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Art AND: Dereck Stafford Mangus

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Dereck Stafford Mangus thinks you should take a break. Artists are constantly advised to produce—to get in the studio and make, even if they don’t feel like it. The wisdom is that, like working out at the gym, the routine of creation is what matters and creativity is a muscle to be flexed and stretched daily, and from that great work will come. Mangus sees it differently, explaining that “[under] capitalism, we are just trying to mass produce to keep up with the market” which is additionally challenging since artists make things by hand, a process that is inherently laborious and slower-paced than a machine’s. 

He compares this need to be constantly producing to the compulsion he feels at times to read a book quickly. But when he puts a book down for a while and comes back to it later, he says, “something happens to me in the interim, so when I pick up the book again, it clicks in this weird way, and I’m so glad I put it down.” The net impact ends up being greater than if he’d read it in one burst. For Mangus, an artist, writer, and museum guard, space for reflection is essential to a strong end result.

As a multi-hyphenate and, let’s face it, a career intellectual—with two master’s degrees, one from Harvard Extension School and one from MICA—Mangus has given a lot of thought to the challenges of living a creative life under capitalism. A part of the BMA’s union, he has put these considerations into practice. For Mangus, who was part of the Harvard Art Museums’ union while an employee there in the 2000s, unions are about “respecting workers,” he tells me. 

In his October op-ed for the Baltimore Sun, Mangus expanded on this idea, writing that Walters Art Museum leadership needs to honor their mission and allow workers to take a vote to unionize. Working first for the Harvard Art Museums, then the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Walters, and the BMA since 2016, Mangus knows the ins and outs of working within large public-facing arts institutions. He speaks frequently of his BMA “family,” from whom he feels he has learned a lot about art as well as politics.

 

One Nassau, Boston Construction, 2004, Color filmic photomontage
One Lincoln, Boston Construction, 2001, Black & white filmic photomontage

Originally from Hudson, Massachusetts, which Mangus describes as a “small red town in a big blue state,” Mangus attended most of his freshman year at MICA in 1996 but then had to drop out when his parents decided they didn’t want to pay for him to attend a private art school. Rather than immediately starting another degree program, he joined his older sister, Jenny, on a work visa in the UK and spent what would have been his sophomore year traveling through Great Britain and working in a hotel in the Scottish Highlands.

After seven months in Europe, he returned to the Boston area where he spent the next decade attending UMass Art and working as a guard at the Harvard Art Museums. In 2015, after visiting a friend from his MICA days who still lived in Baltimore, Mangus decided to apply to a couple of MICA’s graduate programs, eventually selecting Critical Studies. “I’m an artist first and foremost,” he figured. “I’ll always make art. Why not try to enhance my research and writing skills?” 

Attending MICA’s Critical Studies program opened up writing professionally for Mangus, who has been steadily contributing to Artblog, Hyperallergic, Frieze, and some MICA publications since 2018. Though he writes reviews and opinion pieces about the need for unions in the art world, he says he has never thought of himself as a writer, but always as primarily an artist. Yet he finds himself writing more and more, crediting his experiences working in museums to changing his perspective and giving him “a lot to think about and respond to in writing,” he says. “Writing [is a way to] have your creative output compensated in some way.”

These days, Mangus identifies as a photographer, but says he is “more interested in conveying ideas, especially about the built environment, and not getting caught up in the medium.” His best-known works are his series of photomontages of decaying Baltimore rowhouses which he calls Ruins. The pieces recall David Hockney’s mid-1980s photomontages but are less dense, combining perhaps 20 images instead of Hockney’s 50 or more. His photomontages typically float on a black rectangle, making them appear as the positive coming out of a negative, with select ripped edges of photos reminding the reviewer that this document is not intended to be representative of a lasting reality. The artist is drawn to the impermanence of these dwellings and businesses whose exposed cross sections become a map of what was.

SUBJECT: Dereck Stafford Mangus, 44
PLACE: Mount Vernon
WEARING: A yellow ochre Carhartt hoodie with BMA Union sticker, black T-shirt, blue jeans, and gray New Balance sneakers. 

Dereck Mangus in his studio, photo by Justin Tsucalas

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

Dereck Stafford Mangus: Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli is a great little book. It’s a nonfiction collection of essays about the author’s take on different cities she visits. It’s smart and moving at times, a very poetic take on urbanism. But it was a while ago that I read that one. More recently, I’ve been getting into Rachel Cusk’s novels, especially The Outline trilogy. Her books are very deep without seeming so. She sort of lulls you into contemplating the big ideas without you even being aware. Ben Lerner’s another contemporary writer that does that well. [But my] all-time favorite? Moby-Dick.

You are primarily a photographer at this point although you’ve made paintings in the past and you said you might return to it again. In 2019, you were working on your series Ruins, documenting a number of Baltimore structures that were in the process of falling down. As somebody who’s not from Baltimore, but has lived here a long time, what do you make of national perceptions of the city, and were you thinking about that when you made this series?

I know it’s a bad thing, but I’m hopefully trying to make it a good thing, the ruins. I’m not trying to aestheticize blight or make economically deprived neighborhoods cool by making them look awesome or whatever. I hope it doesn’t come across that way. I simply document them as they are. I do find ruins intriguing. They draw me in, especially when buildings get removed and then you’re left with a cross-section of the old building where you see the floors and the walls and where they were. 

Ruins are a photomontage series that grew out of what I was already doing back in Boston and did a little bit down here—a series about the construction of buildings, of buildings going up, being built. Then, once I was down here, I started exploring the neighborhoods to the east of where I live in Mount Vernon, like Johnston Square.

I think there are good and bad things about gentrification. In Boston, when I go home now, it looks totally different every time I visit. In some ways, Baltimore’s slow economic growth allows us to see these little bits of history that don’t get bulldozed over right away or too quickly. You get to see the way the city looked before.

Your 2013 Harvard master’s thesis, “The Persistence of and Resistance to Structure: The Grid-Square Construct in Western Visual Culture,” was a formal examination of the form of grids and squares. Can you talk about how you’re continuing to think about this subject almost 10 years later and the work you made in the pandemic that relates to it?

Since completing my graduate thesis for Harvard, I’ve continued to explore grids and squares in my artwork. I made two Square Calendars—one in 2016 and one in 2020—which brought the element of time into The Square Project. My thesis mostly focuses on grids and squares as spatial units of measure—city plans and maps—or in art and design, whereas the calendars introduce a temporal component. The square, with its four equal sides, suggests the four seasons. And calendars delineate the month into a grid of days and weeks. So I just thought it would be cool to make these square little calendars and send them out to colleagues, friends, and family members. It’s a way of getting my work out into the world while also further exploring the many ways grids and squares shape our lives. 

You mentioned that you don’t have a license or a car and you rely on biking, walking, and public transportation to get around the city. Is there anything that you’ve discovered in walking that you feel you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise?

I feel like I pretty much know Mount Vernon like the back of my hand now. But just the other day my partner and I were walking around and we took a left that we hadn’t taken before. I didn’t realize it until we were halfway down the street. I was like, “Oh wait, even though this is our neighborhood, I have never walked down this little block before.” So that was nice. Especially for The Square Project, going down alleyways or little nooks and crannies that I wouldn’t normally go down to explore the underbelly of the city is interesting to me.

The Square Project is not really about squares in a way. It’s about pulling me in different directions and going, “Hey, what’s down here? Oh, I’m gonna go look for squares down there.” If I see a cool square thing, I photograph it, and then it becomes a marker of my explorations. 

 

 

Johnston Square, Baltimore Ruin #1, 2015–2020, mixed media

Do you pursue any hobbies in addition to your multiple jobs and studio practice? Do you think that these hobbies or collections have any influence on your work or do you view them more as a way to unwind?

I play a little guitar. Not that I’m a serious musician or anything. It’s more like something to do in order to relax or pass the time. I don’t read music, but I like looking up certain songs I like, and trying to figure them out the best I can by finding the tablature online and just strumming away until I get it. But this is not for an audience or anything like that. This is strictly a chilling out, winding down sort of thing. I think it’s good. Even though it has no direct connection to my other creative outlets, it sort of creates a different space to step away into. 

Do you have a favorite local restaurant or a go-to order? What is it?

Never on Sunday is right around the corner from where my partner and I live, so that’s where we order from mostly. I usually order from the Greek menu as that’s their specialty. Their Souvlaki is amazing. They’re too close to deliver though, so we do have to actually go there to pick up our order. On payday, I get a fancy breakfast sandwich at Dooby’s. And Sugarvale, also just around the corner, is a great little spot to get a drink. My partner and I really miss the Mount Vernon Stable & Saloon, which closed during the pandemic and never reopened. 

You’ve worked as a guard at BMA since 2016. As an artist, what’s the most exciting thing about working in a museum?

When you’re a guard, you see not just the collection of a given museum, but all the traveling shows that come and go. There are so many artists I learned about just by working in a museum that I wouldn’t have necessarily learned about otherwise. I’ve been a guard at four different museums—Harvard Art Museums, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Walters (briefly), and now the BMA. I didn’t think I’d be doing this for so long.

I never wanted to be a guard necessarily, never mind do it for the last 20 years. But it has helped my art and has informed me as an artist to see how a museum works from the ground level. When I started at the BMA, I was actually in Visitor Services, but I transitioned over to guarding, and then for Guarding the Art, I was one of 17 guest curators. I also help wash the outdoor sculptures on Mondays and Tuesdays, so I do a little bit of conservation work as well. I have worn different hats at all the museums I’ve worked at. 

Can you tell me about your experience working with the museum administration last year to curate Guarding the Art at the BMA with some of your colleagues?

In February 2021, we had a Zoom meeting and museum leadership offered us this opportunity to curate our own show based on works from the collection. So I figured, well, now I want to do that, so I’ll stick around a little bit longer. The BMA Union started up around the same time, kind of quietly under the radar at first, but once Guarding the Art got going, the union got more vocal. Not to say the two things have anything to do with each other, but in some ways they do. Conceptually, the museum wanted to offer this chance for the guards to shine. With the union, that organization gives respect to the role. They complement each other because they’re both about respecting workers. 

Guarding the Art was saying, “What else can a guard do? What else can a guard be?” Whereas the union adds respect to being a guard. I didn’t start with the union initiative. I was always pro-union but other guards got it going, some of whom have since left the museum. But nonetheless, some people start things and others finish them. 

 

Johns Hopkins Medical Demolition #1, 2019–2020, mixed media
Square Calendar #2: November, 2020, mixed media

As an art history nerd, I’ve read a couple of books about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s heist. Can you tell me about what it was like to guard art there in the aftermath? 

Well, that happened in 1990 and I was 12 years old and living in the suburbs. So I had nothing to do with it! But when I was guarding there, there was one particular gallery that had been hit the hardest by the thieves, the Dutch Room, where they took a Rembrandt and a Vermeer. The stipulations in Gardner’s will state that nothing can be moved or changed in the museum. So when the thieves came, they cut the paintings out from their frames and rolled them up, which probably damaged them. So even if we ever do find these things, they’re not gonna look the same.

But the empty frames are still there. Sometimes when I would be guarding in the Dutch Room, visitors would come in and they would ask to see the stolen art. Well, you can’t see the stolen art—because it’s missing! It’s almost like conceptual art, the empty frames.

Museum work falls under the same kind of category as teaching, where people tell you, “Oh, that’s a noble profession; you’re doing a good thing for society.” But they don’t always consider whether you’re getting basic human dignities like fair pay and health care. Have you always thought that unions in the art world were going to be important or did you see yourself getting more informed over time? 

Maybe a silver lining to the tragedy of the pandemic is that a lot of workers finally said, “You know what, billionaires are making more and more money and we’re still making the same, and it’s just not right.” I’ve always been pro-union—not to say I’m blindly pro-union, because any system, any organization, can become corrupt or flawed in some way.

When I was at the Harvard Museum, there was already a union there, so I got involved with it back then. I was a union secretary there, so I sat in on some contract negotiations, and I saw the inner workings of how a union operates. I’m glad I had that experience under my belt when I got more involved with the union here [at the BMA]. The youngsters started the BMA Union and they were kind of revolutionary about it. I was like, “Okay, I’m with you, but let’s do this right.” And they did, to their credit.

Do you believe in astrology? If so, what insights can your signs give our readers into your personality and mindset?

I don’t really believe in astrology, but the topic does come up a lot at work. When it’s slow at the museum, and a bunch of guards are standing around, a discussion about star signs will definitely come up at some point. I’m an Aquarius. And yes, I do believe that is the best star sign. But no, I don’t believe in any of it either. 

What are the last three emojis you used? Have you given up emojis?

I don’t believe in emojis either. Just kidding. To be honest, I hardly use them. I’m part of an ongoing group text with people at work that wash the outdoor sculptures. In the group chat, people are always using all these cool emojis, especially to say more complicated things than emojis really allow. You know, there’s no “statue” or “sculpture” emoji. What’s up with that?  

What would your teenage self think about the direction of your life so far? Is there anything you’d say to younger you if you could visit yourself Back to the Future style?

I’m not sure what my teenage self would think of me. He probably wouldn’t even recognize me. I’ve put on a few pounds over the years! But if I could tell him anything, it would be something like, “Well, it’s probably not at all what you think it’s going to be… But just the same, keep on doing what you’re doing.”

 

Check out more of Dereck Mangus’ work at his website: https://www.dsmangus.com/.

Photos of the artist by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt. Art images courtesy of the artist.

This story is from Issue 14: Environment, available here.

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