Behind the Scenes with UMMA Lead Security Officer Xu Yong
Interview by Cameron Bothner.
If you’ve spent any time in UMMA’s galleries, you’ve probably felt the welcoming presence of Xu (pronounced “Shoo”) Yong, UMMA’s Lead Security Officer, doing his rounds. I spent a while walking around with him recently and tried to better get to know him. We had a lovely chat: I hope you find it interesting!
Can you please briefly describe your job here at the museum?
We have in total seven security officers on the museum staff. As Lead Security Officer I perform all the security duties and services to our visitors as the other officers, plus some administrative duties assisting the facility manager.
How long have you been employed at UMMA?
I think I started in 1988, or maybe early 1989, first as a temporary employee, and then I became a member of the regular staff a couple years later.
What do you enjoy most about working at UMMA?
Mostly I enjoy, of course, our art collections. I really enjoy being able to look at the works every time I pass by. And also, the people: both the staff here—-it’s really a great group of people to work with—-and our visitors. I really enjoy seeing them, talking to them, and sometimes in a small way helping them out.
How did you decide you wanted to work at an art museum?
That was a no-brainer! When I came to this country in 1987, I was basically looking for any job I could find. I graduated with an art degree, so it was natural for me to start by looking for anything art related. So that’s how I wound up here.
Do you have a favorite work of art in the museum?
Up until recently, my favorite work has been a painting up in the Modern/Contemporary gallery by the German expressionist artist Max Beckmann called Begin the Beguine. I really like that painting probably because when I was in art school I had an interest in German expressionism: the very strong color, and interesting structure—-I actually experimented with it myself—-so when I came to the museum, that moved me tremendously.
However, this year we received a new acquisition, The Music Lesson by the Dutch artist Caspar Netscher (ed. pictured behind Xu in his portrait) that I really love. I don’t know if it’s because now I’m getting older, but I really like the settling, very quiet, and small scale but mighty scene. For me, it’s just so lovely. You can look at it so many times, and it will always touch you. So now this has become my new favorite.
Can you tell me a bit about your life outside of UMMA?
I am married, and I have one son who’s going to be going to college this fall, and very fortunately my wife works here at the museum with me—-she’s the Asian Art Conservator—-and we love it. Besides work, I really enjoy reading books and watching movies. And I like collecting art: going to antique stores, always looking for treasure. I have a small collection of my own.
What is the most common thing you have to tell someone to stop doing?
Please do not touch! That’s the most frequent thing. Also, photography is something we frequently have to remind people not to do. But they’re all natural reactions: I must confess that sometimes I want to touch! You see a marble sculpture and the smooth surface, or even on an oil painting you see the texture and it’s just so inviting. But they are fragile, and we want to keep them safe as long as we can, so therefore we have to restrain ourselves.
And photography is also natural: people want to keep their memory of the visit. But sometimes they don’t understand that a camera flash can hurt the artifacts, and then of course there are complicated copyright issues.
Do you have any stories of preventing art theft or vandalism?
Fortunately, no. I’ve been working here over 20 years, and I cannot think of any. Nothing has been stolen, thank God, but there have been a couple of incidents that weren’t intentionally vandalism but accidents. When we had a wood exhibit, some kids accidentally cracked a beautiful wood-turned vase. That’s why the museum needs us—-to prevent that kind of thing.
There is another interesting story that I don’t know how to categorize. I remember a year or two ago I was walking by and suddenly saw a small picture was on the wall near the museum store in the new wing where nothing had been hanging before. I said “that’s strange!” Someone had glued it to the wall. We found the student who put it there, who was basically just putting his own work in the museum gallery!
People say he was trying to propose to his girlfriend or something. It was innocent, but we need to stay vigilant for such things that are not supposed to happen.
I’m told you’re an artist; what kind of art do you make?
I graduated from a Chinese university art school with a degree in Chinese painting. I do mostly works on paper; ink washes, and drawings.
How is your work in the museum informed by your background as an artist?
I think my unique background - both in my knowledge of art and art history, and also being Chinese - has been well utilized. I can explain to visitors about art techniques or styles, and I can translate to Chinese as well. Several years ago, I was invited by UMMA’fs Education Department to demonstrate calligraphy techniques as part of a teacher workshop, and then did similar demonstrations in later years for museum visitors. (Visit UMMA’s DialogTable to find Xu doing calligraphy in a video about the 1961 Untitled abstract painting by Franz Kline in UMMA’s collection.)
I also volunteered one time to give a tour to a group of Chinese senior citizens. I prepared a tour all in Chinese, and they came, and the group of elderly Asians were as a matter of fact Korean! I still gave their tour, but of course I had to switch to English.
This is one of the questions we usually ask, but it’s wonderfully ironic because you’re a Security Officer: if you could steal any artwork in the world to have up in your home, what would it be?
Oh, I’d definitely steal the Mona Lisa! Even though I haven’t seen it in person, it’s just a great painting: timeless, very settled, and beautiful. If I had to choose a second, I’d pick a Vermeer for the same reason. I’ve really been enjoying the quiet, deep, meditative works of art. And also they’re both small!
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Lots of people ask me if I’m ever tired of working here, and my answer really is no. Of course, when I was young, I had a different vision. I did not ever think I wanted to be a security guard at a museum, but you know, life happens. I’m happy to still be involved with art and with people in their discovery of it.
Just the other day I was thinking about this: people think about museums as something old, something past. But I’ve been working here over 20 years, and I see so many kids coming through, who grow up, who go off to college, and then I see those kids come back to visit. I think the museum has so much life in it. Kids come when they’re just starting to walk, and they grow up, and they keep coming back. The museum is part of this human story, and it’s touching. I’m satisfied!
UMMA SPAC thanks Xu Yong for his time and for this interview, and invites you to come visit the museum, find Xu in the galleries and chat with him for a while yourself.