Fresh Theft: Consuming Art

spearmint-mouseBy Yasmin Mitchel, Associate Editor
Image Courtesy of Artist, Liz Magor, and Susan Hobbs

One phone call.
PS: Public Safety.
YM: Hi. It’s the DePaul Art Museum. A man just stole a piece of a sculpture.
PS: How long ago?
YM: 5 minutes.
PS: What did he look like?
YM: Um, a gray sweatshirt, khakis, sneakers. He was about 6’ 2”, older maybe 50s.
PS: And race? Black, White, Hispanic?
YM: He was white.
PS: What did he take?
YM: A cigarette.

***

It is a Sunday in early October, around 4:30, a half hour away from closing. The DePaul Art Museum sits a few feet away from the Fullerton L stop, nestled between old cobbled brownstones and industrialized transportation. The newest exhibition, On Space and Place, has drawn in visitors from all over the world, and sometimes I find them to be more interesting than our display of contemporary art. I am in the main floor gallery, overwatching the space themed Identity and Social Violence. I am  tired and my eight-hour shift is dragging. I run through the contents of my refrigerator in my head, wondering what to make for dinner, its  shelves are probably as empty as the gallery. It is quiet, save for the rattling of the Nick Cave Sound Suits. The soft rustling of plastic buttons and abacus beads fill the empty spaces of the gallery and my mind. I check my phone: twenty-five more minutes. I check my phone: no notifications.

Three visitors enter the space, none with relation to the other. An older woman, decked in pearls and a long black coat, and two men, one in a gray hoodie sweatshirt the other in a leather jacket. Demographics have always fascinated me. Since this museum has no admission fee, the diversity of our visitors is apparent. One man gravitates towards the Sound Suit. The other towards Tala Madani’s Sainted. The woman moves towards me. My primary job as a gallery monitor is to watch over the space and protect the art, but I am also a brain to be picked. Soon I am answering questions about the museum. It had been built in 2011. Yes, we take donations. No, this exhibition does not feature DePaul students. As I continue through the interrogation, I have an eye on the other visitors. One man makes his way to the room themed “Fact or Fiction”, the other is still entranced with Sainted.

The interrogation continues. Yes, I enjoy working here. No, it’s not my only job. I notice hoodie man circling spearmint/mouse, a Liz Magor sculpture that includes a blue crystallized rock as a podium for an ashtray balanced on a pack of gum. A plaster mouse lays dead in the ashtray, covered in cigarette debris. I turn back to finish answering this woman’s questions, telling her to please make sure to visit the second floor.

She departs, leaving me to ponder hoodie man and spearmint/mouse. I turn back to him and it looks like he’s just touched the piece. I give him a questioning look and he exits the space. As he walks past me, I notice he has a tinged cigarette behind his ear. I walk over to spearmint/mouse and realize he has taken the cigarette.

I run to the front of the museum and hoodie man is talking nonchalantly with the other gallery monitor at the receptionist desk.

“Excuse me, sir,” I say, “did you take the cigarette from that piece?”

“No.”

He books it. Runs north down Fullerton, away from the museum, away from the train. So much is running through my mind. Why now? Why a cigarette? Why a cigarette from an art piece?

Nevertheless, we have to follow protocol. I tell the other monitor to call our collections manager. I get on the phone with Public Safety. I can’t imagine there is any chance of catching him. After all, it’s a white man with a cigarette… in Chicago!

Fifteen minutes go by and a Public Safety officer walks into the museum. She pulls out a spiral flip book and asks me the same questions as the officer on the phone. As I am giving her the details, hoodie man walks past the museum. I quickly point him out, again describing his crinkled khakis and gray sweatshirt. The officer rushes out and walkies for back up. She trails fifteen feet behind him as he continues past the train down Fullerton.

Fifteen minutes until closing and I know there is no way I am getting out in fifteen minutes. The other monitors and I begin shutting down the TVs and inspecting the space. Another Public Safety officer comes in and asks to see where the theft occurred. I grab our exhibition pamphlet and walk him to the space. I point out the sculpture, the blue quartz shines the same way, as if the adorned ashtray still contains its cigarette. I remark that I doubt we’ll be able to prove that the guy took the cigarette.

“Oh, we caught him. He threw his hands up over his head and admitted it, said he smoked it.”

I take a step back. A part of me wishes hoodie man did not get caught. I almost regret pointing him out as he sauntered past the window. I wonder how strong the pull of nicotine is. I could only imagine the addiction. How easy it seemed, to inhale and exhale.There’s true immediate gratification, I think.

This crime is so petty and so needless. The officer asks if I could give a witness statement to the Chicago Police Department. I doubt I have a choice.

As an aspiring visual arts professional, this ordeal has been difficult to shake off on both a practical and moral level. In our society, it is universally known that stealing is against the law. And, those who are caught stealing are expected to be prosecuted. This extends to the museum world.

What frustrates me is the worth we place on objects we deem art. If this man had stolen a cigarette from a convenience store, how would his consequences differ? He would be arrested either way. But what then? Why do we place worth on everyday objects that are incredibly mundane? I understand there is inherent worth in an object because of production and labor costs. But I continue to struggle with the concept that we can increase worth by placing objects in a different location. Placing a cigarette in a museum makes it almost priceless, whereas placing it in a store makes it accessible.

Once the Public Safety Officer finishes arming the building, he escorts me down the street to where hoodie man is cuffed and leaning on the side of the Whole Foods. He is surrounded by four Public Safety officers and one informs me that Chicago PD is on their way. Hoodie man looks amused, with a wrinkled smile and shrugging shoulders.

He sees me approaching and visibly straightens. “Geeze, ma’am. I’m sorry for the trouble. Can you forgive me? I didn’t know I couldn’t take it.”

I ignore him, not wanting to engage further. I think of the bottom line, trying to make sense of what’s transpiring around me, trying to maintain composure.

Bottom line: hoodie man committed theft. Everyone knows the number one rule is no touching, very few even think of taking.

Among the first questions Chicago PD asks me is if I know the worth of the cigarette. Is it a real cigarette? What brand of cigarette was it?

I didn’t have these answers, but hoodie man did. First, he said he was sorry. Then he said it had been “fresh.” The cigarette had been exposed on the sculpture for the past couple of months, so I doubted its crispness. But this word — fresh — stuck with me.

Hoodie man experienced the sculpture in a way no one else ever would.

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