FREDWILSON: When I was in college, had been a guard for our college museum. While this was not a major experience, it was something that stayed with me a very long time. And I always thought that I would make an artwork about that experience, and Guarded View turned out to be that artwork.
NARRATOR: These headless mannequins wear the guards’ uniforms used in four New York Museums: The Jewish Museum, The Metropolitan Museum, The Whitney, and the Museum of Modern Art.
FREDWILSON: When you’re a guard, you are, kind of, on display like everything else. You’re standing there, you’re silent, people walk by you, but unlike the artwork, you are invisible. And that tension between the two is what really intrigued me and really made me want to make the work. On top of that, this work was really about having been to museums, going to museums for years, and noting that besides myself and the guards, and perhaps, the people in the food service or the maintenance, you know, we were the only African-Americans or people of color in the museum. And no one in the professional staff, who decides what gets put on display, how those things get described and discussed, what’s acquired by the museum—to me that was also very much a part of why I did this piece. I’ve had museum guards tell me that the people in the professional staff who worked side-by-side with them for thirty years, would walk in the in morning and not even say hello. And so, this piece was not only to make them visible for the visiting public, but also for the museum professionals as well.
NARRATOR: In 1993, Wilson was invited to give an artist’s talk in the Museum galleries. He gave the talk as a museum guard.
FREDWILSON: I was invited by the Museum to give a tour of the exhibitions that they had on at that moment. I told them that I wasn’t a scholar. But I went to visit the Museum and I realized there were things I had to say about it. And they thought that was a great idea. So, I had lunch with, with the staff, in the Museum, and then I said, “Okay, excuse me. I’m going to change into my costume and I’m going to meet you in the galleries by the sign that says ‘Fred Wilson speaks at 2:00.’”
I changed into a guard’s uniform and stood by my sign. And then a few minutes later, they all came downstairs and stood around in front of me waiting for me to show up. Literally, just, you know, just sort of relaxing, waiting for me to show up—right in front of me. And then I said, “Well, okay, let’s get this thing going.” And, of course, the people that I’d known for a long time, were embarrassed.
And this group followed me around. Of course, this was kind of interesting for the public to see a guard speaking in art historical terms and critiquing the exhibition. And then the guards came off their station to hear me do this, and every once in a while, they’d say things like, "I always wanted to say that about that artwork, you know.”