Dr. Barnes is from outer space — and other fibs on tour at the Barnes collection

Did you know that the founder of the Barnes collection collaborated with Janelle Monae? Or did he?

Listen 5:18

Barnes Jawn(t)s
Aug. 7, 14, and 21, 6 p.m.
The Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Tickets: $10

The Barnes Foundation is a cornerstone of Philadelphia’s art landscape. But did you know that Dr. Albert Barnes was a sort of modern-day Robin Hood, who stole paintings to share with the masses? Or that, as a result, assassins made attempts on his life?

Well, he wasn’t. And they didn’t. None of that is true. But if you visit the Barnes on Tuesday nights through the end of August, you might hear such tall tales. In a series of special tours called Barnes Jawn(ts), guest “experts” will interpret the collection however they see fit.

“We have a pastor, we have a cyclist, we have a comic book shop owner, we have an LGBT activist, we have pretty much, if you take 10 different people from different walks of life … Philadelphia,” said Kathleen Greene, curator of public programs at the Barnes Foundation.

“I kind of see it as a fantasy world, and you’re going into an individual person’s fantasy of what this is. There’s something magical about that, about being invited into someone else’s brain for 45 minutes.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

One tour guide told visitors that some of the art is so powerful it can be viewed only through a clenched fist held up to the eye.

“It’s the most comical thing to see visitors walking through, squinting with one eye with their hand up like a telescope. It’s wonderful,” said Greene.

The tours are the brainchild of the Philly-based Obvious Agency, an “interactive design collaboration” between artists Joseph Ahmed, Arianna Gass, and Daniel Park. They sought a diverse group of tour guides and gave them a one-hour introduction to the collection before setting them loose.

I hopped on a tour led by Shani Akilah, a co-founder of the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, which does workplace and labor organizing. Akilah told the group that Barnes had stolen all the artworks and began giving them away to friends. That started quite a controversy — and brought on the assassins.

“It pretty much it died down once Barnes was like, OK, OK, I’ll set these up in a gallery so folks can come and look, as opposed to handing them out on the street corner,” said Akilah, with perfectly feigned professionalism.

The visitors were more than game to play along. Akilah encouraged them to supply their own interpretations, and beamed at their “expertise.” One asked about a painting of a woman with underarm hair. Might it be a feminist statement?

“Absolutely, Barnes was a fierce feminist,” said Akilah, not missing a beat. “And a lot of people don’t know this. They don’t put the most important things in history books.”

Greene said some regular visitors have been a little uncomfortable with the way these tours play fast and loose with the truth. A few have walked off. And it’s true that, if you’re looking to learn by-the-books art history, this isn’t the setting.

But the goal, said Greene, is to make the collection exciting to new audiences that might not visit otherwise, including some of the tour guides.

“I didn’t even know this space existed” until Obvious Agency got in touch, said Akilah. “I’ve driven past it constantly, but this is the first time I’m actually inside these walls.”

For Linda Black, who volunteers at the Barnes once a month, the tour made the familiar collection new again. “It was hilarious. I wanted more, actually, I wanted to spend more time on it,” she said.

Giggling, she recalled one of her new favorite “facts”: that Barnes had collaborated with Janelle Monae. “I am walking away with a lot more. The next time I spend some time with the collection, I’ll take that into consideration,” she laughed.

The Barnes Jawn(t)s continue each Tuesday night until Aug. 21, with upcoming tours by interdisciplinary performance artist Morgan FitzPatrick Andrews; owner of Amalgam Comics Ariell R. Johnson; the Rev. Nicolas O’Rourke, and others.

This article is part of a new effort recommending things to do in the Philly region. Tell us what you think.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal