Guns guard Damien Hirst’s lamb at BCAM

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

As you stroll through the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, images of guns confront you, including Andy Warhol’s hip-swiveling, gun-slinging “Elvis,” Chris Burden’s Los Angeles policemen and the gun-brandishing fascist thugs of Leon Golub. And there are other armed men at BCAM.

On a recent day, at least three security officers with holstered guns and batons guarded the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art addition. One carries a 9-millimeter pistol. Another, armed with a .38-caliber pistol, is assigned to stand a few feet in front of an artwork with a dead lamb, embalmed in a tank filled with formaldehyde and water, created by British artist Damien Hirst.

A third stood in the window in front of the monumental Richard Serra sculptures downstairs. Armed guards were not evident elsewhere on the sprawling 20-acre campus.

Armed security at art museums “is not common, generally, in the United States,” said Douglas Hall, chairman of the Museum, Library and Cultural Properties Council of ASIS International, an association of 36,000 security professionals.

LACMA said its armed guards were not new. “Armed guards, stationed in galleries and throughout the campus, have always been a part of LACMA’s security plan,” spokeswoman Allison Agsten said this week.

Agsten said the guards were supplied by Inter-Con Security Systems Inc., a Pasadena-based global contractor whose website lists such present and former clients as NASA, the State Department and the U.S. Marshals Service. She declined to say how many armed guards patrol LACMA or provide further details.

The current guard in front of the Hirst piece has been there about a month, guards say, noting the potential for vandals to smash the tank and create a toxic leak. BCAM was evacuated for about an hour in April when a drop of formaldehyde about the size of a quarter leaked from the Hirst work, which is called “Away From the Flock.” Another museum spokeswoman said that a change in barometric pressure was responsible and that a conservator had resealed the case.

Don Hrycyk, the senior detective of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Art Theft Detail, said LACMA has had armed guards for a number of years.

“It’s just one level of deterrent,” he said, adding he was not aware of any instances in which an armed guard posed a problem at a museum. “You find security guards in every aspect of American life, at banks and markets and malls.”

Art heists

In a world of sensational art heists, armed guards at museums filled with priceless works might not seem surprising. “The Scream,” Edvard Munch’s emblematic “Skrik” of existential angst, went back on display at the Munch Museum in Oslo this month after being stolen in 2004 and recovered, with some damage, in 2006. In the last 20 years, vandals have urinated on a Marcel Duchamp urinal at the Tate Modern, vomited on Mondrian’s “Composition in Black, Red and White” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and poured black ink into the formaldehyde encasing a Damien Hirst lamb at London’s Serpentine Gallery.

Nevertheless, it’s still not common in the U.S. or overseas to have armed officers, according to Hall, who is associate director for the technical security office of protection services at the Smithsonian in Washington. “Even in major museums, there are still many that do not arm their security.”

The main reason is cost, he said. Well-trained armed guards are expensive. In addition, there are philosophical issues over whether armed guards are appropriate. There are liability issues as well.

“Several museums feel that the risk of a shootout, where many of the public may be hurt, is a bigger concern,” Hall wrote in an e-mail. “They would rather have the police respond. Some institutions face risks, though, where they feel they need armed officers as a deterrent, and to protect visitors and staff. . . . Risk varies, from location to location.”

The result is a patchwork of strategies. At Paris’ Louvre, tourists have been surprised to see armed guards, but several major American museums report no armed security whatsoever and ask not to be named to avoid being targeted. Hall, responding to a query from The Times, said an e-mail survey this week of his council’s members, which include security officers at the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, yielded no definitive statistics.

Some museums use armed guards or off-duty police officers occasionally, or for special exhibits, he said. Some donors require armed guards as a condition for loaning art. But it is not common for museums to have armed guards “on a day-to-day basis,” Hall said. For art theft, “the biggest threat is not the stranger,” Hall said. “Insiders are by far the biggest threat.”

‘A kind of paranoia’

One LACMA visitor, Laura Silagi, a Venice artist, said she first noticed the armed guard in front of the Hirst piece a few weeks ago. “I’ve never in my life seen armed guards in a museum,” she said. “It interferes with an art experience. There’s a kind of paranoia attached to it.”

Inside BCAM, one armed guard is stationed in front of Hirst’s white lamb, entombed in a glass case that shows some condensation at the top.

Nearby is a device marked “Formaldehyde monitoring” and “Do not touch,” with instructions to call the number for the “Conservation Center” with any questions. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies formaldehyde as a probable carcinogen, with immediate respiratory risks.

“Some crazy guy could smash it with a hammer, and the formaldehyde would spill all over the floor, and it could take two weeks to clean up,” the guard, who declined to give his name, said of the Hirst work.

anne-marie.oconnor@latimes .com