Q&A with Elise Tensley, security officer at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
What does your role as a security officer entail?
I primarily guard the museum’s collection, making sure people don’t touch or risk damaging the art. But I also kind of ensure that guests have a good experience, including giving them directions to what they’re looking for. I do my best to make sure everybody is safe.
How did Covid-19 affect your work?
When the pandemic first hit in March 2020, the museum shut down and then slowly reopened late last summer into the fall, before having to shut down again. We’ve been teetering between operating safely and being open so that people can have some escape and a sense of normalcy.
We were incredibly fortunate that the BMA paid its whole staff full time, the entire time. We even received biweekly phone calls just to make sure we were mentally and physically well. I can’t really guard the art from home, but even so the BMA went out of its way to take care of us. The security department, as well as a few other front-of-house departments, really benefited from that. The time away gave a lot of people the chance to hone their own crafts. Some also reached out to other departments that were still functioning and got a little bit more educated on how they operate and intersect with our jobs. And for those of us who have kids and were thrust into new at-home roles, it gave us stability and the ability to focus on them as we experienced the pandemic together.
The exhibition “Guarding the Art,” which is scheduled to open on March 27, features works selected entirely by the BMA’s security staff. Tell me about your experience working on the show.
It’s been really amazing to build camaraderie with other departments that I wouldn’t ordinarily get to collaborate with. I think we’re all feeling more validated, and everyone has had an opportunity to learn something new from each other. It has been insightful to really see how the museum operates, and to realize how much work goes into every single show.
How did you go about picking works for the exhibition?
Everyone had their own reasons and ideas for selecting works. As for me, I paint in my free time and have done murals with the local organization Greenmount West Community Center, which works closely with the museum and artist Mark Bradford. Unless they’re commissioned or sold, my paintings generally just sit and collect dust. I’ve always felt that art is not created to go unseen. I asked the curators to come up with a list of works by female artists that had not been on display for at least the last twenty years. I didn’t want to pick anything that could be found on the BMA’s website. The first time I even saw the works on that list was when the conservation team brought them out. I selected three, all of which will appear in the catalogue, and ultimately one for the show by Jane Frank, titled Winter’s End . It’s an abstract oil painting with many layers and natural tones, but it’s huge and gives viewers a whole world to escape into. It’s been in the BMA’s collection since the 1960s, and it has only been displayed two or three times, for a short while, but never once in my entire life. This will be the first time in a long time that it’s coming out—and I can’t wait for it to be seen.
What has surprised you most in your role?
I spend a lot of time people watching, and it’s interesting to see their behaviors. One of the most memorable times was during the exhibition “John Waters: Indecent Exposure” [2018–19]. The artist [and filmmaker] is known for pushing the envelope to elicit reactions from viewers. It was kind of funny that we had a mature content room, considering, but I was frequently stationed there. Within that room, one of the pieces, titled 12 Assholes and a Dirty Foot , was about twelve feet long and featured close-up stills from adult films. The one bare foot on view was dirty, which people felt was quite taboo. There was nothing funnier than to watch a gaggle of grannies mosey through the show and round the corner—and then see their eyes bulge at the sight of the work. Interestingly, they were the ones who would linger the longest.