Albert Barnes collected records, too, not just eclectic art; they’re on display now for Fringe


When you think of the Barnes exhibit you probably think eclectic artwork. But, perhaps you should add eclectic music collection to that description as well.

If you ever go to the galleries of the Barnes Foundation, you’ll see many paintings, odd-looking metal do-hickies arranged between the paintings, a fair amount of African sculpture, and antique furniture – all collected and arranged by Doctor Albert Barnes.

Beneath one wall particularly dense with paintings by August Renoir is a piece of furniture – a handsome thing made of polished wood that is often overlooked with all the chubby-cheeked nudes above it. It could be an end table, or a credenza, but, actually, it’s a Magnavox turntable.

“Not many people realize that’s a record player, along with all that art,” said Barbara Beaucar, an archivist with the Barnes Foundation. “Dr. Barnes used to sit in a chair just beneath Matisse’s ‘Seated Riffian,’ and that is where he would deliver his lectures. Across the room to the left was the Magnavox where he would play music to accompany the art they were looking at.”

There are about 100 records in the archive, most 78RPM shellac discs meticulously arranged in multi-disc albums. Barnes would use them as play-lists for lectures, starting with classical sides (often recorded by the Philadelphia Orchestra, to which Barnes was a regular subscriber) and moving into Paul Robeson, and rare African-American spirituals.

“This seems to be mostly symphonic and orchestra pieces in here. He’s got Peer Gynt, Bach fugue in D Major, a couple other pieces by Bach, Beethoven,” said Lillian Kinney, an intern at the Barnes tasked with cataloguing the collection. She flipped through the discs looking for the range of Barnes’ taste. “But he actually has spirituals at the end of this, “Go Down Moses” by the Tuskegee Quartet, Swedish folk song, some tango.”

Albert Barnes’ interest in music has little presence in his legacy, almost totally consumed by the ambition of his art collection. Biographers rarely make any mention at all that music was a lifelong passion of his. He often invited musicians to perform inside the galleries.

“I think music was the door that allowed him to approach art,” said Beaucar. “From the time he was young – he said when he was a boy he had gone to Methodist camp meetings. He heard spirituals, and said he ‘never recovered from the thrill.'”

Albert Barnes used music to explain the formal qualities of his art collection. He noted that the voices of the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet singing “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” used foreground and background sound in similar way Pablo Picasso used paint.

“He compared the spirituals to Picasso,” said Beaucar. “But Picasso, Matisse, most of the moderns had collections of African art. All happening at the same time: jazz, Harlem Renaissance, artists in France were collecting African art.”

Harlem Renaissance notwithstanding, Barnes acquired no jazz records. “I don’t think he cared that much for jazz,” said Beaucar, diplomatically.

Barnes’ own lecture notes are a more direct; he noted that a certain version of “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” was “spoiled by jazzing.”

He did acquire very rare recordings of the Sea Island Singers off the coast of Georgia, recorded at what was then the Penn School for a documentary film project and never released commercially.

Barnes also invited the Bordentown Glee Club, a singing group from a black vocational school in New Jersey, to perform in his galleries in Lower Merion. One of his regular guests was Leopold Stokowski, then legendary conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“Leopold Stokowski was here. He was a neighbor,” said Beaucar. “He and Olga would come along with every body else Barnes knew – they would fill the main gallery and listen to these young people sing. Apparently it was glorious.”

Barnes did not record any of those concerts in his galleries, but this week New York DJ and composer Jace Clayton will present a taste of what Barnes was listening to, and looking at. Clayton’s composition, “Room 21,” is based on the culture clash Barnes had arranged in Room 21 of this galleries – filled with sacred religious paintings, African art, and modernist paintings of elongated figures by Amedeo Modigliani.

“I was like, wow – he’s this wily figure, mixing sacred and secular, mixing east and west, mixing all these types of art-making approaches,” said Clayton from his Brooklyn home. “That was the room that exploded for me.”

Inspired by that clash of objects in room 21, Clayton wrote a composition that will be performed by the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra, a banjo player, and a traditional Ethiopian musician. Clayton discovered a kinship with Albert Barnes: he says the art collector was thinking like a DJ.

“The thing that was most striking to me in looking at his record collection was, OK, this guy is not just thinking about visual art, but he’s also thinking about drawing links and connections between visual art and different currents of sound,” said Clayton.

Clayton’s piece will be performed at the Barnes Foundation on Friday, as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.

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