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Back to the Barnes: Some Improvements, but Some Security Concerns (with videos)

Still a work-in-progress: The Barnes Foundation’s waterless water feature, with a worker (in the distance, on right, in turquoise shirt) installing outdoor lighting

Having seen the photos of mobs of ticketholders waiting for admission to the Barnes Foundation’s new galleries during the opening weekend of its new Philadelphia facility, I approached its cavernous light court with trepidation when I arrived for my return visit last Friday. My goal was to see the Barnes as the “plain people” (not the press people) experience it. I also welcomed a chance to spend more time savoring the art itself, rather than concentrating on an assessment of its new trappings.

To my relief, there were no lines in the light court (because ticketing glitches had been resolved). In fact, all the subsidiary areas (except for the downstairs gift shop) seemed almost empty—a superfluity of space. The collection galleries were well populated but not excessively crowded (with a couple of brief bottlenecks in the smallest rooms).

But one thing made me uneasy: Once I got past the main gallery, I gradually came to realize that there was a scarcity of guards protecting the art. Most of the time, no one was physically watching me as I made my way through the warren of intimately scaled spaces.

It appeared that only one guard was patrolling a suite of six rooms off the main gallery. I eventually decided to tail her as she made her continuous circuit through those galleries, on a route that also took her into the more populated, better guarded main gallery. Her progress was occasionally interrupted by visitors’ questions. And at one point, she took a brief detour into a reading room with no art, where she sat on a chair out of public view, behind a wall, to fix her hair.

Finally, I approached the guard and asked if she was, in fact, the only person assigned to those six galleries. Responding affirmatively, she also noted that there were surveillance cameras in every gallery and that someone at a console was keeping an eye on the screens.

I decided that was probably good enough…until this morning, when I saw the video below, posted on the website of the British Guardian newspaper (but posted on YouTube almost a week earlier). The video was taken by a visitor to another beloved single-collector institution—the Menil Collection, Houston:

A Menil spokesperson told Molly Glentzer of the Houston Chronicle that the in-conservation, spray-painted Picasso has “an excellent prognosis.”

This, of course, brings to mind a more famous instance of a graffiti attack on a museum’s Picasso, also inflicted by a self-declared artist (who went on to become a well known New York art dealer).

It also made me realize that such a thing might be attempted at the Barnes. A vandal is less likely to try this stunt if a guard is in plain sight, well situated to catch him in the act of defacement or during his attempted escape. The Menil vandal “fled and wasn’t caught,” according to the Chronicle’s report, published yesterday. (Surveillance cameras, but not a guard, did capture him.)

Memo to the Barnes: You’re not in Merion any more. For better or worse, you’ve relocated to a major urban center with a big-city crime rate. Consider beefing up your in-gallery security force.

But lets get back to my other impressions during my pleasant afternoon at the month-old Barnes. I had to obey all the rules for the general public, which meant that I couldn’t take any photos or videos inside the collection galleries.

But as you will see in this CultureGrrl Video, some improvements were evident, both outside and within:

When I entered the main gallery, shades (unseen by me during the press preview) were covering the massive windows, blocking out the afternoon sun. These long, untextured, uninterrupted sheets, extending down to the floor from just beneath Matisse‘s “Dance” mural, seemed to have been selected to match the gray hue of the frolicking nudes. These almost shockingly ugly window coverings were, I suppose, necessary. Regulated by sunlight sensors, they went up while I was there, then came back down again. I was so engrossed by the paintings, however, that I didn’t notice these changes while they were happening (which was a good thing).

Speaking of sunlight, Matisse‘s “Joy of LIfe,” which other reviewers have described as gloriously lit, seemed to me even more shrouded by gloom last week than when I saw it last month, on a cloudier day. I think the curators should remove the two light-sensitive tapestries from that alcove and give the masterpiece the light it needs to be properly appreciated.

One more quibble: It’s a good thing that I didn’t feel a need to consult one of the gallery-guide
pamplets in the main gallery. They were in short supply and already ripped and wrinkled. These need to be reprinted—in greater number and on sturdier stock.

Overall, though, it was a pleasant, relaxed visit. The majority of visitors, for whom the Philly facility will be their first encounter with the Barnes Collection, will never know what they’re missing.

an ArtsJournal blog