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Under the gun is no way to view art

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The e-mail from a reader was unequivocal. "In all my visits to museums and galleries around the world," it said, "I have never seen an armed guard."

By startling contrast, a show of force is inescapable at the newest addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. During a recent visit, I witnessed what prompted the e-mailer to write: three uniformed guards from a private security firm, each wearing a utility belt stocked with a holstered gun and baton, the latter the T-shaped type of billy club a beat cop might carry. Armed guards were not patrolling galleries in any of LACMA's four other buildings, but they were very much on duty at BCAM, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum.

One guard was stationed in a top-floor gallery housing Jeff Koons' sleek commodity-sculptures. Among the works is a shiny blue, 12-foot stainless steel "Balloon Dog"; a trio of regulation-size Spalding basketballs, half submerged in an aquarium filled with distilled water; and a life-size, gilt-edged white porcelain figure of Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles -- arguably the World's Largest Knickknack.

Another guard was downstairs on the ground floor, where monumental steel labyrinths by Richard Serra fill two big rooms. The third sentinel was in between, on the second floor.

That's where Damien Hirst's big spin-art painting rotates like a Las Vegas gambling wheel on one wall, apothecary cases filled with prescription drugs occupy another one, and pseudo-stained-glass windows made from thousands of butterfly wings hang across the way. Hirst's mannered trio offers a timely variety of agents of mental delirium -- artistic, pharmaceutical and religious.

Amid them on the floor, the corpse of a Blackface lamb stands inside a small glass tank of clear formaldehyde, framed in white-enameled steel. That's where the guard also stood (on the floor, not in the tank). If I got too close to pickled Lamb Chop, I wondered whether the officer would snap to attention, draw his pistol and command, "Step away from the sheep! Step away from the sheep!"

Demonstrating an abysmal failure of journalistic nerve, I decided not to find out.

Unlike my e-mailer, I have seen armed guards in museums before. The occasions have been rare and usually extreme.

Most notably, in 1984 I was at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, where Picasso's 1939 antiwar masterpiece, "Guernica," had been installed inside a separate fortified building. The late artist had forbidden the painting to be shown in Spain until post-Franco democratic institutions were in place. Madrid was working hard to join the European Economic Community, and New York's Museum of Modern Art had reluctantly ceded the painting to the Prado.

Not only were some guards heavily armed -- helmeted soldiers with machine guns, in fact -- but "Guernica" was also behind a thick wall of bulletproof glass.

Like travelers at airports today, the carefully controlled queue of visitors had to pass through a metal detector before entering the austere gallery. "Guernica" had been vandalized at MOMA in 1974, when Tony Shafrazi, a hack artist and later art consultant to the shah of Iran, sprayed the black-and-white canvas with illiterate graffiti: KILL LIES ALL. The threat in Spain was more profound.

Basque nationalists had long used Picasso's celebrated work as a symbol for their separatist cause, since the painting's subject was an unprovoked Nazi bombing raid on a rural village in northern Spain. The Spanish government reported to a 1984 international survey more than 1,400 terrorist incidents in the previous decade, so now that Picasso's world-famous painting was in the capital, no one was quite sure what might happen.

Nothing did. But seeing "Guernica" under those daunting circumstances was unnerving. It underlined the typically more modest relationships that always obtain between cultural life and politics.

Unexpectedly, it also rendered absurd my recent BCAM experience. There the armed presence of private rent-a-cops mostly transforms a public art museum into a mid-Wilshire branch of Van Cleef & Arpels.

Also on the second floor are four oversize copies of LAPD uniforms -- complete right down to the holstered guns and batons. L.A. artist Chris Burden made 30 of them the year after riots erupted following the acquittal of officers videotaped while beating unruly motorist Rodney King. They hang in a row like giant paper dolls, offering a chance for intimate perusal unlikely to be welcomed by an officer on duty.

Their form recalls the 1970 multiple of business suits made by German artist Joseph Beuys, in which soft gray rabbit-felt ironically evokes spiritual warmth. But Burden's jumbo blue uniforms also partly embody then-LAPD Chief Daryl Gates' controversial paramilitary strategy for policing a huge city with relatively few officers. The uniforms, 7 feet tall, make a modest force loom large.

The same intimidation tactic appears to guide BCAM's uncommon display of armed guards.

Douglas Hall, chairman of the Museum, Library and Cultural Properties Council of ASIS International, an association of 36,000 security professionals, told a Times reporter last week that armed security at art museums "is not common, generally, in the United States." That's my experience too. Guns and police batons might be somewhere on the premises, but they're seldom paraded in museum galleries.

Seeing guns in the galleries is sort of like having lunch at a restaurant that proudly displays a "C" from the county Public Health Department in its front window. If you're lucky, everything will go just fine.

It's hard to imagine almost any scenario in which an art museum guard might shoot someone, but that bizarre thought keeps bumping around in your brain at BCAM. Needless to say, it has a less than salutary effect on the art experience.

As a rule, art museums don't discuss their security precautions. For obvious reasons, they prefer them to be as unobtrusive as possible. That institutional reticence is what makes this glaring aberration so weird. Visual intimidation by gun- and baton-toting guards shouts that security is a pressing issue -- and that BCAM requires more than any museum in town.

Step away from the sheep, indeed.

christopher.knight @latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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