Sunday, July 26, 2015

A trip to Philadelphia means a trip to the Barnes

Every so often, I leave the Washington, DC area, usually on business, and travel to another city.  I don't know what other people investigate first when they're traveling somewhere new, but I always figure out what art museums are open to the public, and how I can make my way there.

I've been to Philadelphia before, but the Barnes was pretty far out of town and inaccessible for someone without a car.  Now, it's moved into the city, and I was able to walk to it from my hotel.

What a fantastic experience!  The Barnes is not really an art museum, it's the collection of Dr. Barnes (now deceased) who ran an art school and used his collection in teaching.  He set up displays in order to demonstrate certain artistic techniques to the students, so the art is not arranged the way it is in other museums.  You don't have a room of Van Goghs (although you could) and a room of Renoirs (although you could) and a room of Picassos (although you could).  Everything is mixed together, and your job as a visitor is to find the connections between what, at first glance, are quite disparate pieces.

In addition to the art, there are also crafts - metal work hanging on the wall, and furniture in front of the paintings and pottery and candlesticks.  Dr. Barnes believed that all of these things are "art" and all of them are worthy of study and display.  And they all are part of his art - the arrangement of the items on a particular wall.  One doesn't usually think of collectors as artists; they're the people who support the artists, and one admires (or doesn't) their taste in art, but one thinks of them as consumers of art, rather than producers.  Dr. Barnes turned that idea on its head.  He made each wall of the building his canvas (in fact, the walls look like canvas) and the arrangement of great works on that canvas was his art.

More than any other museum I've visited, I recommend going on a guided tour with one of the docents.  I did that, and I feel like I not only gained an enormous amount of insight into this collection, but learned a lot about art in general.  I'm now a more intelligent viewer of works of art, and for someone whose primary non-work activity is going to museums (well, maybe secondary activity, since reading is doubtless my primary activity), that's saying a lot.

No museum is complete without a gift shop and the Barnes is no exception.  There are lots of lovely things for sale; I picked up a T-shirt that reads, "I stayed behind the line at the Barnes Foundation."  This is a reference to the line on the floor that dictates how close you can get to the artworks.  One is reminded to "stay behind the line" if one gets too close.

Verdict: If you are ever in Philadelphia, DO NOT miss this.  It's wonderful and eclectic and worth very dime of the (admittedly not cheap) admission fee.

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