Art guard Linda Harris—She oughtta write for Artblog

Linda Harris
Linda Harris, guarding the art at ICA.

If you’ve gone to Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, chances are you’ve seen museum guard Linda Harris on patrol. The first time I met her she was chastising a couple of visitors for using a camera—yet I could tell that she didn’t have the usual museum guard’s relish for wielding power. She preferred to talk about the work. “Have you seen the one with the shopping bags?” Linda asked. She explained that as part of the group show Make Your Own Light: Artists In and Out of Cologne, Merlin Carpenter had used a $5,000 stipend to go on a shopping spree, then placed the empty bags in the middle of the gallery.

Which prompted me to ask her, “What do you think of the art here?”

For the North Philly native and Parkway High School graduate, contemporary art was an acquired taste. Linda came into the museum world when her 15 years career as a nurse was cut short by a SEPTA accident. She returned to the work force as a security guard and was soon placed at the ICA. According to Linda, on seeing her first show there (the “sock monkey” show – Pictures, Patents, Monkeys & More…on Collecting), “I was in shock…because I thought that art was painting.”


Harris’ picks

pepon osorio
Trials and Turbulence, ICA Phila, 2005. Photo by Aaron Igler

Through her own initiative Linda, came to understand the work better. “I just listened to their talks and tours and became familiar with the work” Among her favorite shows were Pépon Osario’s Department of Human Services show–Trials and Turbulence)–and Rodney Graham’s A Little Thought. Linda was particularly fond of Graham, who gave her a CD of his music. She said of the artist, “I memorized all four rooms of his videos—especially How I became Rambling Man.


On the other hand, Linda found Barry La Va’s Accumulated Vision exhibit—with its broken glass, meat-cleavers, and bullet holes—too violent. The artist himself, though, was “nice—all of them were.”

And Linda would know. According to the guard, “I’m in there eight hours—I’m the one who connects to the people who come in…they like the fact that I interact with them.” Staff members, too, appreciate her connectedness. Linda says of the staff, “We get along great because I talk to them about what people say.”

Explicit content


When visitors ask her about an exhibit’s appropriateness for children, Linda says, “I’ll tell them up front, and they will go and check it out for themselves before they show it to the kids.” It’s probably a better way to deal with explicit content than an impersonal warning sign, which viewers may or may not notice.

detail of Zoe Strauss’ crack smoker on the window of the ICA ramp space

On the subject controversial work, I asked Linda about Zoë Strauss’ enlarged image of a crack smoker. She told me about one of the funniest interpretations she’d heard—a student surprised to see “an asthma pump on the ramp.” Linda could understand how someone might be offended, though, “because they know people who are trying to overcome [a drug habit] and there they are exposing it.” Yet overall, she thought that Strauss’ work was worthwhile.

Linda’s view of Strauss was a sign of how she felt about the ICA in general. She was remarkably accepting of the idea that contemporary art is valuable even though it sometimes offends. I was impressed with the way she could remain sanguine about an art world that many people find elitist. We need more ambassadors like Linda to help people weather the sometimes unfriendly museum environment.

–Edward M. Epstein is founder and director of the 40th Street Artist in Residence program