not to back up or bump into a stray branch. As the group slowly dispersed, Officer Dew leaned over to me and said, “Now imagine that times six hours on a Saturday.” I can only begin.