August 06, 2006

“SOME PEOPLE ARE REALLY ANGRY AT CONTEMPORARY ART," Says Alison Stephen, a "gallery guide" at the Guggenheim Museum. What's a gallery guide?

The job of the Guggenheim’s eight gallery guides is in some ways unique: although all of New York’s major museums have educational programs, only the Guggenheim hires people to mingle full time in the galleries, interacting with museum patrons in all their quirky diversity. And though she had been on the job only three weeks, Ms. Stephen had already noticed a recurring phenomenon. “Some people are really angry at contemporary art,” she said reflectively.

If the Guggenheim had simply needed better security, more guards could have been hired. The guides program exists because the public’s confusion about modern and contemporary art is alive and well, which is brought home to the guides every day.

“Modern art baffles,’ said Jim Fultz, the longest-serving guide, who was hired in 2004. “It alienates. It frustrates. But part of what we do is make them feel comfortable with it. A lot of people are afraid to ask questions. They don’t want to seem dumb about something they already feel is elitist.”
So the modern art keeps pissing people off, and they've hired people to pass as ordinary museum-goers and try to manage the mood. I'm slightly offended by this ruse, but also charmed that there is a job like this, which I think would be a really nice day job for a struggling artist or actor. I would have loved to do this when I was young and fancied myself an artist. I'd even like to do it now. I could see myself, retired from professorhood, roaming around the museum looking for the surly folk and saying something to guide them back onto the track of art-love. I'd be happy with a collection of jobs like this. I would, for a price, go sit in a movie theater crowd and cue the flow of laughter on the subtler jokes. I would, for a price, eat in a restaurant and make slightly audible favorable comments about the menu and, with a co-worker, contribute a pleasant sound of conversation and even make up gossip about fictional characters to give the other diners something to eavesdrop on. Or maybe I should just start a business, designing jobs like this and selling businesses on the notion that they need fake patrons to improve the attitude of the real patrons. And all you artists and actors in need of an amusing day job can come to me. I'll just take 10%.

ADDED: I should say that -- based on the photo accompanying the linked article -- the Guggenheim guides are wearing tags, and are not as stealthy as the artists and actors in my job fantasy scenario.