Blue Star Museums Blog (Archive)

Browsing the New Barnes

July 2, 2012

Room 18, east wall. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. © 2012 The Barnes Foundation

In May, the Barnes Foundation transferred its famed art collection from suburban Merion, Pennsylvania, to the heart of downtown Philadelphia. The life’s work of Dr. Albert C. Barnes and his wife Laura, the collection is filled with masterpieces by Cézanne, Picasso, Renoir, Degas, Gaugin, and Matisse, making it one of the world’s pre-eminent examples of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modernist painting. In its new home, the collection is housed by airy, light-filled rooms and incredible structural detailing: wooden floors in the main hall are made from recycled pieces of the Coney Island boardwalk, and wool wall panels, designed to reduce reverberation, were hand-woven by a sheep farmer in the Netherlands.

And yet, visitors to the new campus will find echoes of Merion everywhere they look. On every wall, in every gallery, the collection is hung exactly as Dr. Barnes originally arranged it. Barnes’ “ensembles,” as they are called, are organized by light, line, color, and symmetry, dismissing traditional curatorial guidelines of style, nationality, or era. In the opening weeks after the Barnes opened in Philadelphia, we sat down with Director Derek Gillman and talked about the new campus and heard his thoughts on the role of a museum director.

NEA: What’s your favorite aspect of the new Barnes so far?

GILLMAN: I think probably the most satisfying thing was actually seeing on several occasions, the diversity of the audience and the guests, which was of a completely different magnitude of what we experienced in Merion. For example, we had our first late-night opening on Friday night, and just the range of people who were coming through the galleries, dressed mostly casually, a few people coming from work---it was a completely different atmosphere here. It was very clear that people were engaging with this collection, which is so amazing, and feeling very comfortable with it. There was no sense of this is slightly fearful, slightly scary place. It was just, “This is our place.” There was a terrific drumming band---music and rhythm is very important to Barnes. There were people dancing in the courtyard---it was really just spectacular.

NEA: How would you describe the atmosphere of the Merion campus?

GILLMAN: People came in; they spoke very quietly. There was no gathering space, so they came in, they walked through the collection, they listened to the audio tour, and then they went out. It was very muted. There was never a sense of ebullience. You never got much sense of joy.

William James Glackens, American, 1870–1938. Race Track, 1908–1909. Oil on canvas, 26 1/8 x 32 1/4 in. (66.4 x 81.9 cm). BF138. Photo: © 2012 The Barnes Foundation

NEA: Is there anything you miss from the Merion campus?

GILLMAN: The only thing that’s really radically different, in terms of structurally, is the fact that the Merion campus has the arboretum around it. I think it’s just different. Merion is like a small country house, and Philadelphia is an urban complex set in a very elegant landscaping. You can’t put a small country house with all its grounds in the middle of a city. So in that sense, it’s different. But I don’t miss it, because I go there. And so will everybody else. It’s not like we got rid of it; we’re just in two places now.

NEA: You’ve worked at the Barnes for six years now. At this point, do you feel like you have a sense of being in Dr. Barnes’ head when he was arranging his ensembles, or do some of his choices still baffle you?

GILLMAN: I’ve been interested in that period since my first museum directorship in 1985. I think I have a really good understanding of where avant-garde collectors in Europe and America were, conceptually and intellectually. And so I don’t find Barnes baffling. I don’t find the hang baffling. I think the only thing that I always come up against---which everybody would come up against---is the absolute symmetry. To have somebody who is so obsessively symmetrical is really rare. He was completely compulsive about the way he placed things. But once you understand that, [his arrangements] are not surprising. This is a man who was always striving for a form of perfectionism. It’s a very personal, psychological thing to have that degree of visual perfectionism.

NEA: As a museum of director, you have a huge power in shaping a country’s legacy and canon. How do you balance between preservation and progress and communities move into the 21st century?

GILLMAN: There are two questions in that. One is the responsibility of artists’ legacies, which often has to do with living artists. And museum curators and directors do indeed have power in [choosing] who to exhibit and who not to exhibit. So that’s quite potent. It’s been a fact of life forever.

I think the bit to wrestle with is what do we want in terms of maintaining elements that are familiar from the past and things that need to be changed? That comes down to the question of what’s really valuable? And that hits the bedrock of the conundrum, which is that it’s very hard to judge what’s truly valuable while you’re living in the moment. History is littered with really bad judgments. On the other hand, it’s littered with really good judgments too. People always should act with integrity and discernment and judgment, and hope they’re doing the best.

In the case of the Barnes, the practical outcome was what sort of building do you use as a vehicle to maintain a collection that is very much a first half of the 20th century collection. Do you maintain that modernist spirit? And if so, how? The answer is: we tried to. It’s interesting: neither the building nor the architects are in any sense truly post-modern. It’s still very much in that sort of modernist spirit, which Barnes would have recognized. It’s not Philip Johnson, who he probably wouldn’t have recognized. It’s not decorative for the sake of it. The building, interestingly, if anything, almost looks backwards, because there’s a strong sense of William Morris about it. So I think what you do is you grab the thing that’s most important to the mission, which for Barnes was the notion of the excellence of art, standards of excellence, things that are really well-made, things which have integrity. And you say, how do you carry that forward? Those sets of principles carry forward very well into the 21st century.

On the other hand, here’s where, for example, you can see a real fracture: Barnes didn’t like Picasso as a cubist. Picasso, in many ways, was rejecting all the things Barnes held dear, which was integrity and harmony. So much of the agonies of the First World War, and then the Second World War, are in Picasso’s art. So the fracturing of the early 20th century is completely absent from the Barnes. It’s very much a late 19th century, early 20th century world---it’s an ideal world. And there were many artists in the 20th century who said, “Enough of that.” It’s not a question of right or wrong, it’s just a question of difference. I think we’ve carried forward what was important to the early 20th-century modernists, which was unity and harmony and balance, rhythm. That’s been carried forward both in the way the collection’s hung---it’s hung the same way---but most importantly in the building, and in the landscape.

Le Bonheur de vivre Room. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. © 2012 Tom Crane

NEA: Are there other ways that you think the new campus further promotes Dr. Barnes’ mission?

GILLMAN: Well, the mission was education; it was democratizing America. If you really want to make an impact, it’s not bad to be in a place where you can impact the younger generation. And central Philadelphia is much closer to the many schools where that work really needs to be done, and at a time when arts and culture education are being slashed across the country, and indeed in most other countries. Places like the Barnes, and other arts institutions, have a real role to play. So the fact that it’s notably easy for our outreach programs to get to schools in the Philadelphia region and for kids to come to us, means that in that important way, we’re fulfilling Barnes’ mission, as he would put it, in democratizing America.

NEA: Why did you decide to join Blue Star Museums this summer?

GILLMAN: The notion of supporting troops and their families is something which is very noble, especially since so many people who have gone overseas and come back have had such very disturbing, often deeply traumatic experiences. There is an element in museums that is healing. You’d have to find a good reason not to join the Blue Star program rather than for joining it.

NEA: You have worked at museums all across the world: America, the UK, Australia, and you’ve spent time in China as well. How does that global perspective influence your work here, at what has become a really deeply Philadelphian institution?

GILLMAN: It means I’ve seen the way that people do things in a lot of different places. There are only so many ways to work in our profession, and there are only so many ways that people connect well in the world. So there are a lot of cultural similarities. So that in sense, that would make Barnes happy, the notion that people are pretty well alike all over the world.

But I’ve never thought about the general benefits of it. I think it’s probably benefitted me professionally, simply because you can see the variety of different approaches, and if anything, sometimes you get to see danger signals. If you’ve done a lot of things, you’ve seen things go wrong. It ends up with that famous old chestnut about good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment. So I guess the more experience you have, theoretically, it improves your judgment.

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