Perambulating the Bounds

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

More on Barnes

Last night I moderated a panel discussion at the Belcourt for The Art of the Steal, a doc about the Barnes Foundation controversy. (Here's the url for the opponents of the move.) The panelists worked together great.

Jim Hoobler, who among other things is the most dedicated connoisseur of museums I know--he's been to practically every museum or historic home in the country with a program related to art, history, architecture and culture. Of course he's been to the Barnes a couple of times. And since he knows everything about Nashville cultural history he was able to talk about the other case in Nashville where an institution is having trouble honoring the wishes of the donor of cultural legacies--no, not the Stieglitz collection at Fisk, but the Cohen bequest of an art collection and gallery to Peabody--the Cohen Building, which has reopened as the home of the Art History Department and the Fine Arts Gallery. There's a whole story to that, for another time.

Mark Scala from the Frist was also on it, and what's great is that he is the curator for an institution that would not exist if museums did not lend art. He made some points I really wanted to see made, particularly how odd and out of step Barnes' curatorial stance was. The Barnes might be an exceptional place, but I find it hard to believe it is the ne plus ultra of art presentation. In fact it reminds me of those Baroque paintings of picture galleries where the loot was stacked top to bottom on the wall. But I haven't been there, and I do want to go before it moves in 2012.

And I had Jodi Hays there, the one artist, who had this formative experience of seeing the Barnes paintings when she was a teenager and went from Arkansas to see them in Texas. Jodi's points were subtle and serious, with plenty of healthy ambivalence. like her work. The first drawings of hers I saw appeared at first glance to be revealing, in terms of what you saw on their surface, but they turned away from the viewer, and were veiled in some more fundamental way. And of course that veiling suggested more about a character than the surfaces. I've been looking at her work for a while now, and it's changing the way I see the world and what I see, slowly. It's interesting to be around an artist's work for an extended time, for years, and to let it seep into you and take a place in your visual vocabulary. Those series of experiences differ so much from the singular encounter in the gallery, where there is a kind of collision with the work, emitting a spray of particles. And to see different pieces from the same person, intermittently, from different series and bodies of work, is different than taking one work home to reflect on it. I think the question of quality is fundamentally different when you experience an artist's work as part of an ongoing acquaintance. It may be the case that the work you absorb this way, through a communal familiarity, is not necessarily the best you've seen. Or it becomes good in a different way.

The point of this post is to add something to the conversation about Albert Barnes and his Foundation and collection. I think the panel made most of the important points. Art exists within a machine, within capitalism, and that machine grinds along in certain ways that are unpleasant all around. There are serious problems with the current Barnes Collection--it was hard to get to, and it seems a monument to the ego of one person, not necessarily the best curatorial use of the art. The idea of controlling the display of art works into perpetuity is likely a fool's errand.

Like I said, I really want to get up there to see it before it closes, but it also seems to me that at some point works of art become a kind of general public legacy, and transcend their owner and maker. But there was one point we didn't get to yesterday. I'm not convinced that Barnes' desire to stick it to the Annenbergs and Philadelphia big wigs from the 20s should prevail over an open consideration of the ways for people to experience this art. However, I think that someone like Barnes presents us with a challenge. If you decide that the terms of his will are no longer tenable, the world is more interesting if you still try as deeply as possible to understand what he was trying to do and really do it. The new museum sounds like it will be a fairly half-assed attempt to continue the Barnes Collection. I would say they are trying to recreate it, but I'm not sure that's right. They are planning to hang the paintings the same way alright, but I wonder about the rest. The choice of starchitects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien means that the building will compete with the art for attention. Also, they are planning to put educational space on each floor, but will you have to wonder if they could possibly pursue education with the same passion. I wonder about the profundity of the old Barnes educational program, but there is no doubt they were committed to it. The challenge for the new program ought to be to try to put themselves in Barnes' head, really try, and see what this means for everything about the collection and program in the new building.

Still, it's sad they couldn't find a way to keep the old facility going. I wish I could have taken a look at their internal budgets. I bet there was a way. But I still think the organization should also have been pushed, pushed to figure out what Barnes' ideas and notions would point to in contemporary terms. He was a demanding and rigorous figure, and his legacy deserves to be addressed with comparable rigor and daring. There is no doubt that there will be tremendous pressure to water it down, even in the new cutting edge lightbox.

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