Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Please don't make snow angels in the art

FORT WORTH, Texas -Here are a few ways you can make Brittany Stricklin's life easier next time you visit the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
Always stay at least an arm's length from the art.
Don't sneak photos of an Andy Warhol piece with your camera phone, then shrug and say, "What's the big deal? I was just texting."
And please, please, do not make snow angels in the exhibit of thousands of green candies on the floor.
"It takes a while to clean up after that happens," Stricklin says.
Stricklin is a gallery attendant, part of an army of watchful men and women who stroll silently through the city's museums. Visit any gallery, and you will undoubtedly fall under their impassive gazes.
Surrounded each day by great art, they block it out, focusing on our hands, children and cell phones.
Their job, in simple terms, is to look at you look at art.
"Sometime you feel a little like a principal," says Stricklin, 25. "People see you and would rather you don't speak to them because, if you do, it will mean they're in trouble."
Attendants fan into the galleries every morning. The men wear ties, tan or navy slacks and long-sleeve blue shirts. Women wear the same shirts but with three-quarter-length sleeves and no ties.
The most important part of Stricklin's uniform, however, is on her feet.
"You really, really need comfortable shoes," she says.
Except for 45 minutes at lunch and a 15-minute break, attendants are on their feet from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (longer if there is an event that night). Stricklin's grandfather gave her a pair of comfortable black SAS walking shoes to ease the pain.
"The first two or three weeks after you start, you really feel it," she says. "Now I'm used to it."
On this day, Stricklin watches the "Andy Warhol: The Last Decade" exhibit. A radio is attached to her belt. If she doesn't notice someone crowding a painting, security guards watching on surveillance cameras do and let her know.
Despite stories about cell phones and snow angels, most guests are well-behaved. And when they are, there is not a whole lot to do. Stricklin stands in a doorway. Another attendant paces slowly with her hands clasped behind her back. Another stands expressionlessly, tapping his right foot lightly on the floor.
"You have a lot of time to contemplate," Stricklin says. "You get to know yourself pretty well."
She gets to know visitors pretty well, too. If you're taking notes with a pen, she knows to replace it with a pencil because note-takers are prone to hand gestures that carry permanent pens perilously close to the art.
She knows, from the look on your face, whether you like, dislike or flat don't understand a piece (it is modern art, after all).
She knows that parents should keep their children near them, especially those who get unhappy when an attendant has to ask their children to please stop doing something.
"Some parents are like, 'Why are you talking to my child? Why are you telling my child what to do?' " she said. "Well, I really don't want to have to."
A museum seems like a pleasant place to work. But love for art is not what drew Stricklin here. The Crowley native is a graduate of the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science at the University of North Texas.
She needed a job while pursuing her doctorate in biology at the University of Texas-Arlington.
At the time, she was waiting tables, and the museum hours were a big improvement.
Attendants are not required to study the art they guard. But Stricklin found that the knowledge is handy. If guests have a question, the first people they see to ask are usually attendants.
Stricklin didn't like responding with a blank look. So she started asking her own questions of the museum's education staff. In a year at the Modern, she has learned plenty of answers.
Go ahead, quiz her.
What are the names of the subjects of "The Brown Sisters," the popular exhibit featuring pictures of four sisters taken over 32 years?
Heather, Mimi, Bebe and Laurie.
How old are they in the first photo?
Fifteen to 25.
An informal education is a free benefit of the job, she says. It more than compensates for the occasional frustrating moment, even cleaning up snow angels in the green candies.
"It's your job to spend a lot of time around great art," she says. "It's a pretty nice way to spend your day."

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