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The Barnes in ... West Philly?

 

Before Albert Barnes built his iconic institution in Merion, his art was hung at his home and, as this excellent piece in HiddenCity chronicles, his factory in West Philadelphia

Meet the Disruptor: Thom Collins

One year on the job, the Barnes’ director has turned museum going into a communal experience

One year on the job, the Barnes’ director has turned museum going into a communal experience

In his 1989 book, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Center, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Got Through the Day, sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place.”

Oldenburg’s thesis is now a social studies tenet: A person’s first place is home; second, work; and third, an escape from the first two. Notice the author didn’t include “art museum” in the title.

Barnes director Thom Collins would like to change that.

After less than a year at the helm of one of the world’s most renowned repositories of fine art, Collins is determined to further transform the once famously cloistered collection into an accessible, meaningful gathering place.

“We want [the Barnes] to be people’s ‘other place,’ their go-to,” says Collins. “We want people to build networks and communities around our experience.”

For the previously hard-to-get-into Barnes, such thinking is especially bold. For Collins, a Swarthmore grad born and raised in Media, it’s a moral imperative.

A few weeks into his directorship in 2015, Collins announced the museum would use a matching grant from an anonymous donor to offer free weekday admission to all currently enrolled college undergrad students. The program went into effect this past November. So far, more than 3,000 students from across the country and world have visited, as often as they’ve wished, without ever paying.

“We have a vast and extraordinary collection, and it is impossible for anyone, including yours truly, to digest even a small portion of that collection during one visit or even multiple visits. I try to go to the collection every day, and every day, I see things I haven’t noticed before,” Collins says, “The Barnes rewards sustained attention and extended contemplation in a variety of ways.”

The idea is new for Philadelphia, but isn’t unheard of among similar institutions nationally. The Smithsonian’s 19-and-counting locations charge no entry fee. Nor does L.A.’s Getty Center, or the major art museums in Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Baltimore and Seattle. Many universities and colleges partner with nearby museums—like Penn’s Institute of Contemporary Art—to give students discounted or free admission, too.

Historically, the Barnes has been restrictive—much more restrictive.

While Albert Barnes was alive, visitors needed his written approval to see the collection. Starting in 1961,the Main Line mansion-based galleries and arboretum opened to the public only two days a week. Later, the Foundation limited visitors to 500 per week. By the aughts, attendance had doubled to 62,400 annually, and during the Barnes’ last year on the Main Line, Merion eased restrictions so the museum could let in 90,000 visitors.

Still, very advanced reservations were always required.

All previous attendance records were shattered post-relocation—post controversial relocation, that is—to the Tod Williams & Billie Tsien-designed building on the Ben Franklin Parkway in 2012. In its first eight months, foot traffic past the 59 Matisses, 69 Cézannes and 181 Renoirs more than doubled that of the institution’s previous year. In that same amount of time, annual membership went from 400 to over 25,000.

It must be said that the good, albeit eccentric, doctor had honorable intentions and a strong philosophy behind his nearly-closed-door policies. Barnes envisioned his collection as part of an educational mission. He aimed to upturn the idea that art was the provenance of the privileged by granting access to students and the working class first, upper-crusty visitors second—or, in some notable cases, like author James Michener, who eventually posed as a steel worker to get in—not at all.

“[Barnes’] idea was: Let’s teach people to see actively, and to be articulate about what they see, quite apart from any advanced education or special knowledge,” Collins explains. “That, in his mind, was truly democratic.”

In the Barnes’ brave new world on the Parkway, offering free admission to college students is another step toward that democracy, says Collins. It is also the key to sustainability. Collins says the Barnes’ new strategic plan includes creating a network of university partners for research, education, sharing of resources and attracting students. Young, interested visitors are more than potential members, Collins says. They’re potential partners.

“One of our big goals is engaging younger audiences on a sustained basis,” he says. “We can them get here one time for an event or one time for a show, but how do we get Millennials here on a regular basis? The Barnes, like many cultural institutions, is really focused on developing future audiences.”

One way to do that, is by involving the region’s more than 450,000 college-and-beyond students, letting them study at the Barnes, interact there, build their own sense of ownership and community there. Doing away with admission is a first step to lowering the barrier to entry.

The next step: Getting them to come back.

“We have a vast and extraordinary collection, and it is impossible for anyone, including yours truly, to digest even a small portion of that collection during one visit or even multiple visits. I try to go to the collection every day, and every day, I see things I haven’t noticed before,” he says, “The Barnes rewards sustained attention and extended contemplation in a variety of ways.”

The free entry for college student program went into effect this past November. So far, more than 3,000 students from across the country and world have visited, as often as they’ve wished, without ever paying.

The more you go, the more you know. The more you know, the more you want to share with those around you. After all, this is the era of experiential over the material.

Collins was a curator at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center when it commissioned an audience engagement study that discovered that more than a demographic profile, more even than a preference for certain works of art, the museum’s frequent visitors shared the desires to be “challenged by new ideas and experiences,”and to spend time with other people who like new ideas and experiences.

Collins believes the same holds true for the Barnes. “You come here, yes, because you might like French Impressionism or American Modernism or African material culture,” he says. “But it’s just as likely that people come here, and end up engaged with people that care about their interests and concerns.”

Interaction, relationships, human moments: These are what people—especially young people—hold onto, long after art history lessons fade.

So, the Barnes is ramping up its special exhibits, doubling down on lectures, movie nights and cocktail parties, and lifting the weight of admission from students for the foreseeable future.

“This is their museum,” Collins says, evoking a modern-day Albert Barnes. “This is their foundation.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said Barnes refused to allow poet T.S. Eliot to visit the collection. Eliot did visit after sending a request in 1933.

Header Photo © The Barnes Foundation, 2015. Photo by Michael Perez.

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