| Print Story | E-Mail Story | Font Size

Guardians of the Art

What to see at OC's museums? We asked the people who stare at art all day – the security guards.

Julio Labra, 25, Laguna Art Museum

Orange County museum visitors want more than just the chance to shoot a selfie with a favorite sculpture or painting. Whether they’re diehard art fanatics, retirees, students or just tourists taking a break from Disneyland, visitors to OC’s top museums often consult museum security guards for an insider’s perspective. Don’t let the uniform fool you:  Whether they are aspiring artists or art historians, or have learned on the job, they love to share their personal insight with others. Three security guards from Orange County’s major museums tell us why they do it. They want you to be touched by art. But remember — please don’t touch!

The Diamond Bar resident and native Californian holds a B.A. from UC Irvine (studio art with an art history minor).  Cary, a painter, plans to return to school someday but since last summer has been enjoying her days at OCMA in Newport Beach, which she describes as homey, intimate and community-friendly.

WHY ART, WHY NOW: “I guess in elementary school I would keep to myself, and through art I found my own voice. With the development of social media – Instagram, Facebook, Twitter – it’s helping people to get more involved in art.  It gives them access to things they might not normally come across.”

FAVORITE WORK:  Fred Tomaselli, “Hang Over,” 2005. The Santa Monica-born artist creates collaged paintings often incorporating photographic reproductions and items including leaves and various pills. At OCMA as part of the special exhibition, “Hang Over” reflects the devastation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. What at first glance might be a festive New Orleans “bead tree,” a Mardi Gras tradition, on closer inspection presents a disturbing assemblage of strings of tiny hands, eyes and other body parts.

WHY THIS: “The piece attracted me because of its vibrant color, and its large scale is very attractive,” Cary says. “At first I didn’t get a chance to come up close because I was keeping an eye on the public, but I was attracted to the fact that it contained different materials that you wouldn’t normally associate with paintings. And it has a dark fairy tale mood because you start to realize what the details are.  It’s really systematic, the way he built it, but it really creates a sort of kaleidoscope.” (In her own paintings, Cary sometimes incorporates tea leaves to achieve unexpected texture.)

PUBLIC OPINION: This piece, Cary says, has “the ‘Wow’ factor. I’ve seen a lot of students come in and take notes. A lot of people are timid to ask questions about certain works.  I think for someone to enjoy something you need to have all the options, and the opportunity to enjoy it.” Because of her interactions with people at OCMA, Cary is considering art education as a possible next area of study.


Hailing from small-town Indiana, with an undergrad degree from the Art Academy of Cincinnati, he came to the coast to pursue his master’s degree at Laguna College of Art and Design and never went back. Labra also recently decided to forgo his previous goal of becoming a full-time art teacher in order to commit himself to becoming a studio artist, with teaching a sidelight to the goal.  He was born when his mother was just 15 and had mostly absent father and stepfather figures in his life. “I was very introverted,” he says. “The one thing that gave me recognition was the ability to draw.  That was my connection to a lot of people: ‘Oh, I can make a drawing. I can make a cartoon.’ ”  

FAVORITE WORK: Macha Suzuki, “Nice Try,” 2010. The Japanese artist’s mixed media work is described on a museum placard as a celebration of “the effort of aiming at a target as opposed to success in hitting it.”  

WHY THIS: “One thing I really like about this is it has a playfulness that gets you when you walk in – oh, it’s kind of cute.  But you also get this feeling of kind of wanting, of sorrow, that there’s something missing.  Despite all the arrows being here in this playful way, and all this precision, he never got to the middle.”

PUBLIC OPINION: Suzuki’s work gets “a lot of giggles. People come in and smile.  It’s very lofty and it’s slightly satirical.  You have two kinds of people who come into this room [of contemporary art]: People who are really receptive to the artwork of the modern age and people who are really against it, who completely reject this idea of modernism and contemporary ideas, because it doesn’t associate with anything that is tangible.  It becomes a place of fear.”

IF HE OWNED A CONTEMPORARY ART MUSEUM: “My friend and I had an idea — we make a gallery called: ‘You Did It.’  And you put in all the artwork [about which] people say: ‘I could have
done that.’”


An Anaheim resident originally from Santa Ana, Gurrola says he got his museum job “by accident.”  He applied for a position at the admissions desk but found out that guarding offered more attractive hours and a dollar more per hour.  Now in his 12th year at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Gurrola is security manager, but that includes standing in the galleries, escorting patrons, whatever’s necessary: “We’re a nonprofit,” he explains.  He says Bowers guards are not expected to be art experts but are encouraged to “read as much as you want about any piece you like.”  And he adds that anyone who’s been around more than five years is bound to develop favorites, and possibly strong opinions.

FAVORITE WORK:  Raul Anguiano,  “Untitled (Mural of Bowers Museum Artifacts)” 1999. One of two Bowers murals by the 20th century Mexican painter and muralist (the other is “The Mayas”), this piece depicts many objects that are part of the Bowers collection.  Among them:  A Hopi Katsina doll, the Jaguar Matete, a Han Dynasty horse that can be found in the Ancient Arts of China gallery and a Colima dog.  The work appeals to Gurrola who is of Mexican descent, because “it is part of my culture.”  Gurrola appreciates that Anguiano’s work follows the traditions of muralists Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco.  And Gurrola got to meet the artist when Anguiano came to visit the museum about a year before he died in 2006. Says Gurrola of the mural: “It’s very bold and bright. You see it and you are actually pulled into the painting to try to figure out what it is.”

PUBLIC OPINION: “About half the time they don’t even know it’s here.  We get art students looking for modern art, ‘I need a piece of modern art.’  I point out this artist, and then they look him up online, they go on their phones. This is their assignment; they just need something to write about very quickly.  It’s pretty rare that they ask about lines or color.”

PARENTAL GUIDANCE SUGGESTED: Kids learn museum etiquette at school but “ironically I have more adults that want to touch objects,” Gurrola says with a laugh.  “My favorite is we had a patron put a child inside ‘The Canoe’ (a large, 20th century painted canoe from the Yami Culture, Orchid Island, Taiwan, placed on a platform in an outdoor court).  “My first thought was like, ‘No, he’s not doing that … no, he’s doing that.’  A lot of times the adults are worse than the children.”

See archived 'Features' stories »

What is this?

Save & Share this Article