The sinewy stuff: It makes it hard to connect the dots

In one of the more recent (of many) essays on the controversial move of the Barnes collection from the home of Albert C. Barnes (in Merion, PA) to a new facility in downtown Philadelphia, Peter Dobrin of the Philadelphia Inquirer questions some of the changes that have been made in the name of improvement of the cultural landscape of Philadelphia, which he perceives to be eroding some of the distinctive characteristics of the city. In his post, Barnes move to Parkway is progress, but a quirky something has been lost, Dobrin writes:

Paradoxically, though, the repackaging of the Barnes may also be seen as the latest in a string of changes to Philadelphia that dilute its special character — advancements that bring Philadelphia into conformity with what visitors from other places may expect, but that also render the city more generic. […] At the new Barnes, you’ll have more and better access to its ironwork, furniture, African sculpture, and canvases by Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Renoir, and Soutine. But is there something less easily quantified that has accounted for the Barnes’ allure all these years? Will an antique experience translate into the modern vernacular?

In his piece Dobrin also comments on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s move to a new home (Verizon Hall) in 2001–a move that was expected to increase attendance and improve the concert experience. Dobrin suggests that “the move did nothing to arrest attendance” and that, while the new hall may be acoustically superior, many Philadelphians seem to have a penchant for hearing the orchestra in its old home, the Academy. Ironically, the orchestra is now exploring ways to play more frequently in its old space.

To my mind this is a critical issue—and one that is too often given short shrift by boards, staffs, donors, city officials, and consultants pushing for growth and leading facility expansion projects. While we spend months discussing the fundraising strategies for these efforts, relatively little time is spent discussing the fact that the building is part of the experience, that it provides critical context for the work, and that when you change the building you change the artistic idea.

The Barnes controversy is one of a few high profile examples of this tension being exploded and examined. It would be healthy, I think, if every nonprofit arts organization planning a facility expansion or major renovation would encourage an extended public discussion (involving artists, community members, scholars, architects, etc.) on how the move could alter the ‘artistic idea’ at the heart of the institution, or the relationship between spectator and space, or the context surrounding the art, or the experience of the art itself, or the programming (fewer emerging artists or workshop productions, for instance).

Of course some buildings seem to dramatically improve the experience, but the opposite is also true. Not only does the experience become more generic in some cases, as Dobrin suggests, but my own experience is that it sometimes becomes less dynamic or engaging. In the case of live performance, in particular, sometimes something sublime happens in the effort (by performer and audience) to straddle the imperfect fit between a space and the work. I’m not suggesting that artists should not have safe environments and I recognize that if a performer is actively battling a space that it detracts from the experience for performer and spectator. I’m simply drawing attention to the fact that some of my best cultural experiences have not been in the best facilities. (And bare bones, to my mind, is still the best way to experience Shakespeare.)

In my post last week I questioned whether logic models were necessarily a good thing in the hands of some arts funders. One of the articles I thought about including in my post but didn’t was on the move of the Barnes collection which, the article suggests, was urged by foundations. Why did Pew support the decision? According to Philanthropy News Digest:

Pew Charitable Trusts president and CEO Rebecca W. Rimel recently told the Inquirer that Pew and its donor partners always believed that art in the public domain should be widely accessible. “That is what drove our decision to support the move of the Barnes Foundation from Merion, where visitation was severely limited, to Philadelphia, where thousands will be able to see the artwork each week,” said Rimel. “Moving the Barnes to Center City was the only feasible solution to alleviate its severe and chronic financial problems. If these had remained unaddressed, the foundation’s very existence would have been at risk.”

I don’t have enough information to speculate on whether moving was the only way for the Barnes to improve its financial position. What I do observe is that the foundation supported the move because it fit into the foundation’s priorities and beliefs about art (that art in the public domain should be widely accessible). There is a logic at work here that says “moving the Barnes will increase access to the collection which will be good for art and society.”

In his incredibly thoughtful Creative Placemaking post, Ian David Moss suggested that funders need to have a better idea about the steps linking their inputs and expected outcomes. I don’t disagree that funders are often putting money in with unreasonable or illogical expectations about what should come out on the other end. But I continue to think that we lose something in the arts–the quirky and sinewy stuff perhaps–when we try too hard to connect the dots and create models and replicate successes. One of the things that distinguishes art from science is that it is not, ideally, replicable. What we value about art is its originality. As others have suggested, what the Barnes has gained in access it has, perhaps, lost in originality.

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  1. says

    While Montgomery County is certainly not rural, Merion is an unincorporated town. The move to Philadelphia continues the urban centralization of the arts.


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