Guardians of the Gallery

Guardians of the Gallery

McMullen Museum security officers learn art appreciation on the job

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

When bad weather once kept a docent from her appointed rounds at the McMullen Museum of Art, Security Officer Cliff Blackwood, a convivial retired cop, led a tour in her place.

L-R) Deborah Grondin, Walter Durrane and Frank Mullahy and their fellow McMullen Museum security officers are often pressed into service as guides for gallery visitors. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
"He added a little flavor to it," Security Officer Richard Kelly recalled of the tour de force by his former colleague, since retired from BC. "He put in a little spin, his interpretation of the artwork. At the end he got a round of applause from the group."

They're the museum's public face, and among the gallery's most devoted admirers. Few museum aficionados spend as many hours immersed in art as they.

It might rightly be said the McMullen Museum's most unsung art-scholar-critics are its security guards, who last week were preparing for the Dec. 8 closing of the museum's latest exhibitions, "Reclaiming a Lost Generation" and "Cowboys, Indians and the Big Picture."

"I have learned so much here in 10 years," said Security Officer Deborah Grondin '73, who studied art history in college, worked in admissions at Philadelphia College of Art, and after raising four children, returned to the museum world as a McMullen guard. "This job is a continuing education," she said.

Retired Boston College Police Captain Walter Durrane, a font of Boston history and BC lore, has fed his taste for the muse as a part-time security guard at the gallery since this past spring. "This is a more edifying experience than any place I could be," said Durrane.

"Some of the kids do wonderful copies of the artworks here - and they're not all art majors," he said. "They'll take a folding chair and station themselves in front of a painting. I'll frequently go and look over their shoulder, and be impressed at the quality of the work they do."

The museum guard's job feeds the spirit, said Grondin, recalling the Caravaggio show of three years ago that was highlighted by the first American showing of the rediscovered masterpiece "The Taking of Christ."

During the run of that exhibition, a guard was required to be posted at all times to the priceless Caravaggio painting depicting Judas' betrayal of Christ with a kiss.

Grondin said she spent literally "hundreds of hours" with "The Taking of Christ," including six-and-a-half hours on Good Friday when the show opened. The painting became for her an icon, "a window to God," she said.

"I never got tired of being with that painting," she said. "Every day I saw something new. It was very moving. I would even spend time with it when no one was in the gallery. It was hard to see that painting go."

Guards said the show of German self-portraits from the 1920s and '30s that closed this past Sunday was one of the most powerful ever mounted by the gallery. The "Reclaiming a Lost Generation" exhibition of works from the Feldberg Collection showcased German painters fallen into oblivion after their art had been denounced as degenerate by the Nazis.

"Even before people started to come to see it, I was impressed by it," Durrane said of the exhibit that opened Oct. 6.

"Many of the artists had their entire lives' work destroyed in the Allied bombing of Berlin. Those who were German Jews wound up in concentration camps and lost their lives. In many instances, the portrait here is the only evidence they occupied space on this earth. Many of the visitors get emotionally overcome."

Guards say the fine reviews and increasing exposure the museum has been receiving on the strength of shows like "Lost Generation" confirm what they have believed for some time: that the McMullen is a gem of the Boston art scene.

"The place draws raves," said Durrane. "The gallery is just the right size. One visitor said it's like looking at art in a friend's living room. Another who said she has been visiting art museums since the 1940s said BC's is the finest small art museum in the Boston area."

As do any art-fanciers, the guards have their likes and dislikes.

A favorite of Grondin's in the recent American West show was a contemporary work by Agnes Martin, "Untitled # 8," which, to the untrained eye, appeared a largely blank canvas, crossed by subtle horizontal lines. "It becomes a meditation," said Grondin. "It's soothing. It's meditative."

Security Officer Frank Mullahy said he preferred the realism of another painting in the "Cowboys, Indians and the Big Picture" exhibition, William Robinson Leigh's "The Gambler: End of the Play," depicting the result of a shoot-out in a frontier saloon.

"I like the barroom scene," the retired Watertown police detective said, tongue in cheek, as he and a guest admired the Wild West tableau. "It's like you could walk right in there. Though one lady the other day said she didn't believe it - there wasn't enough blood."

Mullahy struck a more serious note as he described the German self-portraits downstairs. "You see people crying down there, even men," he said. "People walk out saying it's the best show they ever saw."

Guards note their first and foremost charge is gallery security. The museum has never had a theft. "Our job is to serve and to watch," said Grondin. "The first thing they teach you is don't be distracted."

But interacting with the public remains an important part of the job description for the guards who are the museum's frontline PR officers.

"People always ask questions," Grondin said. "They're moved or inspired, and they want to make their own comment - to have someone listen."

Durrane said he regularly hears two comments. The first: "You're lucky to be surrounded by art all day." And the second: "How do you stand all day long?"

His reply: "After a while, you get used it."


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