This morning we are celebrating Linda Harris, who has been a security guard at ICA for a decade. “How many people have been here ten years?” Robert, ICA’s Director of Curatorial Affairs, asks. He raises his hand, and Linda raises hers. The rest of us, comparative newbies, keep our hands at our sides.
Robert says, “At least twice a month someone says to me we have this awesome security guard in the galleries. And I say, ‘Yes we do!’”
I’ve heard that too, from many people—all of us at ICA have. Attentive, caring, quick to smile and to offer advice, Linda is a warm and a lively presence in the galleries. “I always say hello,” she tells me. “And we’ll start a conversation. Someone might ask me, ‘What do you recommend that’s good?’” She makes sure you know which wall labels go with which artworks, and if she thinks you’re missing something, she’s likely to tell you. “Sometimes people don’t have the patience to watch [a video], and I tell them, ‘This is good, you should watch it,’” she says.
Video art is her favorite kind of art. She watches the videos here so much and so carefully that she usually memorizes them. Jeffrey, ICA’s Assistant Director of Development, remembers watching Kalup Linzy’s video with her during 2010’s Queer Voice exhibition: “She recited it word for word.”
This sunny morning there are pastries, orange juice, gifts, speeches. Once Linda dries her eyes, someone asks her what the first ICA show she remembers is.
“The one with the sock monkeys,” she says, referring to 2002’sPictures, Patents, Monkeys, and More…On Collecting.
“And what was your favorite show?”
There are a lot of favorites. Anyone who watched her talking to visitors in last year’s The Happy Show knows that exhibition was one of them, but also The Puppet Show, Rodney Graham: A Little Thought (the artist gave her a CD), and Ensemble, a group exhibition of works that make sound, guest-curated by Christian Marclay. This exhibition famously contained “Telephone Piece” by Yoko Ono: a telephone in the gallery that the artist would occasionally call. “I spoke to Yoko Ono!” Linda remembers. “I couldn’t believe it was her for real!”
I had heard how noisy Ensemble was, with gongs and chimes and intermittent screeches. “Didn’t that show drive you crazy?” I asked.
“Did it,” Linda agrees. “This one going off, that one going off—the talking trash. The trash would be saying boom boom boom! It was so interactive.”
She also remembers Pepón Osorio’s Trials and Turbulence, a show that dealt with the Department of Human Services. It related to her childhood, she says.
Having grown up in North Philadelphia, Linda, who has three children and three grandchildren she often cares for, came to security work after an accident cut short her nursing career. It’s easy to imagine how seeing her bustle into a room would cheer a patient. I watched her recently when a group of retired teachers—some with canes and walkers—toured the galleries. Concerned that one woman was losing her balance, Linda went to check if she was okay, then stopped to laugh with another who joked that the spiky hair of a subject in a photograph looked like her own hair when she got up in the morning. No wonder that one family, frequent ICA visitors, sends her a yearly Christmas card, or that former Penn students frequently come back to visit. At our morning reception, ICA’s director Amy Sadao tells Linda, “I’m new here, but you welcomed me the way you welcome everyone.” I felt that way too, my first months at ICA—always happy to see Linda because she always seemed happy to see me.
Later that day, I was in the lobby when a man came in and walked right past the front desk, heading toward the gallery. Larry, who was working the desk, called out to him: “You going in?”
“Nah,” the man said. “I’m just saying hi to Linda.”
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