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Saturday, 21 August, 2010

Beyond the iconic Water Wall, families, friends and lone art lovers trace pathways through the international exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria. They visit new works, old masters and old favourites. They pause, change position, lean in, step back and move on.

Michael Holmes is watching the watchers, watching the art. Silver hair, charcoal grey suit; his demeanour is formal, somewhat genteel. —“Excuse me Ma’am, your flash is on.” He walks on, speaking in modulated tones. Sometimes he draws his voice back until it’s almost inaudible in the dimness of the smaller galleries. His relaxed gaze takes in the entire room. Holmes is a security supervisor at the NGV International and he and his team are very much on task. Dark-suited, soft-footed, prowling their sectors, rotating their positions; constantly tuned to each other and control.

The crowds flow on around and past still life, through galleries where time and place are represented in epochs and movements. Clusters of spotlights flatter the artworks. The text alongside each piece is printed large enough to avoid the kind of crowding that can make security staff nervous. These curatorial memos tell the art backstories; the provenances, the scandals. This is an intimate otherworld of precious and priceless art.

Holmes says the primary task of Security at the NGV is to protect the artwork. Art theft has long been associated with international criminals. Interpol published its first International Notice on Stolen Works of Art in 1947. Australia, a member since 1948, has authorised access to Interpol’s database of over 35,000 Stolen Works of Art. “We are lucky”, says Holmes, “in Europe and London you read about it every day.” He says Australia is somewhat insulated, unlike Europe. Interpol’s website reports that France and Italy are the most affected, partly due to the opening of borders.

In  BBC4’s 2005 documentary Art Crime, Dick Ellis of Scotland Yard’s Art and Antique Squad said museum security was “a constantly moving target”. He said criminals keep up with security developments, straining museum budgets. This was evident in May 2010, in a €100 million (AU$145 million) art heist at The Museum of Modern Art in Paris. The Herald-Sun reported the museum’s alarms had been malfunctioning for weeks.

Weeping Woman – Picasso, 1937. NGV

In 1986, the NGV discovered their most expensive painting, Picasso’s Weeping Woman, had been ‘artnapped’. In his book, The Bright Shapes and the True Names, Patrick McCaughey, former Director of the NGV, says the painting disappeared off the wall but staff were unaware it was theft until alerted by The Age. The newspaper had received a ransom note from anonymous activists demanding more arts funding. Weeks later, after another tip-off, the Weeping Woman was recovered undamaged from a Spencer Street railway station locker.

Security was ‘in house’ in those days. Four years ago, the NGV contracted Business Risks International to comprehensively review security requirements. Currently the NGV outsources to Wilson Security. Holmes hasn’t seen any serious incidents in his time here. He hopes the day doesn’t come when all artworks will have to be under glass.

Apart from protecting the art, his day’s work is largely public relations. “Helping people have a pleasant day,” he smiles.  He often receives “gratifying emails” from overseas visitors thanking him. Holmes found Pink “quite pleasant” when she visited the recent Dali exhibition. “And she isn’t Pink!” he quips. He helped keep “the younger ones” away, giving her space to enjoy the art. She gave him a lovely smile. “Everyone has the right to see the art in peace,” he says.

People have to be reminded not to touch the artwork, not even the valuable frames. “You get that sixth sense and you know you’ve got to get between them. You know that he or she is going to reach out and you’ve got to make your presence felt very fast.” Occasionally he has to shout over a noisy school group, but he likes to see the young ones coming through. “To see that art is now being recognised to that extent, in classrooms; it’s very gratifying.”

Holmes is not an artist himself: “I couldn’t draw a straight line!” he says. There are artists in his security team and one recently exhibited professionally: “The guy’s work is brilliant.”  Holmes travelled in his previous career in marketing in the oil industry, once spending six months in Japan. Some of the NGV’s pieces are from the region he worked in, but Holmes doesn’t have a favourite room here: “You learn something, from every country. It’s beautiful work.”

Michael Holmes relishes the gallery environment: “So peaceful. It is great if you are a lover of the arts.”  And if he could chat to any artist in history? “I’d love to talk to Picasso. What was in his mind— the Weeping Woman, or any of his work?  It’s fascinating.”  Holmes pausesExcuse me, Sir, that flash will have to be turned off.”

Kaymolly Morrelle interviewed Michael Holmes at the NGV International on Saturday, 21 August, 2010.  © ksmorrelle 2010

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This work by Kaymolly S. Morrelle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.