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Grandma guards risqué exhibits at Penn’s Institute of Contemporary Art | We the People

"I seen it all," said the woman who's guarded exhibits on furries and once answered a call from Yoko Ono.

North Philly native Linda Harris, who has worked as a guard at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia for 16 years, uses her radio to communicate with another guard in the museum.
North Philly native Linda Harris, who has worked as a guard at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia for 16 years, uses her radio to communicate with another guard in the museum.Read moreLAUREN SCHNEIDERMAN / Staff Photographer

Meet Linda Harris, a security guard at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.

• Lowering her guard: When no one is looking — and sometimes, when people are — Harris likes to dance to the soundtracks of art films showcased at the museum.

• "Oh Yoko!": Harris once hung up on Yoko Ono after answering a telephone the artist had installed at the museum as part of an exhibition about sound. "I thought it was a joke," Harris said. "I couldn't believe it so I put it back."

No instructions came with the erotic computer video game that was a part of the Institute of Contemporary Art's recent exhibit on queer play. So when the gallery was quiet, museum security guard Linda Harris spent time mastering the game's three saucy levels — and unlocking a secret, sexy fourth — so she could help future guests play the provocative art piece.

"This one is off the hook," Harris said as she helped a visitor with one of the games recently. "It's called 'Hurt Me Plenty.' "

Harris talks about the racy game — which, according to the accompanying label, involves "spanking the heck out of a dude" — so matter-of-factly, it's like she's giving instructions on how to make peach cobbler.

Not much embarrasses the 56-year-old grandmother from North Philly. Not much can, as she's spent the last 16 years surrounded by contemporary art.

"I seen it all," Harris said on a recent morning in the gallery, standing near a giant inflatable latex pig with four piglets suckling at its teats.

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Harris grew up in foster care in North Philadelphia and first worked as a geriatric nurse. But when injuries she suffered in a bus accident made that line of work untenable, she applied to be a guard with Allied University security. She was posted at a few other buildings on the University of Pennsylvania's campus for brief periods before she was permanently assigned to work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in 2002.

"When I first got here, I didn't know what art was. I thought it was paintings, but then I learned it was much more than just paintings," she said. "It can be anything, basically."

Harris has never been to many of the city's great art museums, like the Philadelphia Museum of Art or the Barnes Foundation. So she had few preconceived notions of how museum security officers should act when she started at ICA.

So she acted like herself.

Her avant-garde guarding style quickly got her noticed by staffers and visitors.

"I think when she first started here, we were a little taken aback," said Robert Chaney, the museum's Marc J. Leder director of curatorial affairs. "You think of security officers as somebody that's there strictly to monitor people's behavior silently and be very staid, and we ended up with this very animated, colorful, fiery person that would engage people."

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When she's off duty, Harris is modest and quiet, but get her in the museum's galleries with a walkie-talkie in hand and she lights up like an exhibit on phosphorescence. She loves interacting with the guests — even when she's telling them not to sit on what is obviously a couch because it is also not-so-obviously art.

"It can be intimidating in an art museum, and I think especially in a contemporary art setting, and she puts visitors at ease, that's what I hear more than anything from people— and that they learned something from speaking with Linda," Chaney said.

Harris doesn't have any formal art training, but every time a new exhibition opens she'll listen to the tour guides to see what they say about the pieces so she can explain the works to guests. But with contemporary art, there's not always an easy explanation.

"If they come in here and they was like, 'I don't get it,' I say, 'It's contemporary art, it can be anything,' " Harris said. "There's no right or wrong answer."

And if they're still unhappy? Well, the museum is free, so "they can't ask for their money back if they don't like the art," she said.

While Harris enjoys exploring the exhibits and interacting with guests, being a museum security guard has its moments of monotony and repetition. Often, she must listen to the same soundtracks for the video installations dozens of times a day.

Harris beats that boredom by dancing to music from video exhibits or by memorizing the lines of characters in the films.

"I've heard from both staff members and previous security officers that it can be exhausting to them, mentally, to hear the same thing over and over, but not Linda," Chaney said. "She can embrace it and then become sort of a performer and review these pieces.

"And if it's the right music, I know she likes to dance."

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