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Inside the Mind of an Art Institute Guard

THOUGHT POLICE: Our columnist channels the musings of a seasoned… “guardian”

Illustration by Jan Feindt

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First off, we’re not guards. I prefer “guardian.” Second-biggest art museum in the country, a collection worth billions of dollars, and the only thing standing between you and 5,000 years of human expression is me. So a little respect, please.

Been doing this for 12 years now. Nothing I ain’t seen. One time I caught two art students taking off their shirts in gallery 391A, and on their backs they each had a tattoo of half of Picasso’s old guitarist. Saw a kid kick a flip-flop into a 16th-century Saxony jousting helmet the other day. Some guy over in 263 smuggled in his own pitchfork. A pitchfork! Said he wanted to pose in front of American Gothic with his wife. People are crazy.

Damn straight I’m watching you. Do you have any idea how often some dummy tries to touch a Van Gogh? You people think it’s still wet or something? That shit’s 125 years old.

Excuse me, ma’am. You need to check that baby carrier.

My favorite room? Gallery 211. Spanish, Italian, 16th and 17th centuries. You’ve got a saint holding his own cut-out tongue, John the Baptist’s head on a plate, Mars beating the hell out of Cupid’s bare butt, Roman soldiers raping Sabine women. Jesus being entombed, Jesus rising, Jesus being crucified. Twice. Creepiest corner of the whole museum, and all anybody notices is The Assumption of the Virgin.

Least favorite? 243. All those haystacks and water lilies give me a headache. And the palm zombies with their iPhones, bumping into each other, snapping pictures of everything under the sun? Ugh. 243’s the worst.

I stay polite. Wouldn’t hold on to my job otherwise. They teach us how to blend in, keep out of the way. Fly on the wall? I hate that phrase. Flies are coated in bacteria and regurgitate their stomach contents onto food to liquefy it before they ingest it. You have any idea what that could do to a Modigliani?

Nah, man. Ain’t no f——ing fly getting on my wall.

I’m not an artist, but you pick up a few things over the years. Kandinsky and the sheer force of linear forms. The adaptability of modernism in Henry Moore’s early work. Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro and its influence on the baroque movement. You know, the usual stuff.

Bathroom? Sure. Down the hall, through those doors, your first left.

I’ll tell you a hidden treasure: John Singer Sargent’s oil rendering of Madame Paul Escudier in 273. Dark, moody, loose brushwork. And that face! She locks eyes with you, and you start wondering if maybe she knows all your secrets. But when you walk away, she does the same damn thing to the next person who looks at her. Spooky.

Comfortable shoes. That’s the secret. I spend a lot on HushPuppies.com.

Sure, guests kiss in front of the Chagall windows, but that’s just the PG-rated stuff. I’ve seen more skin in this place than in a Mississippi cathouse. Usually the Renaissance rooms, for some reason.

I always feel bad for the Himalayan art. Only time anyone goes in there is on the way to the gift shop. Even worse: photography and architecture, living out life down in the basement next to the bathrooms. How are you supposed to enjoy a Gustave de Beaucorps paper negative when you have to listen to a symphony of toilets flushing?

Love the Modern Wing. Sometimes you get lost in the art—then you see the Gehry band shell out the window, and you think: Oh yeah. I’m in Chicago. And you feel proud.

Audio guides are for suckers.

Sure, I’ll pose for a photo, since you asked nice. You treat me good, I’ll treat you good. You don’t, I’ll send you the long way to the bathroom.

How many dots in the Seurat? One for each time I’m gonna put my foot in your ass if you don’t back up behind the rope . . . Nah, just kidding. No one knows how many dots.

But seriously, please take a step back.
 

Jeff Ruby will be on leave for the September and October issues.

 

Illustration: Jan Feindt

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