It was the summer of 1980. I decided to take a year off from college and travel west. I ended up in Pasadena, California. After a few odd jobs I found work as a security guard at the Norton Simon Museum (NSM) on Colorado Avenue; you’ve probably seen the museum building in the background of the annual New Year’s Day Tournament of Roses Parade.
Upon being outfitted in the museum-mandated dark brown sport jacket and light tan polyester slacks the day before at the neighborhood value-priced C&R Clothiers, I reported for my first day on the job. After a brief orientation I was given a tour of the five main galleries of the museum. We started in the basement, which featured a collection of European art from the 19th century. Followed by the North East Gallery of Early Renaissance and High Renaissance paintings and tapestries, The North West Gallery containing European art from the 17th and 18th centuries, The South West Gallery featuring art from South Asia and Southeast Asia and finally the South East Gallery which contained a portion of Mr. Simon’s modern art collection.
There among the Moderns, I was handed a one-way radio (guards should be seen and not heard), flesh-colored ear plug (in terms of aesthetics, less Secret Service, more grandpa’s hearing aid), and informed that I would be assigned to guard this gallery for the next week. Apparently there was a pecking order to the security details and Modern was the second lowest only to the Basement Gallery (or as the guards referred to it, “The Hole” or “Dungeon”) in terms of prestige at the museum.
Ogling Mr. Simon’s Prize
A few months later I found myself assigned (confined) to The Hole, doing thirty days of hard time for improper maintenance of a section of inappropriate male facial hair. The Master of the Guards (I will call him “Maxwell” for this story) was an uptight and hunkered-down generation gap holdout and retired Los Angeles law-enforcement officer with a penchant for military style grooming, for which I was ill-prepared, and paramilitary discipline, for which I was a bad example of. In general, I guess at age twenty I was a bad example that needed to be made an example of. I will however remember Maxwell best for his cherry condition red 65′ Ford Mustang convertible with IRS audit-baiting “Income Tax Is Unconstitutional” bumper sticker, his resemblance to a well-kempt Nick Nolte, and his bitter, vindictive and utterly cruel management style. Yes he was a real sweetheart of a commandant, and if I got anything out of the experience it was this: I vowed never to express my personal beliefs on a bumper sticker.
Few visitors frequented the Basement galleries. There were only three possible explanations for being down there: 1) you were interested in ogling Mr. Simon’s prize (read: hideous) collection of bronze dancing Degas girls arranged lyrically around the stairs; 2) you had to use the can; 3) you had been assigned (confined) by the Master of the Guards to guard duty in that God-forsaken place.
Even fewer Basement visitors made it way out past the long gallery exhibiting the entire 82 prints of Francisco Goya’s The Disasters of War were I was posted, guarding three saints and an emergency exit.
The Disasters of War is, by the way, an abbreviated version of Goya’s proper title for this series: Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices. Goya’s “scenes of atrocities, starvation, degradation and humiliation have been described as the prodigious flowering of rage as well as the work of a memory that knew no forgiveness.” Note to aspiring art historians: I would suggest leaving the creation and editing of titles to the artist, because although the original might not fit conveniently on an Avery thirty-five millimeter slide label (which I’m told you can still buy in Australia), it is certainly more poetic than the truncated version.
At the end of the gallery, at the end of the line, was my fortress of solitude.
Picture a nicely lit, well decorated Gulag. I learned that when someone is tasked with guarding an extravagantly expensive object, that same someone spends a great deal of their time devising elaborate schemes involving the theft of the very object they are in fact employed to safeguard. My fantasy involved plundering Zurbarán’s “Saint Francis in Prayer,” Goya’s “Saint Jerome in Penitence” and an El Greco “Saint Something Another in Somewhere,” and heading to Tijuana, Mexico. Once there I was certain I could easily make the necessary underworld/international art market connections required to fence these pieces off, ultimately to someone I imagined to be a cross between a Nehru jacketed Dr. (Julius) No and….
Fuel Rods and Jackson Browne
As you can imagine it got pretty darn lonely down in The Hole. Late one afternoon, while making my rounds (140 paces from the emergency exit to the stairwell and back again, trust me I counted it many times), I came upon a patron examining one of the Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices prints. I said hello, He said hello and we got into a sort of cautious chit-chat. I should state the obvious here: CONVERSATION BETWEEN SECURITY PERSONNEL OF THE NORTON SIMON MUSEUM AND PATRONS (BEYOND THE WAY-FINDING VARIETY) ARE STRICTLY FORBIDDEN. Even so, our friendly repartee progressed quickly from art to politics. Environmental politics and then to US nuclear policy, to be precise. I recall the patron was a roughly a 30 year old male, and judging by his corduroy jacket with elbow patches, clearly of the liberal persuasion.
The vaguely professorial patron was of the opinion that nuclear energy was extremely dangerous and should be banned. He made references to radioactive half-life, fuel rods, Jackson Browne and Musicians United for Safer Energy (MUSE). Anyway, he seemed very knowledgeable on the topic, so I proceed to do what any young fellow would do and that was take a contrarian stance. Not that I believed anything that I was saying, mind you, but it sure beat standing there alone among the tortured saints. So we continued our Lincoln-Douglas style debate until a sharply dressed blue-haired matron briskly approached us and, standing among the Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices prints, whispered, “I dare say, the conversation you are having is totally inappropriate for an art museum,” to which I politely responded, “Lady, what is?”
Yours Sincerely, (forged signature here)
At that point both the matron and the patron proceeded to exit my desolate domain. I on the other hand had another hour or two left alone with my heist fantasy. Then at ten to six we ran through our gallery clearing procedures and proceeded unceremoniously to the locker room.
The time clock was inside the The Master of the Guards office at the entrance to the guards’ locker room. When I arrived at the office I noticed a photocopied letter composed on museum stationary conspicuously posted on the door. I examined it to find a typewritten letter of apology along with my forged signature below a “yours sincerely.” Apparently, the matron had dropped-a-dime on me to Commandant Maxwell, and before I knew it all of my privileges (overtime and a desk job monitoring the security cameras on Sundays) were suspended. In addition, I was sentenced to man The Hole indefinitely. I spent the next 47 days there amongst the Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices before returning to the relative comfort of art school back in Detroit. But I am getting way ahead of myself, since I haven’t even finished telling you about my first day at the NSM.
To be continued…