Preliminary thoughts on Howard Greenfield’s “The Devil and Dr. Barnes: Portrait of an American Art Collector”
I had always heard about “The Barnes” but I never really understood what it was until I started working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was on an employee tour that I really became interested. Whoever was giving the tour mentioned that the massive Barnes art collection was not in the art Museum because Dr. Barnes despised the wealthy Philadelphians of his age, and did not want them to appropriate the art of his museum.
This made me interested, but of course, the story is far more complicated. I usually form my opinion on things quickly, but now even 3/4 of the way through this book I am not sure which side I am on. On the hand, Barnes confronted many of the problems I saw the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While working for the museum, I was constantly calling its role into question. What is this museum here for? It is a place for the wealthy to have their “gala” events and parties after hours? Or is it a democratic utopia like on Sundays when visitors are allowed to pay what they wish?
My biggest concern with the Museum was what I call its “manifest destiny” attitude. Pack in as many visitors as possible. Sell them memberships – more, more and more. There is a feeling at the museum that at any moment the floor will fall, the museum will go bankrupt and it will all be over. I bought into this. But then how to explain all of the expansion plans? The museum plans to increase its size considerably, and has, through a donor, attained a property next to it. Does the museum need to be bigger? My guess is that it does to the people in charge because it affects their reputation. There is already more in the art museum than you could possibly enjoy in several visits. What is this insatiable need for expansion and money?
One criticism is that the Barnes is not “democratic.” With its stringent admission policies, it seems this way. But should it be democratic? One thing that troubled me while working in the museum was how little the visitors seemed to care about the art. Many people seemed to treat it like a walk in a nice park. Instead of enjoying the art, they seemed to be more concerned with seeing everything, and of course their attention is always drawn to the obvious. They come in, burn themselves out in about two galleries and then leave.
Barnes always claimed his museum was for working people. People who claimed a working class background were always admitted, and some wealthy people even lied about their background to get in. At the same time, he said his museum was not for the “rabble.” He intended his museum to be a school, where people would come in and take the art seriously. But then how to explain him kicking people out for criticizing the collection? Should people who go to museums be forced into an educational experience?
Right now I am leaning against Barnes’s philosophy. We always want people to take our passions as seriously as we do. When I talk to people about legal issues now I always expect them to have done legal research before they give me criticisms about the infamous “coffee spill” incident. A lot of people have strange notions about the law, and they repeat them wherever they go. A good example is “if you ask an undercover cop if he is a cop and he says no it is entrapment.” I have to remember that everyone doesn’t have time to do legal research before they open their mouth about the law, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to talk about it.
In the same way, I saw a lot of people just breeze through the museum and spend 3-4 seconds on paintings that one could spend weeks studying – but they leave happy. If we forced people into classes to view art it would probably ruin it for them. Just because art was Dr. Barnes’s passion does not mean everyone should dedicate their lives to it in order to enjoy it.