‘In the stillness, my mind was able to wander’: how a museum guard found solace in art
When Patrick Bringley’s beloved older brother fell ill with cancer, he found that he no longer had much appetite for his ritzy job in the events department of the New Yorker. Life then was about hospital rooms and love and “all the very basic things” in this world; there seemed no meaning in hanging his jacket over his desk chair every morning. But what to do instead? In 2008, Tom died, and all Patrick knew was that he needed the kind of work that would not require him to scrap and scrape and constantly “muscle his way forward”. Soon after this, acting on a whim, he applied for a position as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and by the autumn, there he was in his uniform, standing next to Raphael’s Madonna and Child Enthroned With Saints – the first post in a job he would happily hold down for the next 10 years of his young life (at the time, he was 25).
“I knew I wanted something straightforward and nourishing,” he tells me when we talk via video call (he is in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and two children). “But it turned out to be much more than that. I had a sense straight away there was something extraordinary about it. Office life is busy. You’ve always got your mind on some project; you’re always pushing the ball forward. All of a sudden, I had that drop away. I was in a gallery. My hands were empty, my head was up, and I was duty bound not to be busy. There was nothing I was meant to do except keep my eyes open. A wave of freedom washed over me. In the stillness, my mind was able to wander.”
For eight hours a day, he found himself in the gentle embrace of hundreds of beautiful objects, an experience that ultimately proved to be so profound, he was moved to write a book about it. As he puts it now: “When art gets written about, what’s often missing is the experience of being face to face with stuff – and that’s funny, because it’s this communion that draws people to museums in the first place.” Perhaps he could put this right.
All the Beauty in the World, a memoir that has already been praised by at least one of his former colleagues at the New Yorker, explores this communion via a series of extended encounters with particular objects: The Temple of Dendur from the 1st century BC, which stands in the Egyptian galleries; an Iroquois (Native American) snapping turtle-shell rattle from the Met’s collection of musical instruments; a series of photographs by Alfred Stieglitz of his artist wife, Georgia O’Keeffe; a Crucifixion by the 15th-century Italian Fra Angelico, which Bringley decides is the one thing he would take home with him if he could; and many others (the book comes with an appendix listing every work mentioned, and where to find it).
But it does plenty of other things as well. The Metropolitan Museum is huge. The size of about 3,000 average New York apartments, its collection comprises more than 2m objects, or roughly one per square foot of the available gallery space. It is like some city state, inside which several smaller empires – its 17 curatorial departments – operate more or less independently. They, in turn, are supported by hundreds of other workers. The museum employs 2,000 people, of which its guards number 500, the single largest group. Bringley, then, makes himself an anthropologist of the institution, carefully explaining its rituals to the rest of us, who can only dream of what goes on behind the many doors through which we are forbidden to walk. Visitors to the Met, incidentally, number 7 million every year, and he analyses them as well: their responses to what they see, whether discomfited or joyful; their many questions, some of which are sensible, and some of which are very silly (for instance: “Where is the Mona Lisa?”).
It is all so interesting – and chastening, too, if you have never really given much thought to those whose job it is to watch you whiz round the latest blockbuster show. At the Met, guards are required to walk so far every day, they each receive a “hose allowance”: an annual payment of $80 for socks. (The museum also employs a tailor, to adjust and mend their uniforms.) Guards work, for the most part, alone in the galleries, with only their sore feet for company, but they are also a close community, one that reflects the wider social makeup of New York: almost half are first-generation immigrants, a substantial proportion of them originally from Albania, Russia and west Africa. The job is unionised, and thus relatively secure, and this means that vacancies are sought after, even if most do have to put in overtime to make ends meet.
“People do stay for a long time,” Bringley tells me. And does the museum work on them as it worked on him? He thinks it’s a mixture. Everyone takes pride in the place – how could you not? – but some are more lastingly intoxicated than others. “The guard I call Joseph in the book, who was one of my closest friends when I worked there, recently had his retirement dinner, and he told me something extraordinary that I wish I’d been able to put in the book. His favourite gallery is the Astor Chinese Garden Court [a display built in the style of the Ming dynasty]. Joseph is from Togo, and he’s going to retire to Ghana, which is next door, and he showed us pictures of the house he’s building there – and it’s going to come with his very own version of the Astor Court.” He smiles. Does he stay in touch with his old colleagues? “Oh, yes. I see them frequently.”
Of course there were boring times in the galleries: afternoons when his back ached and all he could think about was getting on the subway to go home. But even boredom has its uses when it comes to art. There are, he says, different ways to look at objects, especially if you are a guard, able to visit them again and again. You can be purposeful, reading every curator’s note. Or you can choose to drift; to see things more slyly, out of the corner of your eye: “Sometimes, that very sort of passivity gives new dimensions to art. There’s some art that shines all the brighter if you let the sunshine hit it rather than a laser.” He has learned, thanks to his years at the Met, to trust his instincts. Beauty, he insists, evokes just as clear a response in us as something funny does, the only difference being that it is quieter and shyer to emerge. In his case, it’s a matter of tremors in his chest: a trembling that is as likely to happen when he’s gazing at a quilt stitched by cotton pickers in Alabama as on a painting by Monet or Picasso.
Why did he leave? By his own admission, he could easily have stayed on. It was a combination of things. His grief had eased. His mind was increasingly drawn to life outside the building. His body had begun to be restless. But even after the decision was made, he knew he had been “spoiled for office life”. It was only once he had scored a part-time job as a Manhattan walking-tour guide that he finally handed in his notice.
Was it a wrench? “Yes. There was something so perfect for me about that job. It was like this big shell around me. But I found that I wanted something that was not so perfect – and writing a book is certainly that.” In any case, it is all still there, waiting for him. He can visit any time he likes. And nothing really changes. As he observes in his book, when the Met looks different, it is often the beholder who has been transformed in some way, not the museum itself. In the decade he spent on its staff, several wings were renovated, and hundreds of new objects were acquired. Mostly, though, all that happened was that artworks from 50 centuries just got 10 years older.
So is the Fra Angelico still a favourite? Or has it been superseded in his memory by some other treasure? He thinks for a minute. He’s reluctant to sound like someone who collects baseball cards, or something. But yes, in his eyes, it remains a wondrous thing. What a strange and powerful combination of peace and drama! “There are these figures at the base of the cross,” he tells me, his voice rising as he speaks. “They’re John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene, and they’re bringing comfort to Mary, who has crumbled to the ground.” He recognises this moment. He believes it speaks down the centuries to people of all faiths, and of none. “The artist is homing in on this idea that even when the world seems to stop, it is still churning, and this reminds us all of what we have to do, which is to get to work. To go out, and try to be good people.”
- All the Beauty in the World by Patrick Bringley is published by Vintage (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
In the Basque Region of Spain: Art, Culture and a Puppy That Blooms
It’s not every beach stroll that leads to a modernist masterpiece, let alone one set in the sea amid crashing waves.
After a bracing walk along the esplanade beside Ondarreta Beach in San Sebastián, Spain, I coaxed my family to keep going until we arrived at the western edge of La Concha Bay. There, anchored into the rocks and bashed by waves, was the 20th-century Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida’s “El Peine del Viento” (the Comb of the Wind): three nine-ton, rust-covered sculptures. They resembled monumental claws or talons reaching out, trying to connect — a potent symbol of Basque endurance over the centuries.
It was also a sign to my husband and 11-year-old twins, Freddie and Frida, that we’d be spending the weekend seeking out art in some unusual places.
With its wildly vertiginous and verdant landscape and proud heritage, the Basque region has long been a place I’ve wanted to explore with my family. So in February, we spent three crisp, sunny, culture-focused days driving from San Sebastián to Bilbao with several worthwhile stops in between.
By the second day, my kids didn’t want our adventure to end.
Driving into town earlier that day, past the grandly ornate buildings lining the final stretch of the Urumea River before it reaches the sea, Freddie declared San Sebastián “pretty cool” when he spied groups of kids carrying surfboards and heading toward the beach as they dodged fur-coat-clad shoppers hurrying along the sidewalks. With its world-renowned culinary scene, film festival and stunning natural setting on a crescent-shaped cove, San Sebastián can tick a lot of boxes for visitors with widely varying tastes. Even in February, the beach was buzzing, though only surfers in wet suits and dogs chasing sticks ventured into the water.
The city’s museums were alive with a similar mix of youthful energy and old-school European cultural appreciation. Tabakalera, a giant multipurpose art space inside a former cigarette factory, features exhibitions, film series and huge open-space lounges — some with table tennis and other amusements. It’s a place where kids can be exposed to accessible culture, but still have room to run around. There is also a vast library, a pizzeria and, on the top floor, a restaurant called LABe run by students at the Basque Culinary Center, so it can be a full-day experience.
On a rainy day, Tabakalera could be a lifesaver for a visiting family. But it was sunny during our visit, and the city’s cathedral, with its vast expanses of jewel-toned stained glass, was especially beautiful. This summer we’ll be making a trip back to San Sebastián — both to swim in that beautiful cove and to see the Lighthouse, a monumental sculpture inside a derelict lighthouse on the city’s picturesque Santa Clara Island. The Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias dug up the floor of the structure and recreated in bronze the geological features of the rock beneath it. Reached by boat, it’s only open from June through late September.
Unexpectedly, the San Telmo Museum, which we assumed would be a display of regional pride, turned out to be a highlight of our trip and, like the city itself, had something for everyone. Though one enters through a small, minimalist glass-and-concrete pavilion, the museum is built around a staggeringly beautiful Gothic monastery cloister with elaborately carved stone arches. Opening a side door to the dark and moody chapel, I was blown away to discover vast murals by one of my favorite Spanish artists, José Maria Sert, whose best-known works were sometimes painted on gold or silver leaf, and are more typically encountered in glamorous settings like Rockefeller Center or the palatial homes of wealthy clients rather than somber monastery chapels.
Around the corner were shimmering suits of armor, swords, maces and other weapons, which Frida — currently enamored of all things medieval — explained to us in all their lethal goriness.
Freddie’s most frequent question upon entering a museum is: “Do they have any cars?” Indeed, this museum did — groovy 1970s ones (along with scooters and bicycles). The vehicles highlighted the Basque region’s role in modernizing Spanish society from the 1960s to the ’80s, during the final years of the Franco dictatorship and the beginning of the country’s democracy. Going further back in time, a display of more than a dozen examples of the bizarrely elaborate 17th-century linen headwear traditionally worn by married and widowed women had Frida perplexed enough to declare (and not for the first time) that she would never marry.
At the opposite pole of this potpourri of regional art is Chillida Leku, a space dedicated to the oeuvre of just one artist, Eduardo Chillida, whose monumental sculptural works — including variations of “El Peine del Viento,” which we saw on the beach the day before — are in (or often in front of) major art museums around the world. In the 1980s, the artist purchased the property — which is near the town of Hernani on the outskirts of San Sebastián and includes a 16th-century farmhouse — to create a compendium of his works installed both indoors and outside for pastoral contemplation. And even with two kids running around the grass trying to scare each other by jumping out from behind the artist’s massive yet elementally simple steel or stone or concrete sculptures, Chillida Leku (leku means “place” in Basque) provided delicious hours of just that. I was particularly struck by the way some of the largest sculptures branched out at the top and seemed to reach for one another but never touch, like many of the ancient trees nearby.
Inside the beautifully restored stone and wood farmhouse, a gallery attendant named Anabel got us all talking about the sculptures and provided a wealth of fascinating details about the artist, such as the fact that he trained for years with the local blacksmith — which explains why some of his early works incorporate elements of farm tools.
The seaside hamlet of Getaria, about 30 minutes west of San Sebastián, may be tiny, but it gave the world two titans who changed history in one fashion or another. The first was Juan Sebastiáno Elcano, the Spanish explorer who completed the first circumnavigation of the globe in 1522 after Ferdinand Magellan was killed midvoyage in what is now the Philippines. He made it back to Spain after some 1,200 days at sea, returning with just one ship and only 19 men (five ships and some 265 crewmen departed Spain in 1519). He is a celebrated hero in his homeland, but is largely unknown outside Spain, where credit for the voyage goes almost entirely to Magellan.
In contrast, Getaria’s other native son has a name that is known far and wide and has become a global brand. Cristóbal Balenciaga — the couturier whom Christian Dior, Coco Chanel and other designers considered, in Dior’s words, “the master of us all” — was born here to a local fisherman and a seamstress in 1895. By his teens, he had clients among the Spanish nobility and eventually the royal family. He moved to Paris during the Spanish Civil War, where his talent and list of clients became legendary.
To great fanfare, the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum opened in Getaria (in the former palace of his most ardent early client) in 2011, bringing the rarefied world of haute couture to this quaint village. Many of the stunning dresses on display were donated by the likes of Princess Grace of Monaco; the American philanthropist Rachel Mellon, known as Bunny; Balenciaga’s friend and protégé, Hubert de Givenchy; and other beau monde figures. It’s a fun romp for kids through the dimly lit galleries of fanciful clothing from a different age. This year’s exhibition, “Balenciaga Character,” focuses on the essence of his designs and what made them so innovative and beautiful that other designers felt almost obligated to follow his lead for decades.
How many UNESCO World Heritage sites allow you to drive your car on them? Heading farther west from Getaria, we bypassed downtown Bilbao and went straight to Las Arenas, the posh seaside enclave where the Nervión River meets the Bay of Biscay. Our goal was to see (and use) the Vizcaya Bridge, a pioneering type of suspension bridge built in 1893 and recognized by UNESCO in 2006. It was designed by Alberto de Palacio y Elissagüe (who also designed the iconic Atocha rail station in Madrid). The brief was to create a link between the towns of Guecho and Portugalete on opposite sides of the river without impeding the shipping traffic that was crucial to Bilbao’s booming steel industry. Palacio’s novel design was not a roadway but a suspended gondola that today shuttles about eight cars and a fair number of pedestrians across the river in one minute — as thrilling for my husband and me as it was for the kids. The deck supporting the gondola is more than 150 feet above the water, so even today’s tankers, aircraft carriers and a few airplanes have managed to get under it.
Back when it opened, there were set fares for pigs, cattle and funerals — today it’s just cars, scooters, bikes and pedestrians (1 euro, or a little over a $1, round-trip for pedestrians). As we approached the soaring tower on the Portugalete side of the river, Freddie squeezed my hand and said, “This is the best day ever” — words he also uttered amid the giant redwoods of the Sequoia National Park in California.
Ever since the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao opened in 1997, the city has occupied an important perch on the European cultural travel circuit. Many kids will go bonkers over the giant floral puppy, a large petunia-based sculpture by Jeff Koons that stands in front of the museum. If you’re visiting in the summer, you’ll want to know about the nearby “water park,” a fountain with variable jets of water spouting from the ground, where children and adults can cool off in the midday heat.
Whatever exhibitions are on view (until May 28, there’s a beautiful Joan Miró painting exhibition focused on the artist’s early years in Paris), a ride up the glass elevators in Gehry’s torquey, bendy central lobby is enough to satisfy most kids. Do not miss the long gallery of monumental spiral sculptures by Richard Serra; exploring the mazelike spaces created by the circular steel walls is, I’ve found, a home run for children.
By the time we got to Bilbao’s maritime museum, Itsasmuseum, we were pretty exhausted, and I told the ticket seller we’d be in and out in 30 minutes. In the end, the guards had to move us out at closing time as we were so engaged with the displays of antique model ships and paintings of historic shipwrecks. There are also more modern exhibitions about surf culture and the role of the river and the sea in Bilbao’s development, as well as what’s being done in the city to adapt to global warming and preserve the ecosystem that’s been its lifeblood. In warmer weather, a small dry dock in front of the museum allows visitors to explore various types of vessels in use on the city’s waterways.
Like San Sebastián, Bilbao has its own vast multipurpose cultural center in the Azkuna Zentroa Alhóndiga, a former wine and olive oil warehouse that sat empty for 30 years until the architect Philippe Starck reimagined it as a library, exhibition space and gym, where there are two indoor pools on the roof that anyone can visit for a few euros per day.
And splashing around in pools designed by Mr. Starck — one of which has a glass floor that looks down on the galleries below — counts as a cultural activity, no matter your age.
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Italian art experts astonished by David statue uproar in Florida
The Florence museum that houses Michelangelo’s statue of David has invited teachers and students from a Florida school to visit, after an uproar over an art lesson.
The school’s principal quit after a complaint about a sixth-grade art class that included an image of the statue.
A parent had complained the image was pornographic.
She said the principal should be “rewarded, not punished”.
“Talking about the Renaissance without showing the David, an undisputed icon of art and culture and of that historical period, would make no sense,” Ms Hollberg said.
The controversy began when the board of Tallahassee Classical School – a charter school in Florida’s state capital – pressured principal Hope Carrasquilla to resign after three parents complained about a lesson that included a photo of the 17ft nude marble statue.
The statue, one of the most famous in Western history, depicts the biblical David going to fight Goliath armed only with a sling and his faith in God.
The board reportedly targeted Ms Carrasquilla because the parents claimed they weren’t notified in advance that a nude would be shown, with one parent calling the statue “pornographic”.
The incident has left Florentines and experts on Renaissance art bewildered.
The David is considered a masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance and a symbol of humanist values. It has been displayed in the Galleria dell’Accademia since 1873.
Ms Hollberg said she was “astonished”, stating that to think that the David statue could be considered pornographic means not only failing to understand the Bible, but Western culture itself.
“I cannot believe that actually happened, at first I thought it was fake news, so improbable and absurd was it,” she said.
“A distinction must be made between nudity and pornography. There is nothing pornographic or aggressive about the David, he is a young boy, a shepherd, who even according to the Bible did not have ostentatious clothes but wanted to defend his people with what he had.”
The mayor of Florence, Dario Nardella, also invited the teacher who showed the students the image of Michelangelo’s David to visit the city and its works of art.
“Mistaking art for pornography is simply ridiculous,” he tweeted. “Art is civilisation and those who teach it deserve respect.”
In an interview with Slate online magazine, Barney Bishop, chairman of the school board, said that last year the principal sent a notice to parents warning them that students were going to see Michelangelo’s David, but this wasn’t done this year.
He called it an “egregious mistake” and said that “parents are entitled to know anytime their child is being taught a controversial topic and picture”.
According to Florentine art historian and dean of the University for Foreigners in Siena, Tomaso Montanari, such an attitude is “disconcerting”.
“First comes the dismay at the absence of educational freedom, as it should not be restricted or manipulated by families,” Mr Montanari said.
“On the other hand, from a cultural perspective, the Western world has a tendency to associate fundamentalism and censorship with other societies, believing it possesses the capability to spread democratic ideals worldwide.
“But this cultural backsliding clearly highlights the presence of fundamentalist views within the West as well.”
While several parents and teachers plan to protest Ms Carrasquilla’s resignation at the school board meeting, she isn’t sure she would take the job back even if it were offered.
“There’s been such controversy and such upheaval,” she said in an interview with the Associated Press. “I would really have to consider, ‘Is this truly what is best?'”
Back in Florence, Ms Hollberg remarked: “From majestic statues to charming fountains and paintings, Italy is overflowing with works of art, not just in its museums, but in all its cities, squares and streets, with some featuring naked figures.
“Does that make it pornography? Should entire cities be shut down because of the artistic depictions of the human form?”
Sotheby’s Sale of Glitch Art Postponed After Artists Complain About All-Male Sale
Sotheby’s paused its “Glitch-ism” auction Sunday, days after its March 24 launch, after prominent glitch artists pointed out that the auction, held by Sotheby’s digital art marketplace Metaverse, didn’t have a single woman artist represented.
“Sotheby’s is pausing Natively Digital: Glitch-ism to redress the imbalance in representation within the sale, and will relaunch with a more equitable and diverse group of artists at a later date,” read a Tweet by Sotheby’s Metaverse published Sunday.
Artist Patrick Amadon announced Sunday on Twitter that he was pulling his artwork from the sale in “solidarity” with female and queer glitch artists. He was the only artist to do so.
A part of Sotheby’s recurring Natively Digital sale, “Glitch-ism” was supposed to be a historic moment for “glitch art,” which hasn’t been represented in a major auction before. Glitch art defines an interest in the aesthetic, poetic, and political suggestions represented by the glitch, from eruptions of static to “deep fried,” pixelated video.
The “glitch,” as the representation of a failure, and the opportunities and slippage that can entail, has attracted many female and queer artists, including, for example, curator Legacy Russell, whose book Glitch Feminism introduced audiences to the feminist connection to the medium when it was released in 2020.
“To have an all-male show in 2023 seems entirely out of tune. But to do this in to the glitch genre is just whack,” Rosa Menkman, a glitch artist, told ARTnews.
Menkman noticed that one of her works was being used in the auction’s description of the history of glitch art, in which Menkman was credited not only for her pioneering work in the field, but also for her theorization. While Sotheby’s recognized her contributions, the auction house didn’t include her. What really bothered Menkman, however, wasn’t her own exclusion, but a lack of historical awareness about glitch art as a movement molded since its inception by female and queer artists.
“I don’t believe an auction house needs to define a genre, nor its aesthetic or its genealogies. But, like any institution, they need to take some responsibilities and show a certain level of care.” said Menkman “If they don’t – it’s bad for everything including their own credibility,
Davis Brown, a Sotheby’s pre-sale coordinator who organizedd the sale, reached out to glitch experts like Dawnia Darkstone to get more background research on the genre and recommendations for artists that would be a good fit. In a series of emails that Darkstone published on Twitter Sunday, Darkstone made clear to Brown that she would love to consult on the show, just not for free. Brown was apparently not interested.
“I was quite irritated with them for asking for my consultation without compensation, but when I opened the sales page and saw Rosa Menkman’s work front and center I was still excited,” Darkstone told ARTnews. Then she realized that neither Menkman nor any other female or queer artists had been included. “That felt like a slap in the face,” she sadded.
As conversation about the show heated up online, Amadon, who who recently had a work censored in Hong Kong, caught wind and decided to pull out.
“It just didn’t feel right participating in the show and I wanted to be in solidarity with female and nonbinary glitch artists,” Amadon told ARTnews. “I’m very aware that [being excluded from] sales can perpetuate a cycle in which people who are deserving of representation get cut out, because sales create their own momentum.”
Menkman and Darkstone said that they have since been contacted by Sotheby’s with tentative offers to participate in the show as an artist and curator respectively. Darkstone said the outcome was an exciting result from a moment of protest.
“I feel cautiously optimistic,” said Darkstone. “I think it shows that art communities coming together and speaking out against injustice can really make a difference.”
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