Starting a career as an artist can be tough, particularly in New York where the cost of living and competition have been historically, and continue to be, incredibly high. Enter the day job. For decades, even centuries, artists have sought out steady employment—and a regular paycheck—to support their artistic practices. Many have been fortunate enough, however, to still stay within arm’s reach of the art world, working at world-famous institutions by day while honing their practices by night.
The city of New York is home to more than 80 museums, with a large number devoted to the visual arts. These multifaceted institutions require a range of specialized staff—from preparators and carpenters to admins and security guards. It’s no surprise, perhaps, that some of the most famous artists of the past century, then, have found employment in their storied walls, working jobs from the book counter to museum guard.
Below, we’ve gathered five famous 20th-century artists who spent time early in their careers working behind the scenes at museums before they made it big.
Robert De Niro, Sr.
Robert De Niro, Sr. (1922–1993)—father of Academy Award-winning actor Robert De Niro, Jr., of and fame—was an accomplished artist recognized for his Impressionistic abstractions. He studied at the famed Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where then-professor Joseph Albers noted him as one of his best students before De Niro enrolled at Hans Hofmann’s School of Fine Arts. In 1940, De Niro wrote to Baroness Hilla von Rebay, who had established the Museum of Non-Objective Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation a few years prior, to state his financial difficulties as well as his hope that she might view some of his paintings. Rebay’s secretary furnished De Niro, Sr., a check for 15 dollars to cover art supplies, a small but supportive act that would be repeated over subsequent years. In 1943, the artist took on the role of security guard and night watchman at the Museum of Non-Objective Art. He worked there through the end of the 1940s, though unfortunately most of his work from the period was lost due to a loft fire in 1948.
Another New York City-based artist joined the staff of Rebay’s Museum of Non-Objective Art early in 1943: Jackson Pollock (1912–1956). Employed as a custodian and maintenance man, he still managed to spend much of his time working on his art, and, ultimately, his term at the museum proved brief. Shortly after taking the job at the museum, he submitted one of his works for consideration to the Spring Salon for Young Artists at Peggy Guggenheim’s influential Art of This Century gallery, which was nearby. At the behest of the salon’s jurors—Piet Mondrian and Marcel Duchamp—Guggenheim offered Pollock a multi-year gallery contract and a monthly stipend that allowed him to quit his job at the museum and instead dedicate his time exclusively to his painting. Also included in the agreement was the promise of a solo show at the gallery in the fall of that year, and a commission for a site-specific painting for Guggenheim’s townhouse on West 57th, which resulted in the monumental work (1943), ultimately the largest work in Pollock’s oeuvre.
More than any other artist on this list, Dan Flavin (1933–1996) had the most varied museum support staff careers. He worked within the mailroom of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) between 1959 and 1960; and as a guard at the American Museum of Natural History in the summer of 1961, the last of which coincided with his first experiments incorporating electric lights in his work. The influence of Flavin’s various odd jobs at different institutions—and the people he met while in each position—is evident in many of his artworks.
Pieces from one of Flavin’s most significant series, the “Icons,” inspired by both Christian iconographic painting and the aesthetic values of Suprematism, frequently included dedications. For instance, (1961–62), the McGovern named was a guard and elevator operator alongside Flavin at the American Museum of Natural History. (1960) refers to an art preparator named Schultze who worked concurrently with Flavin at MoMA. And, perhaps the most descriptive, the 1971 piece —with Ward being one of Flavin’s coworkers in the mailroom of the Guggenheim.
Sol LeWitt (1928–2007) first joined the staff of MoMA in 1960, obtaining a job through his cousin—who already worked at the museum—at the book counter. About a year later, his role changed, and he took over evening entry desk coverage at the 53rd Street entrance. Over the course of his tenure, he met numerous fellow artists who also took up positions at the museum, including Flavin, Bob Ryman, Lucy Lippard, Scott Burton, and even Jeff Koons, among others. Of his experience working at MoMA, Lewitt later mused, “If I hadn’t been working here and if I hadn’t known Flavin and Ryman and Lippard and some other people, it may not have clicked. You never know; it may have or it may not. But it did. So that was crucial. The policy that they had of employing artists as guards and as people doing lesser jobs was, I think, a very good policy.” In LeWitt’s oral history later taken by the museum, the artist describes several playful interactions with the museum’s then-director Alfred Barr, including expressing his dissatisfaction with certain sculpture installations viewable from his desk.
In the mid-1960s, conceptual artist Mel Bochner (b. 1940) took a job as a security guard at the Jewish Museum to support his artistic practice. Spending his days working at the museum and nights painting, the lack of rest ultimately caught up to him. Bochner later recounted, “I would come to work tired. One day I got caught taking a nap behind a Louise Nevelson sculpture and got fired.” Though the ill-timed snooze may have ended his museum guard career, it was not the end of his association with the Jewish Museum: in 1970, his work was included in the group exhibition “Using Walls,” and in 2014 the museum mounted the major solo show “Mel Bochner: Strong Language,” which the museum heralded as a “kind of homecoming for the artist,” replete with a photo-op with the current team of guards.