Sweatin’ to the oldies at Philly art museum

The Philadelphia Museum of Art opens its galleries to Museum Workout, a performance art aerobics class.

Monica Bill Barnes (right) and Anna Bass lead

Monica Bill Barnes (right) and Anna Bass lead the Museum Workout at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is designed as a place for quiet contemplation. Works by Titian, Eakins, Picasso, Duchamp have been carefully acquired and thoughtfully displayed in ways  museum curators hope will enlighten visitors about art, history, and what it means to be human.

That’s why it’s so weird to hear disco hits from 40 years ago echoing through the hallways.

The Museum Workout, by the New York-based Monica Bill Barnes & Company is a hybrid of performance art and aerobics class. It is presented as part of Philadelphia’s Fringe Festival.

On a recent day, a troupe of about 15 people dressed in running shoes and workout tights jogged through the galleries, stopping at about a dozen pieces of art to do squats and lunges.

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But you’re not watching this; you are one of them. Participation in the Museum Workout is mandatory.

“You come in and hear the Bee Gees, you’re wearing running shoes and clothes you sweat in, and you feel totally inappropriate,” said Robbie Saenz de Viteri, artistic producing director of the dance company. “I think people laugh at the beginning a lot. Then something settles in.

“The novelty wears off, and I think it starts to feel like a different emotional experience of the museum.”

Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass lead "The Museum Workout" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The soundtrack for the performance is provided by Robbie Saenz de Viteri (left).
Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass lead the Museum Workout at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The soundtrack for the program is provided by Robbie Saenz de Viteri (left). (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Monica Bill Barnes & Company started doing Museum Workouts at the Metropolitan in New York a couple years ago.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art took notice and invited them to adapt the workout to its galleries, seeing the Museum Workout’s tongue-in-cheek aerobics as a way to commune with art more physically than intellectually.

“People walk through museum galleries feeling a huge amount of judgment, that they are supposed to know something they don’t know, or intuit something they don’t understand,” said Emily Schreiner, curator of public programs. “What this piece shows is you can have a physical relationship with a work of art, or tap into it on a really personal level.”

The dance company worked with noted children’s book author Maira Kalman to map out particular pieces of art and a dizzying route to visit them all in a sweaty 45 minutes.

Kalman also provided a recorded commentary. She did not address the particular works on view, but rather her unique approach to museums generally — why she is attracted to them (“When I’m looking at the works of art, I see them as guardian angels that are there to protect me”) and when to walk away from them (“There can be too much art and too much looking at art, it’s important not to be there too long”).

“The conversation of movement and the museum and text and not knowing where you are, not knowing what you’re doing, wishing for something and being confused and hopeful, or yearning – in a way that represents how we are all the time,” said Kalman in the commentary.

The workout is guided by artistic director Monica Bill Barnes and associate director Anna Bass, who intentionally put you off your game by making you feel lost in the galleries and forcing you to contemplate relatively minor works of art in the collection.

They do it all to music that is dated by a few decades. The disco of Elton John. The funk of Sly and the Family Stone. The ballads of Lionel Richie.

“The music should feel like another era, but something easy to move to, has an eight count,” said Barnes. “It feels familiar and ironic. That lets people in on the joke. Don’t take yourself too seriously, join us, and keep up.”

The Museum Workout happens in the early morning and evening — before and after the Art Museum is open to the public. It protects normal museum-goers from the disruption of the performance, and it gives the participants the rare experience of having the museum all to themselves.

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