Of Wet and Peace

May 24, 2010

I have been an avid visitor to the National Gallery since June of 2000, when I moved to Washington, DC. Over the years, I have tried to take full advantage of the benefits it offers to professional artists like myself, by studying the collection and master works contained there, whenever the opportunity availed itself. One of the oldest, most common, and widely used methods of learning for artists is the practice of sketching from classic works in the attempt to learn how the masters before us resolved problems in the conveying of an image to paper. I have always attempted to abide by the rules of gallery, which are clearly stated on the NGA.gov website as “Visitors may sketch with pencils or other dry media in the galleries without a permit.” That’s it. There is nothing more, not the slightest mention of any restriction beyond that. I have never attempted to skirt this rule, not even to use markers (like the Faber-Castell Pitt Brush Pens that are being sold in the Gallery’s gift shop!) when sketching from the works, out of respect for the Gallery.

Imagine my confusion this morning, Monday, May 24, when I was all but assaulted by a guard in gallery 26, while viewing the German Master Drawings exhibition. Despite following the above rules of conduct, nor being in violation of special exhibit rules (as stated under the Museum Policies page on the website) Photography for personal use is permitted except in special exhibitions and where specifically prohibited.” Please note, there is no mention of “sketching” under the special exhibit policy. Upon arriving I pulled out my sketch book, my black graphite and my white chalk, then began my attempt to learn the proper use of light and dark from all the masters I could find. This is the same method I have been using at the National Gallery for the past 10 years, without a single comment every being made to me, but today was different. A guard approached me and made the inquiry “What are you drawing with? You can’t use color.”

I found this as odd since I’ve never heard (nor read in the policies included above) that “color” was not allowed. I asked him to repeat himself, thinking perhaps I misunderstood, but again he said “color”.  I replied “I think you mean paint, but this isn’t wet. I know the policy I’ve done this for years.” So I went back to my drawing, and he walked away. I assumed he was satisfied, but apparently not. He approached me several minutes later and again said “You can’t use color.”

“What do you mean? I’m not using color- these are pencils.”

“That- THAT is color!” He said pointing at the white chalk.

“That’s not color, that’s white chalk.” (I won’t get into the age old art debate of white being the presence of all color and black being the absence of it, etc…)

“You have to stop!” He stated.

“No I don’t. I know the policy- no wet paint- these are pencils!”

“You have to leave if you don’t stop.”

“I don’t think so- you’re wrong.” At this point I knew he was just going to keep saying “color” at me. My mom always said when you can’t reason with someone, move up the ladder.

“You need to get your supervisor.” This seemed to stop him for a moment. I said it again, “You need to get a supervisor in here to clear this up.” Knowing that I was not in violation of any of the museum’s stated policy, I was being firm, and I was going to demand that I be proven wrong rather than bullied. At this point, you might think a guard would welcome the assistance, and even better, a supervisor (as requested by the visitor) to prove his point, if in fact he was correct. The reply wasn’t anything of the sort, rather he responded with “Are you trying to tell me how to do my job?!”

“No, you just need to get a supervisor in here to explain the policy to you.” He just stood there. “Go on. I’m not leaving until you get a supervisor in here.” He stuttered a moment and then finally got on his walkie-talkie and asked for a supervisor. Then he turned to me and said “Sit down.”, pointing at a near-by bench.

“No. I’ll stand here and wait for the supervisor.”

“You have to sit down.”

“No I don’t. You’re not a cop.” I replied. With that he walked to a side area of the gallery. So then we began standing for a few minutes, and I waited. After a bit he started to walk toward the area I was in, and I started watching him, half expecting him to explain something, the other half not trusting him to try something more forceful. At this point he said something entirely unexpected.

“Are you staring at me?”


“You- stop staring at me. You can’t stare at me.”

“I’m not staring at you, I’m waiting for your damn supervisor to show up. You can’t tell me where I’m allowed to look!” Moments later another guard came into the room, a heavy black man. I thought, “Finally, the supervisor!” I started to approach him to make sure my case was heard with equality. Turns out this was another guard, and I heard him ask the man “You’ve got an emergency?” “No.” he replied, then muttered something to the new guard in a whisper. I won’t try to guess. A few additional minutes went by, and the guard requested on his walkie-talkie that a supervisor needed to appear, once again. Then what looked more like an armed security guard from the entrances, rather than someone of management, entered the room. He asked what the situation was, before the guard could speak, and I told him. “I was sketching, he told me to stop, he saying I was using color, I said I wasn’t, and that this isn’t paint. He said I couldn’t, but there’s no such policy, you’re only prevented from using wet medium!”

“Well you’re not allowed to use color.”

“That’s not right. You’re not allowed to use paint or anything wet. These are pencils. It’s all dry! I know the policy I’ve been doing this for 10 years the same way!” Then the “supervisor” said the same, insane thing the original guard did…

“That’s color.”

“NO, it’s NOT, it’s white chalk! This is a tonal rendering, it’s not paint!”

“OK, calm down. He’s just doing his job.”

“He’s doing it wrong! I know the policy, he’s the one who doesn’t!” After a few moments the supervisor turned to me and said.

“Fine, well, that’s cleared up, have a good day.”

That’s it?! I’m verbally assaulted, my safety is threatened, I’m surrounded by three guards, one of whom attempts to physically intimidate me, another who has a gun, I’m falsely accused of violating museum policy when I haven’t, I’m embarrassed in front of countless people, so flustered that my hands are shaking, and all of this because people don’t understand how to do their jobs! Yet somehow I’m supposed to just turn away and go back to sketching? This whole situation is mind numbing on so many levels. There is no possible way, after something like this that, a person can simply go back to doing an activity as delicate as drawing. The most infuriating thing… not one apology was offered by any of the guards, despite the fact that they know they were in the wrong, and the published policy of the Gallery clearly states they were wrong. This is another example of how the Gallery has failed to educate their staff in the policies the Gallery itself initiated. If the museum has decided that the posted rules are in fact that- the rules- then they need to make sure the entire staff understands them, and can enforce them properly.

If I decide to return to the gallery in the near future, which I’m not sure I can right now, I will be sure to take a printed copy of the Gallery policies from the website with me, and I will suggest to every artist I know that they do the same. It’s sad when visitors to our Nation’s art collection have to carry documentation of their rights to protect themselves from the people who are supposed to be the experts on the rules to begin with.

So in an attempt to unwind from my “relaxing” day of drawing at the National Gallery, I went to have lunch with the wife. She decided to record my mood with a picture. I hope everyone else had a better day.


5 Responses to “Of Wet and Peace”

  1. Jan Hutchinson said

    Shannon: I work with Robbie and she told me about your encounter with the small minds at the gallery-if you need a picketer, I’m all over it! What a huge nightmare-

  2. Heather Mitchell said

    Are you on the “No Fly” list yet?

  3. Joanie said

    I am glad I didn’t tag along this time, sheesh! Damn the man!

  4. tomdelorme said

    Museum staff and guys honking their horns at little old ladies are beginning to understand the rage of an artist…

  5. peter ora said

    taser! TAZER! TAAZER!!!

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