ART : Guarding Against Ennui at Museums, Galleries : Security people find it hard to keep alert while also keeping an eye on the art and the visitors.

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Ever wonder whether museum security guards are dying of boredom, standing all day in those big, quiet galleries? Do they daydream? Ogle attractive women? Scrutinize the art?

Well, I figured it was time to get to the bottom of this burning question (and maybe score a few points with letter-writers who say, “Lighten up, Cathy!”), so I went off to do an informal survey at our local museums.

Bill Brennan, 23, is a tall, easygoing Cal State Fullerton senior who majors in psychology and physical education. He got his job at Newport Harbor “on a whim” last summer after doing security at the Del Mar Fair and some local bars and nightclubs. Now he’s chief of security, working four days a week with three or four part-time guards.


Brennan says you tend to do “a lot of thinking about everything so you don’t bore yourself to death.” What does he think about? “It depends on what kind of night I had the night before.”

There are some pleasant compensations, like “good-looking girls coming through. We’ll say (to other guards), ‘You gotta see this girl!’ Half of them are coming in doing papers for school. They’ll ask you questions. I’ve had a couple of lunch dates.”

But guarding on a slow day can be “like doing a long trip in your car,” Brennan says.

“Like going up the (freeway) with just AM on your radio,” agrees Joe Husovsky, Brennan’s colleague. “You put yourself on autopilot.”

Husovsky, 25, is an art history graduate of Cal State Fullerton who serves as the museum’s chief preparator, responsible for the installation of works of art. He relieves Brennan one or two hours a day. “Some days can seem like eternity,” he says candidly.

“Some days are eternity,” sighs Brennan. “One day, I came in at 8 a.m. and left at 1:30 a.m. after a reception.”

One gambit for keeping boredom at bay is timing how long visitors stay in the gallery. Brennan says people stayed an average of 45 minutes to see “Edward Hopper: Selections from the Permanent Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.”


“No,” says Husovsky authoritatively, “Hopper was an hour show. This one (“Typologies: Nine Contemporary Photographers”) is a 20-minute show.”

Guards get to look at the art much longer than any visitor, of course. They say they begin noticing small details others probably don’t see--but they’re also relieved when the scenery changes with the installation of a new show.

Not that they’re paid to look at the art--their big job is keeping other people’s hands off the stuff.

“I went to museums with my parents,” Husovsky says. “Ever since I was a little kid I knew that you don’t touch (the art) in a museum. It really was a shock that people touch.”

He says the touchers are usually people in groups who gesture toward it while trying to make a point. (“Especially women with long acrylic fingernails--they make this noise .”) Even touching a photograph might cause it to fall off the wall, he explains, resulting in damage to the print by splinters of shattered glass.

“I just tell them, ‘Excuse me! Don’t touch!’ . . . (But) people feel you’re invading their privacy.”


Touching had some amusingly dire consequences at the Charles Ray exhibit last summer. The Los Angeles artist designed a work called “Ink Box” to look like a sleekly contemporary black cube sculpture. In fact it was filled with 200 gallons of black ink. One person it fooled was a young woman in a white dress.

“She put her arm in almost up to her shoulder,” Husovsky recalled. “And when she pulled back--the ink was the consistency of used motor oil--a wave of ink hit her. I think she was in shock.”

“She stepped out of her clothes in the bathroom,” Brennan added. “Friends had to get her more clothes. There was ink everywhere--footprints to the bathroom and drip marks through the galleries. We had to close off the room.”

Visitors at the Laguna Art Museum also tend to want to get their hands on the art. The institution’s taciturn security chief, Vaughn Custer, 52, recalled one woman he rebuked for touching a work at the “California Light 1900-1930” exhibition.

“But this is my painting!” she protested. Custer checked with the curatorial staff: Sure enough, she had loaned the work to the show.

“California Light” was an especially popular show with the public, Custer says. “I had a lot of guys saying, ‘Boy, if you weren’t here, I’d have this one in my house.’ ”


At Newport Harbor, guards are occasional targets of visitor frustration with contemporary art. “You hear a lot of reactions,” Brennan says, “(Like) ‘ This is terrible !’ They need to get a reaction out of somebody, so they end up talking to you.”

“They always ask, ‘What does the art mean?’ ” Husovsky says. “(I say) You gotta look at it and draw your own conclusions. . . . I don’t particularly care for having to figure out contemporary art. . . . So many people want to see meaning in art. I don’t think it has to have meaning.”

Custer says that when Laguna museum visitors ask about the art, “most of the time they just want your opinion.”

He says he has encountered few overtly disgruntled patrons, although people hoping to stop in for a few moments while waiting for a table at the popular restaurant next door generally walk out when they learn there is a $2 general admission fee.

When school groups come through Newport Harbor--60 to 100 kids a day, with an average of 30 per tour--”that’s when it gets wild,” Brennan says. “Their attention span is about 15 minutes.”

Both Newport Harbor guards note that young visitors from communities like Santa Ana tend to be much better behaved than their more affluent peers. “The kids from Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Mission Viejo--they’re terrorists,” Husovsky says.

Older students sometimes have romantic agendas. “Women students sometimes bring their boyfriends,” Husovsky says. “She’s writing a paper, he’s”--Husovsky poses with arms folded impatiently--”then halfway through he’s looking at art too. It’s a cheap date.”


At the Laguna Art Museum, one young suitor recently arranged to have a “painting” spelling out his marriage proposal hung briefly in the lower level galleries. The couple showed up, the guy proposed--to a small, applauding crowd who heard something was afoot--and the furiously blushing young woman said yes.

At the Laguna museum, people inquire about the history of the museum about as often as they ask about the art, says Mike Stice , 21, a part-time security guard who is majoring in advertising at Saddleback College. Other questions concern such local tourist events as the Pageant of the Masters and the Sawdust Festival. But Stice prefers not to ask visitors if they’re tourists, “because I don’t want to insult them if they aren’t.”

Before he took the job, he had imagined “being by myself at midnight walking around this dark museum.” He was happy to learn that a guard’s life is a lot sunnier and full of human contact.

Some visitors, he said, tote paintings with them in the hopes of getting an appraisal, which museums cannot supply for ethical, conflict-of-interest reasons. Other people come in empty-handed but eager to describe art “treasures” at home.

Although teen-agers sometimes just sneak out to the bathrooms, younger visitors are “glued” to the art, Stice says. “Those kids are so interested in colors. They find something in everything,” particularly in abstract works.

Adults, on the other hand, sometimes have just enough knowledge to get confused. When the videotape wasn’t playing during the recent video exhibit, “Media Pranksters,” Stice often noticed people staring with interest at the utilitarian acoustic panels on the walls.


“They were square, hanging at the level a painting would be hanging,” he says. “People would say, ‘That’s kinda neat! Look at the shadows these things cast!’ ”