Friday, November 6, 2015

A Visit to the Barnes

Yesterday we visited the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia and I have to say it was one of the most appalling museum experiences I've ever had. First, try to find your way into the building - the place looks like Fort Knox and is about as welcoming. What initially looks like the front door is actually a loading dock. We made our way around police barricade tape and finally found a sign that said "Tickets". The ticket kiosk guy looked at us like we were nuts and pointed us to the main building to buy tickets.

Inside, we were asked if we had reservations. Reservations? Nothing on the website said anything about reservations.
::big sigh::  "Well, it's OK for today, but next time you really should make reservations." 
Uh, OK. Whatever....

We were given cryptic directions to check our coats downstairs and the gallery upstairs and also there's a mezzanine. We grabbed a couple of guide maps and thought we'd figure it out from there. Uh right. the guide maps might as well be blank squares, the information was that unhelpful.

Downstairs we were told we had to put all our stuff in lockers. No coats. No bags. No umbrellas. No Cameras. No phones.  The coat check lady was very nice and helped us figure out how the locks worked, but we were already pretty frustrated.

Back upstairs we first went to the ornamental iron exhibit. OK, that was very cool - extremely well laid out, well labeled and very interesting. We did our best to ignore the security guards pacing around (you'd think they were guarding the crown jewels) and admired the door knockers and engraved boxes.

On to the main galleries. We passed through a security checkpoint where our tickets are scanned and we're told, "No photos, No touching, Don't cross the dark line." We were offered free audio tour devices, but declined them. We should have taken them.

Because in the Barnes there are NO LABELS, except for teeney little brass plates with the artist's last name affixed to the truly hideous frames. All well and good, but if you lean over the dark line to read the microscopic label, the security guards yell at you to GET BACK, YOU ARE OVER THE DARK LINE. Never mind that some paintings simply can't be seen without crossing the force field of security summons.
Dark Lines
The galleries are small and very crowded with both art and visitors. I was also a little creeped out by everyone walking around with headphones on - Children of the Corn on a Field Trip.

It was wonderful to see the paintings, and appreciate the unusual exhibition style, but I really didn't feel like I could take my time and relax. There were so many ways the museum could make its visitors feel welcome, but it's almost as if they deliberately chose to cultivate a manner of elitism just this side of hostility. Even the bathroom fixtures were non-intuitive, Euro-design that mocked my failed attempts to flush, wash and dry. So, if you don't mind being treated like a petty criminal with no class at all, by all means visit the Barnes and check out the Picassos. I'll be at the Art Museum on Free Sundays with the rest of the fun Philly crowd.



Unknown said...

Funny that. I liked the collection. I learned about it in 1997 when I did my BA degree. Have you seen the movie on the history of the collection? That might give you some history to contemplate. Let's face it, the city is in a bit of transition. You can imagine they have to deal with many different folks, and have to have protocols. If there were negatives for me, it was the overload of Renoir's.

Unknown said...

Had a wonderful experience at The Barnes several weekends ago. The legacy insists the collection be shown this way. However, each room has a box with brochures which catalogue each painting, giving some history (those small labels on the frames are too small to read, yes). Barnes had a different perspective on showing art: he grouped color, light, angle (ignoring genre, period, artist, country). He crammed--covering every wall. This space is built to within a 16th of an inch of his own home--each room replicated. We found a wonderful, knowledgable young man who answered many questions and shared a lot of history. We too did not take advantage of the audio sets, nor did we join the organized tour. We read and quizzed our talkative employee--actually several employees along the way. 180 Renoir, oh so delicious Modiglianis, Van Gogh, Picasso . . . so very much for the soul to absorb. It was spiritually overwhelming, i think. Glad to have gone though. Very glad. Awesome in fact. Are you aware of the documentary ART of the STEAL? Check it out sometime. Barnes was quite the wheeler and dealer--taking frank advantage of the cash poor/art wealthy during the Depression; he paid hundreds of dollars for many of the pieces and no more than $100,000 for any one piece. He was a ruthless collector.

Rileyswords said...

If you were put off by this, you would have found the previous experience 10 times worse. This is positively hospitable, by comparison. (I'm not saying it's good, just that it is an improvement). Also, about those audio tours -- what you get is actually an indoctrination into Dr. Barnes' ideas on how art should be viewed. He was opposed to the idea that you needed information about who made a painting, when, where, why -- and felt that you should be learning to "see" the art. Also - this approach to art appreciation is the key to the installation scheme - the hardware reflects shapes in the paintings, colors in the paintings (he had a theory of triads of colors, like musical chords.) Which has some merit, but listening to it nonstop can make you feel like you are in a gulag. In my previous job, I went to the "old" Barnes many times, so eventually I found my own way of being there; the art is really wonderful to experience. But they still don't make it easy to enjoy.