Friday, July 17, 2009

7. Ars Gratia

I am a security guard at the ------------ Museum of Art. I stand at the doorway separating the 18th century French room from the 19th century French room--near the front of the museum. I have a stool, which I sometimes sit on, especially toward the end of the evening. It is not a hard job, and I don’t really have much to do. There has never been a break-in during my entire time there, and what little training I had has gone largely unused. I carry the nightstick and wear the uniform, though, just like I have for the past twenty years. I greet patrons when they enter, if there are only one or two of them in the room, which is often the case during the week. They say hi and nod, particularly the college students. They seem happy to see an elderly black woman in this building. They remind me a little bit of my grandchildren, and it is possible that I remind them of their grandmothers. I am a bit of an authority figure, although it would be hard to take me too seriously, stuffed as I am into this black and white uniform, like a maid, wearing masculine clothes and with a patiently chirping walkie-talkie on my belt. I am not sure why that would make me seem less than threatening, but in my case it does. I tell them stories about the paintings. In twenty years I have read the signs in my room over and over, and the signs in other rooms almost as many times in my hours off. I know all their information by heart, and a lot more besides. I’ve read, and I’ve talked to the curators and docents that work here. The chairwoman of the board is a nice lady, not at all stuck up. She always says hi to me when she sees me, and a few times we’ve had long discussions about the museum, and the pieces in my rooms. It was from her that I learned that Bouguereau used to paint labels for jams and preserves, when he was a poor student. I’ve picked up a lot from her. And I’ve picked up more from going home at night and reading, on the Internet and in books from the library, about the art in the museum. I suppose I could almost lead a tour. When a student does ask, I tell them what I know, and they take notes, writing it down for a report they’ll compose later. In twenty years you don’t just learn about the paintings--you learn about the whole museum. I know the history of this building, every addition and renovation; again, from talking to the people who work here. The resident historian, Mr. Farnsworth, isn’t as approachable as the chairwoman, but I’ve heard him talk a time or two about the things that have happened here, from the stop on the Presidential tours, to the fire, to the time the museum was used as a public shelter after the hurricane, and the security people were scrambling to make certain nothing was stolen or damaged. When the workmen have come in, to repaint the walls or replace the light bulbs in the high ceiling of my room, if I am there, they always say hi. When the walls have to be moved around for a new exhibit (never in my room, but the workmen pass through on their way to the traveling collections area), I see the work that goes into it, the rewiring of lights and air ducts and motion sensors. I know all the janitors by name, and practically have the rotation of their shifts memorized, just like for the signs on the walls describing the paintings. I got this job for one reason. After my children were gone and my husband died, I spent a lot of time going around--to concerts at the music hall, to charity fund-raisers, to meetings of senior citizens and such. I liked the music I heard at the classical concerts, but never fit in with the other people going there, me in my black dress and they in their evening clothes; my dress was black because it was plain, their clothes were black because they were fancy. I didn’t know what they talked about at the intermission, and my hearing is not what it used to be. The charity fund-raisers were not much better. They had nothing to do with me. I went instead to the parks, taking long walks. On one of those walks I saw the art museum and decided on a whim to go inside. Right there near the entrance, in one of the first rooms, I saw it. It was by Watteau, but I didn’t know that at the time. It was a picture of a man, standing in a forest clearing, looking up at the clouds. He was wearing exotic, beautiful clothes, but he seemed completely unaware and unconcerned with that--his attention was fixed on the sky. It was beautiful. I knew then that I wanted to be near this painting. I got the job as a guard. I have kept it for twenty years. I know everything about this museum, about its locks and alarms. I know when who goes where and when the building will be empty. I know the painting, too, every fleck of paint and every stoke of colour. And tonight, I am going to steal it.

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