But if you don't have Netflix or feel that it is too much work to stop reading this post for about an hour and a half, while you go watch a movie (the nerve right?), well here is the backstory: the Barnes Foundation was an art and horticultural institution, which used to be located in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, a rich suburb of Philadelphia. It was founded in 1922 by Albert C. Barnes, a chemist who made a fortune from co-developing Argyol, a medicine used to treat or cure gonorrhea of the eye. Besides being a rich man, Barnes managed to amass a huge collection of artwork - about 2,500 modernist and post-impressionist pieces - worth over $25 billion dollars.
According to the documentary Barnes, who had a disdain for the power structure of Philadelphia, made provisions in his will that his collection of famous artwork should never step foot in the city. Likewise, he established the Barnes Foundation, which put restrictions on access, reproduction and touring of its works. To ensure that the power elite would never interfere with the management of the Foundation - including not moving the dazzling holdings into Philadelphia - Barnes entrusted Lincoln University, a HBCU located about 25 miles outside of Philadelphia, with the majority voting power on the board. However, towards the end of the century, the Foundation struggled financially and even after having some pieces on tour to earn enough money for much needed renovations to the facility.
Eventually the board was insolvent and a new board was created. Working with some pretty wealthy Philadelphia interest, the new board raised the capital to move the museum to Philadelphia. Of course, this caused years of controversy and legal challenges with Barnes will being at the center. However the new board would prevail and the Barnes would be moved to its new home along the Parkway.
The whole situation (at least according to the film's version of events) certainly seems shady, if not a big slap in the face to Albert Barnes' legacy. I thought about it while the museum was still being built whether or not I would venture inside. Yet there I was, sitting in the parking lot off of the Parkway, with my ticket in tow to see the exhibits. So what changed my mind?
I don't know how it happened - oh yeah, I do: A friend of mines asked me and I said sure. I'm not quite sure why though. I always thought of myself as not a good example of a role model. Not that I think I'm a bad person but because I don't figure myself to be the success story that kids should be looking up to necessarily. Yeah I know, that sounds very self-defeating. And don't get me wrong, I am proud of my accomplishments; being the first person in my family to graduate from college; being an established and professional writer and blogger; being an independent woman with a car, house, etc...There is a lot to be proud of. But that just not extraordinary. Like who doesn't have a job or bills? Besides when I think of mentors, I think of above-average folks like doctors, lawyers and astronauts. People, who go with extra letters behind their names or was the "first" at something. Heck, even folks, who go to church regularly, doesn't have a foul mouth, eats their vegetables and remembers to floss twice a day. Not someone like myself, whose ideal Sunday is watching repeats of Basketball Wives while eating Hot Pockets and Oreos.
Anyway, I am one week into my mentorship and I'm sitting on the phone, fulfilling my obligatory once a week check-in with my mentoree; a young, bright and talented teenage girl, who does poetry, likes art and wants to be a journalism when she grows up. We're planning our first outing, something fun yet educational - oh and a good ice breaker. It's clear from our previous conversation that there was some cautiousness, mostly on her part, mixed in with a little trying-way-too-hard-to-be-friendly, mostly on my part. We needed an event to help balance us out. That's when the light bulb went off: The Barnes.
A museum is a perfect outing, not just for building mentorship relationships but for any meet-up when you are a little uneasy about meeting someone for the first time . Think about it: art tends to stimulates different parts of our brains while causing a whole gamut of emotions in between. It is also subjective, which means that each individual person sees things through their own world view. And if those individual impressions doesn't spark conversation, not much else will.
And at the Barnes, there was lots to take in. Plenty of Cezannes, tons of Piscassos and a gang of Renoirs. Plus a bunch of other paintings, sculptures and even pottery from artist I have never heard of. It was pretty much a quiet ride down to the Parkway. My mentoree said it was because car rides make her zone out. But I'm sure it was because she was still unsure about how this day was going to go. And to be honest, I was too. But that all changed once we got inside. Before long, we were trekking from room to room, awing over the color and compositions and giggling like school girls over some of the more bizarre pieces. Seriously, just because one person calls it art doesn't mean it's ain't off the wall to someone else. Hence the whole subjective worldview thing.
Some of art pieces that got us talking included:
- Miro - Two Women Surrounded by Birds
- Giorgio de Chirico - Sophocles and Euripides
- Hieronymus Bosch - Temptation of St. Anthony
- Charles Demuth - Lulu and Aiva
- Milton Avery - The Nurse Maid
- Paul Cezanne - Still Life
- Jules Pasan - Cuban Hospitality
- Horace Pippin Supper Time/Giving Thanks
- Henri Housseau - Unpleasant Surprise
- Pablo Picasso - The Ascetic
- Chaim Soutine - Flayed Rabbit
Anyway, there were many, many more pieces, divided into well over a dozen different rooms. The Foundation did a good job of replicating the chaotic and often disjointed order of Barnes original museum. My mentoree and I had a great time trying to figure out the hidden meaning or symbolism of why a Renoir was placed next to a Avery with an 500 B.C. Egyptian bust nearby. We never did figure it out.
But there were so many rooms, with an average of 55 paintings or more pieces per room so it's really hard to get the entire experience in one sitting - especially if you only have a couple of hours to explore, like we did. I think we spent the first hour really trying to analyze each painting and sculpture as well as their placement. But after the 8th or so room, your just like "Fuck it," I'm just going to look at the most interesting picture, which catches my eye and give my attention to that. Not the best way to view art but certainly a great way to blow a few hours with a new friend.
Oh I forgot to mention, my mentoree had a blast - so she said. I tried to make the experience at the museum fun like coming with games where we tried to guess the name of picture just by looking at them. And then we would look through the catalog to see if we were correct. We never were. Side note: why are most paintings from the earlier part of the 19th century named the most obvious things like, "Man with Skull and Apple" and "Flayed Rabbit?" Why not something deeper like, "The Essence of a Hare?" It's hard to be all existentialist about the artist's underlying meaning when the obvious is staring you right in the face. But maybe that's just my thing.
As for the question if the new Barnes is a slap in the face to the wishes of the namesake? It probably is. However a few days prior to it's opening, I started to have a change of heart. I mean Barnes was so restrictive and meticulous in his wishes that he neglected to think of a Plan B if the Foundation fell on hard times, such as it did. Likewise, I kind of felt some kind of way at how his "gift" to Lincoln University became an undue burden - almost to the point that they became a pawn in the middle of his little vendetta against the power elite he despised. Hey, I'm all down for pissing off the elite however I am also not too keen on using Black folks, in any context, as pawns.