HomeControversyBarnes Foundation Controversy: The Barnes Foundation Museum Adapts to Individuals' Needs

Barnes Foundation Controversy: The Barnes Foundation Museum Adapts to Individuals’ Needs

This Philadelphia institution celebrates its 100th anniversary by paying homage to its founder.

Imagine this: A prominent medical research scientist offered his employees the chance to spend two hours each workday learning about the artwork in his collection, which included works by Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. This was around 110 years ago.

Black men and white women employees who were interested in the art talked about it while sitting in front of the pieces that had been brought inside the factory.

How Did That Happen?

The factory owner, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, came from a working-class background and passionately disputed the notion that only well-educated, well-cultured people with money could comprehend or appreciate art. He advocated for social equality as well. Barnes purchased a plot of property in Merion, Pennsylvania, in 1922, on which he constructed a school that debuted in 1925.

“Barnes’ driving ambition was to teach ordinary people about art, give people a language for looking at it and speaking about it, and that’s what he did. ”

His substantial art collection was displayed at the Barnes Foundation in symmetrical “ensembles,” mixed groups of unrelated works, and a small number of art appreciation workshops. The facility wasn’t accessible to the general public, and Barnes constantly (and frequently rudely) refused to let most famous individuals in who wanted to view the paintings within.

Matisse And More

Barnes Foundation Controversy: The Barnes Foundation Museum Adapts to Individuals' Needs

The Barnes Foundation, which moved to downtown Philadelphia in 2012, has deputy director Martha Lucy. “Barnes’ driving aim was to teach ordinary people about art, give people a language for looking at it and communicating about it, and that’s what he achieved,” she said.

The 93,000 square foot building, which is currently commemorating its 100th birthday, is home to what has been called “one of the world’s finest collections” of paintings and sculptures by Impressionist, post-Impressionist, and modern artists.

The museum is home to four paintings by Horace Pippin, an American folk artist who took classes from Barnes, and 59 Henri Matisse pieces, including “The Dance,” which Barnes commissioned.

African art, Native American ceramics, Pennsylvania German furniture, global antiquities, and beautiful ironwork are also included in the collection. The exhibition “Modigliani Up Close,” which examines the artist’s process, debuts on October 16 and runs until January 2023.

Still On Display Are Meticulous “Ensembles”

Every gallery has a duplicate of Barnes’ original installations. The positioning may at first appear perplexing or even arbitrary, but Lucy insisted that it was careful. “With Renaissance art, contemporary pieces can be found alongside Native American blankets and metalwork. The intention is to make you gaze and form visual associations. We now call this technique, which is approachable, the Barnes Method.”

The museum’s dedication to education and community participation is as fascinating, notwithstanding Barnes’ captivating personal narrative and his foundation’s contentious relocation from the suburbs (ask the Internet).

Barnes Foundation Controversy: The Barnes Foundation Museum Adapts to Individuals' Needs

Despite the fact that most museums today offer extensive educational initiatives, Lucy noted that when Barnes started his program in the 1920s, the concept of museum teaching was still somewhat novel. Although we now approach education in a broader way to enable us to share the collection with a variety of audiences, including school groups, we are still following out Barnes’ original objective.

The Barnes has seen about 2.3 million visitors since 2012 and has helped more than 100,000 kids from preschool through grade 12.

In-person and online course options for adults have “exploded over the last several years,” according to Lucy, and now include 60 or 70 distinct areas. The Barnes-de Mazia Certificate Program has more than 7,500 adult students enrolled.

A certificate program is also available at the Barnes Arboretum at Saint Joseph’s University, which is eight miles from Philadelphia. More than 2,500 different plant species, many of which are uncommon, may be found in the 12-acre arboretum, which is open to the public and was created by Barnes’ wife, Laura.

Partnerships Assist Underserved Communities In “Reintegrating”

The People’s Emergency Center, Puentes de Salud, and Mural Arts Philadelphia are just a few of the local agencies and cultural institutions with which the museum has community collaborations that broaden its influence. Valerie V. Gay, the Barnes’ deputy director for audience engagement and chief experience officer, remarked, “Our work is rich and broad. “Art has been pulled away from many underserved communities, and these relationships help reintegrate them into humanity.”

Gay went on, “To find out what people want to see and do, you need to take art with a capital “A”—not just visual art—to where the people are. Imagine finding a poet outside while getting your hair done and agreeing to create a poem together.” This is made possible through the museum’s Everyday Places Artist Partnerships initiative, which places seven Philadelphia-based artists in public spaces like parks and community centers.

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According to Gay, “this program offers artists opportunity to engage with the public and assist people in creating art in settings that are convenient for them. “That dismantles the preciousness and silos surrounding art. Last year, after participants realized they could identify as artists, we encouraged them to visit the Barnes and offered them year passes with unlimited access. People must be brought to you by taking them where they are.”

Another such initiative is the Early Learner Summer Pods, which the Barnes runs together seven regional cultural institutions. In underprivileged areas, around 1,000 kids ages five and under and their caregivers have access to activities centered on art, science, nature, and stories. Additionally, on the first Sunday of every month, the museum’s entrance is free, allowing visitors to see performances or engage in artistic pursuits.

Film Installation Celebrates Centennial

“It takes commitment to maintain relationships with the community, and here, everything starts with our strategic plan,” Gay added.

She attributes the motivation of the team to Thomas “Thom” Collins, the executive director and president of the Barnes Foundation. “He pushed the idea of going back to our early days, asking what modern-day progressive work would entail and how we may forge alliances with well-established institutions. That can often save you a ton of time when you try to develop more substantial relationships.”

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The museum commissioned Sir Isaac Julien to create “Once Again… (Statues Never Die),” an immersive video project, to commemorate Dr. Barnes’ strong friendship with philosopher and cultural critic Alain Locke, known as the “founder of the Harlem Renaissance,” in the mid-1920s.

Barnes and Locke’s correspondence regarding African art and African American culture “influenced each other’s thinking, and Julien read the letters,” Lucy remarked.

She remarked that a current hot subject is Julien’s show’s inclusion of African sculpture and its exploration of queries regarding such objects in western art museums. One of our best creations, the film display is heartfelt and stunning, said Lucy. The exhibition is open till September 4, 2022.

What will the Barnes do next? Museums are evolving, Lucy observed. “Instead of becoming prescriptive, we must continue to understand what the community wants. We can’t merely point out that art is healthy for you. At the Barnes, it’s a balancing act as we strive to uphold Albert Barnes’ original intent while still making it relevant a century later.”



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