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special section: the gardner grows

Confessions of a former Gardner Museum night guard

Alone with masterpieces, and nothing but a flashlight as a source of illumination.

Geoff Rockwell

IN 1986 AND ’87 I worked as a security guard at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. For most of that time I was a night guard. The pay was low and the hours were difficult, but it was a job I truly enjoyed.

I had moved to Boston after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, and at first I worked as a gallery attendant. We weren’t allowed to draw while on duty, but I always carried a small sketchbook, and when I was alone I’d draw studies of the artworks that impressed me. Among those were Vermeer’s “The Concert’’ and Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee’’ - two of the masterpieces stolen in 1990, in what remains the biggest unsolved art heist in history, with a total value estimated at up to $500 million.

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For each overnight shift there were two guards. One would sit at the main security desk watching over the alarm systems and staff entrance while the other made the rounds.

Working nights could be an adventure. Roaming through the empty galleries in the dark, with a huge flashlight as the only source of light, sparked the imagination. Sometimes it was spooky, but often it was beautiful and even profound. Being alone with works of art in the dark is a far more intimate, intense experience than seeing them in a crowded room during the day. I could observe details with a focus impossible in the daytime, and with our high-powered flashlights I could actually see through the glazes of certain oil paintings to make out the underpainting beneath. It seemed as if the illumination came directly from my own two eyes.

Young and impressionable, fresh from art school, my head was stuffed with reverence for the Old Masters. Behind the scenes, I could observe works being cleaned in the conservator’s lab, or study them unframed and vulnerable in the photographer’s studio. It was like looking at art with its guard down. Patrolling the greenhouses, I occasionally picked a few flowers to bring to my girlfriend after work in an attempt to make up for the evenings we couldn’t spend together.

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For some reason, the long gallery hung with Flemish tapestries filled me with dread. Walking through that room invariably gave me a chill, raising my hair and heart rate as if the devil were breathing down my neck. I would race through the Tapestry Room every time, only calming down once I reached the painting of St. George and the dragon.

One night, I was working with a female guard who was uncomfortable being alone in the dark, so I made the rounds. On the third floor, I was inspecting an altarpiece by Lucas Cranach with my flashlight. Slowly backing away from the piece, I felt a metal point stab me between the shoulder blades, then a vacuum of air open up behind me. I spun around to try to catch the tall iron candelabra I had just knocked over, grasping at air. It crashed to the tiled floor with a gong-like clang.

My walkie-talkie erupted with squawking static and a panicked voice shouting, “Did you hear that bang?’’ In shock, I said, “Yes, I think it came from the second floor. I’ll go check it out.’’ I quickly righted the candelabra and raced downstairs. Back at the security desk, I told her I had no idea where the sound had come from and hinted that it might have been caused by a ghost. To my surprise she accepted this explanation. On my next round I nervously checked for damage. The only things I could find were two small chips on the tile floor. I swept the loose fragments into my pocket and the next night Krazy-Glued them back into place. Visiting decades later, I could barely make out the small cracks where I made my repairs.

In 1990, I had moved to New York when I heard the shocking news about the robbery. I’d like to think that if I had been there that night, I wouldn’t have let it happen. But if people in police uniform showed up at the side door demanding entrance, the way they did that night, would I have let them in? I was 23. What would you have done?

Geoff Rockwell is an artist living in Brooklyn. He can be reached at lartisan@earthlink.net.
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