As an art history nerd, I’ve read a couple of books about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s heist. Can you tell me about what it was like to guard art there in the aftermath?
Well, that happened in 1990 and I was 12 years old and living in the suburbs. So I had nothing to do with it! But when I was guarding there, there was one particular gallery that had been hit the hardest by the thieves, the Dutch Room, where they took a Rembrandt and a Vermeer. The stipulations in Gardner’s will state that nothing can be moved or changed in the museum. So when the thieves came, they cut the paintings out from their frames and rolled them up, which probably damaged them. So even if we ever do find these things, they’re not gonna look the same.
But the empty frames are still there. Sometimes when I would be guarding in the Dutch Room, visitors would come in and they would ask to see the stolen art. Well, you can’t see the stolen art—because it’s missing! It’s almost like conceptual art, the empty frames.
Museum work falls under the same kind of category as teaching, where people tell you, “Oh, that’s a noble profession; you’re doing a good thing for society.” But they don’t always consider whether you’re getting basic human dignities like fair pay and health care. Have you always thought that unions in the art world were going to be important or did you see yourself getting more informed over time?
Maybe a silver lining to the tragedy of the pandemic is that a lot of workers finally said, “You know what, billionaires are making more and more money and we’re still making the same, and it’s just not right.” I’ve always been pro-union—not to say I’m blindly pro-union, because any system, any organization, can become corrupt or flawed in some way.
When I was at the Harvard Museum, there was already a union there, so I got involved with it back then. I was a union secretary there, so I sat in on some contract negotiations, and I saw the inner workings of how a union operates. I’m glad I had that experience under my belt when I got more involved with the union here [at the BMA]. The youngsters started the BMA Union and they were kind of revolutionary about it. I was like, “Okay, I’m with you, but let’s do this right.” And they did, to their credit.
Do you believe in astrology? If so, what insights can your signs give our readers into your personality and mindset?
I don’t really believe in astrology, but the topic does come up a lot at work. When it’s slow at the museum, and a bunch of guards are standing around, a discussion about star signs will definitely come up at some point. I’m an Aquarius. And yes, I do believe that is the best star sign. But no, I don’t believe in any of it either.
What are the last three emojis you used? Have you given up emojis?
I don’t believe in emojis either. Just kidding. To be honest, I hardly use them. I’m part of an ongoing group text with people at work that wash the outdoor sculptures. In the group chat, people are always using all these cool emojis, especially to say more complicated things than emojis really allow. You know, there’s no “statue” or “sculpture” emoji. What’s up with that?
What would your teenage self think about the direction of your life so far? Is there anything you’d say to younger you if you could visit yourself Back to the Future style?
I’m not sure what my teenage self would think of me. He probably wouldn’t even recognize me. I’ve put on a few pounds over the years! But if I could tell him anything, it would be something like, “Well, it’s probably not at all what you think it’s going to be… But just the same, keep on doing what you’re doing.”
Check out more of Dereck Mangus’ work at his website: https://www.dsmangus.com/.