For Francisco Narvios, working at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is a family affair. After emigrating from the Philippines with his wife and two children in 2001, he quickly found a job as a guard at the MFAH, one of the men and women in black blazers who ensure no one steals, touches, or, in certain galleries, photographs the art. The year after Narvios began work, his wife Deni took a job selling memberships in the museum lobby. His brother, who was already living in the Bayou City when Narvios’s family arrived, soon became a MFAH guard himself.
A compact, 60-something man with close-cropped hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Narvios was on break from his guard duties when we met him at the Café Express in the basement of the MFAH’s Audrey Jones Beck Building. In a pressed white dress shirt, a maroon tie and blazer, and sporting an American flag pin above a shiny metal security badge identifying him as Officer 25, he told us how he came to be here.
In the Philippines, Narvios ran a private security firm that catered to the local tourism industry and employed upward of 200 armed guards. He got his start in the security business in the 1970s at a jai alai club; when that went out of business, he moved to the private security firm he ended up running. Still, he didn’t have to think twice when given the opportunity to bring his family to America.
“There’s a big difference,” Narvios said, when asked to compare the two experiences. “We’re here to protect the art. And we don’t carry firearms. For me, it’s an easy job.”
MFAH guards work in five-person crews, which rotate through the galleries. Narvios’s favorite post is at the bottom of the escalator in the Beck Building, because that’s where he has the most contact with visitors. Not surprisingly, his favorite show in his 13 years at the MFAH was the blockbuster 2003–2004 exhibition The Heroic Century: The Museum of Modern Art Masterpieces, which drew around 3,000 visitors a day.
The most common question Narvios gets asked by visitors, after the location of the restrooms, is where the Impressionist paintings are (the Beck Building, up the stairs on the left). The most requested paintings are William Bouguereau’s naturalistic “The Elder Sister” (Gallery 220) and the MFAH’s only Rembrandt, “Portrait of a Young Woman” (Gallery 208).
The toughest part of Narvios’s job? Having to remind patrons to stay at least 12 inches away from the art. “Sometimes they’re defensive,” he said. “‘What are you talking about, I didn’t touch it!’” Since taking over as MFAH director in 2011, Gary Tinterow has relaxed some museum rules—you can now take non-flash photography of the permanent collection, although it’s still verboten with traveling exhibitions—but the one-foot rule is ironclad.
Does it get boring standing in museum galleries four days a week, year after year? “Sometimes if you’re inside a gallery around two or three o’clock, you can get a little sleepy, so you have to walk around,” Narvios admitted. “But when’s there’s a lot of people around, time runs fast—you suddenly look down at your watch and go, ‘Oh, it’s my break now!’”