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That museum guard may be an artist, too

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Jason Eskenazi guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Abigail Spindel)

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Photo from "The Bunny Project" series, by Emilie Lemakis

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"Zombie Art Gallery I" by Charles Miltenberger

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"In the company of Men and Birds" by Boris Rakhamimov

Jason Eskenazi is working on his posture. He stands against the cool marble slab of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in his standard-issue guard’s uniform, watching people pass or weave from masterwork to masterwork, occasionally stopping to ask humankind’s most basic questions: Where is the cafeteria? Where is the bookstore? Where is the bathroom?

If visitors stopped and probed a little deeper, they would find that he is an award-winning photographer. Eskenazi, 48, has won numerous awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship and Fulbright scholarship. His book “Wonderland: A Fairy Tale of the Soviet Monolith” won Picture of the Year International’s “Book of the Year” award. He persuaded the Met’s gift store to sell his book. It sold out three times. He spent most of his adult life creating that book, traveling from Siberia to Chechnya to document the USSR’s transition to capitalism. Now he stands, a navy blue dot in the white marble museum, putting aside his own art to earn a paycheck guarding other artists’ works.

There are “guardists” in many of the major museums in the United States-—working artists who draw a paycheck as a museum guards. Not only can they rely on a steady source of income, but working at an art museum often informs and transforms their own art.

“These guards are choosing very specifically this line of work,” said Marella Consolini, an independent curator and director of the Knoedler Project Space in New York City. “It’s going to provide a certain schedule. There’s something about being a museum guard that really says commitment. They are thinking of integrating life and their work in a very strategic manner.”

The arrangement works for the museums as well. Vance Muse, director of communications for the Menil Collection in Austin, Texas, said his museum doesn’t seek artists to work as guards, but they fit well with the mission of the institution. Muse prefers the term “security attendants”—people who fit in with the sense of peace in the museum, rather than someone to lay down the law. “You don’t want to walk in a police state sort of environment,” he said.

Consolini is planning an exhibit of museum guard art at the Knoedler. Museums often put up staff shows, sometimes open to the public, but, as Consolini pointed out, most show off the entire staff’s work, including those whose day jobs are more typical of the working artist.

“There is this interesting historical precedent” to focus on guards, she said. Legendary painters Jackson Pollock and Brice Marden worked as museum guards early in their careers. Consolini’s friend, noted conceptual artist Fred Wilson, was so influenced by his time working as a museum guard that he began using museums as his palette. His breakout work transformed a museum space, exposing the ways in which a selection of artworks can mean different things, according to how they are presented.

In her creative life outside the Met, guardist Emilie Lemakis, 43, is surrounded by artists who don’t work, but she doesn’t think their free time gives them a leg up on their art.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re getting as much work done as me,” she said. Lemakis considers guardists to be a working-class kind of artist, as productive as any other class.

Lemakis works in a variety of media, from large structural drawings to photography, and she said her work has been directly influenced by her work as a guard. The influence of absorbing so many different kinds of art, she said, has brought out her authenticity.

“My art has become completely democratic,” she said. “There’s no hierarchy in the way I’m looking at art. I look at furniture the same way I look at Jackson Pollock.”

When he is not drawing, Charles Miltenberger, 58, sits in a quiet room full of closed-circuit television monitors. He works in the control room of a West Coast museum that he asked to keep anonymous for security reasons. Every day, 350 to 500 visitors walk past his screens.

“I kind of feel that I’m a deaf Goya,” he said, referring to the Spanish master. “With no sound, people’s actions get more absurd in a lot of ways. I can see something ordinary and it will transport me away.”

Most of Miltenberger’s work is realistic portraiture, but in 2007, a year after he began working in the museum’s control room, he started a side-project of satirical drawings. Amorphous pin-heads go about daily tasks, such as delivering pizza, giving lectures, and visiting a museum, in a place he calls “Zomblandia.”

Boris Rakhamimov, 58, is a trained artist from Azerbaijan, who left when the Iron curtain parted for Jewish emigration in 1979. He came to New York and found small jobs as a painter before landing at the museum. He found that not all artists understand his career path. When Rakhamimov tried to get space in a co-op artist loft in Westchester County, New York, he got as far as packing before the co-op board saw his paycheck as a museum guard at the Metropolitan. They told him that since he wasn’t making most of his income from art, they didn’t consider him an artist.

Eskanazi has resolved to make the most of his time at the Metropolitan, but he doesn’t know how long it will last. He hasn’t been taking photographs.

“I feel I want to shoot, but this year has been a year of incubation,” he said. When he leaves, he expects he will be refreshed from his time with the great artists.

“When I stared at the Van Gogh portrait there I felt that you have to accept the suffering and sort of muddle through things to try to achieve some kind of purity–—to stay on your own track and not give in,” he said. “I think the art and the artists made me more steadfast in my dreams.”

Choosing to guard art is a wise decision for the working artist, Consolini said. She said she has great respect for artists who make pragmatic choices that help them along their creative journeys.

“Of course there’s a group of artists that say you have to be crazy and manic to make art,” Consolini said. “Well, I think that’s all hooey. I’d rather work with healthier, saner, more balanced people who can approach their lives and their art with regularity.”

E-mail: aas2176@columbia.edu