STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Our special correspondent Susan Stamberg has been talking with museum guards. They're the people who watch after the personal collection of art benefactor and billionaire Eli Broad. He's put his art on display in the newest museum in Los Angeles. And Susan found that museum includes guards with a new approach to their jobs.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: So we just go in?
WES HARDESTY: Absolutely, yeah. Just step out on that platform. Enjoy.
STAMBERG: And look at this. Look at this.
There cannot be a better way to start a museum visit - the Infinity Mirrored Room at The Broad Museum. No more than 2 or 3 at a time can enter this small space. The walls, floor and ceiling are covered in mirrors, and LED lights hanging from the ceiling are reflected everywhere you look. Yayoi Kusama's installation is absolutely magical. It's transporting. You can only stay inside for 45 seconds - so unfair.
HARDESTY: I know.
STAMBERG: You can't be mad because the guard, Wes Hardesty (ph), is so pleasant. So is another one talking with a mother and her two little girls about Thomas Struth's huge color photograph of a crowd at a museum. The crowd is facing us looking up at something we can't see. Someone in the crowd sports a true LA accessory.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Sunglasses?
SABRINA GIZZO: Yes, who's wearing sunglasses?
STAMBERG: This is Sabrina Gizzo. She's a guard, but she's talking like a docent.
GIZZO: And do you see something in the reflection of the sunglasses? Is it a statue? A really famous statue?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's a statue - it's in Italy.
STAMBERG: Really famous - Michelangelo's statue of David. I have looked at Struth's photograph several times and never noticed David reflected in the visitor's glasses, but Sabrina made me see it. She's one of 110 gallery guides. They're called visitor services associates that Broad Director Joanne Heyler installed in the museum.
JOANNE HEYLER: I thought that what could be better and more individualized than having floor staff in the galleries posted right there next to the artwork of whom you could, as a visitor, ask questions to indulge your curiosity, to have an interesting conversation?
STAMBERG: Now, I live in the museum Mecca of Washington, D.C., where gallery guards wear cop suits and immobile faces. The Broad ones have no uniforms, just black anythings and a bright-red lanyard and big smiles. They schmooze about the art, the building, politely keep visitors from getting too close to any work. Lauren Girard, associate director of visitor services, hired and trained them to do plenty.
LAUREN GIRARD: So the person who's taking your tickets can also explain a lot about the artwork, and the person who's in the galleries can explain about programming that's coming up. They can all - everyone across the board can help you figure out how to book a restaurant reservation. So we're really looking at doing a lot more of a concierge experience here.
STAMBERG: Fifty VSAs work at The Broad every day for pay - $12.50 an hour, 30 hours max. They have had 40 hours of training with curators and online learning about the building, the artists and the artwork, how to respond in delicate situations.
So what's the training when somebody comes up and says that's the dumbest thing I ever saw, I hate it?
GIRARD: Well, we've taught them that that's actually a completely valid reaction. You don't have to like everything. In fact, a lot of contemporary art was made specifically to provoke reactions like that. So what we do is we kind of ask people to just explore that. If they want to talk about it, great. Let's talk about it. It's completely fine to not like something.
STAMBERG: What's a vacuum cleaner doing over there? That's art?
GIRARD: (Laughter) Yes, that's Jeff Koons's piece.
STAMBERG: In one gallery, Celia Lopez, an artist like many of the VSAs, is handling a difficult visitor, moi.
CELIA LOPEZ: He has a lot of the ready-made objects and kind of has that idea of putting something that isn't normally seen in a museum in a museum setting.
STAMBERG: You think there needs to be a vacuum cleaner on display in a museum?
LOPEZ: I think it's an interesting concept and in a way, it goes back to anthropology. Like, if you go to an anthropology museum, you see tools that people used years ago. So seeing them now in this setting is kind of in that same realm.
STAMBERG: Anthropology - that's the best defense of Jeff Koons I ever heard.
STAMBERG: Sometimes artists in The Broad Collection visit the museum. Local artist Mark Bradford asked to come and speak to the guards. VSA Caleb Hammond, a film maker, was thrilled.
CALEB HAMMOND: I think what was great about Mark's talk is he's really off-the-cuff and just really told us about the highs and lows of his career. And sometimes you just - you just see the highs when somebody's made it in a museum. And he talked about his experience right out of grad school and how he had all this debt that he thought he would never pay off. And just to hear somebody at the top of their game be real with us, it was really encouraging, I think, for everybody.
STAMBERG: When a New York artist who explores themes of race and identity showed up, Broad Director Joanne Heyler says the VSAs treated Glenn Ligon like a rock star.
HEYLER: I didn't know he was coming. And I walked up to the galleries. I happened to bump into him right away. And he had this look on his face of delight and surprise. And he said, your guards, they really know about my work (laughter).
STAMBERG: Back in Celia Lopez's gallery, visitor Luke Fair turns her attention from Jeff Koons's vacuum cleaner to a shimmering aluminum and cooper-wire wall drape from Nigeria.
LOPEZ: It is supposed to look like a tapestry. The artist is El Anatsui. And he actually wanted the bottle caps to look like material.
LUKE FAIR: It's fascinating how it looks different from close up than far away.
LOPEZ: Exactly, and the color is supposed to resemble the African Kente cloth.
STAMBERG: The visitor and the guide are having a splendid conversation. It might make their day and make Visitor Services Director Lauren Girard proud.
GIRARD: My main goal in developing this program was I just - contemporary art is not necessarily easy. It's something that can be very off-putting, especially if it's your first time in a museum. And I wanted to make sure that people who came here felt welcome. I want them to come back.
STAMBERG: Seems to be working. Online advanced tickets are booked for months. And without tickets, weekend visitors to The Broad can wait for hours. But that twinkle room is worth the wait. In downtown Los Angeles, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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