The docent’s guide to the Barnes Foundation

Art galleries can be intimidating places. The Barnes Foundation, where a dazzling collection of painting and objects is arranged in unusual ways, can be especially challenging. That’s where docents come in.

WHYY’s Elizabeth Fiedler reports on the Barnes’ loyal army of volunteer guides, and how they’re preparing for the collection’s big move to Philadelphia.

Dr. Albert Barnes made his fortune selling an antiseptic drug, but his labor of love was art.

He had a great eye, as an early collector of Impressionist and Modernist art. This self-made connoisseur had contempt for how traditional museums displayed their treasure. He developed a theory on how to display art to make it come alive for “the common man.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Art and objects share space in the Barnes' gallery.To this day the Barnes’ gallery in Lower Merion retains the doctor’s unusual groupings of art and objects: a Cezanne here, a Modigliani there, right next to some metalwork and a piece of furniture.

Sometimes, the Barnes method can leave a “common man” baffled.

That’s where people like Phyllis Slocum come in.

Slocum: This is a great small group so we’re gonna have fun today okay. You don’t have to stay in line, it’s alright….

Slocum is a Barnes docent, who has explained the Barnes collection both to CEOs, and to fourth graders, as she did one recent snowy afternoon.

Slocum: There’s certain ways that Dr. Barnes wanted us to look at these paintings to compare and contrast: through light, line, color and space. So we’re gonna talk about that, okay? And you’re going to help me doing the comparing and contrasting. Okay? Sound good? So let’s get back to the Matisse…

Docents say some Barnes visitors love its quirkiness, while others don’t approve.

Gillman: Docents are one characteristic of public educational facilities in America which I just adore!

Barnes President Derek Gillman makes no secret of his respect for the docents, and the value they bring.

Gillman: Now there are lots of other ways of passing information: we all use the Internet, we use textbooks. There are ways you can convey information but I think we all appreciate actually having a human teacher – a human point of contact. Somebody we can ask questions of and somebody who’s sympathetic to things we don’t understand.

Listen as Barnes docent Fred Dixon explains an interesting pairing of paintings:

A metal door latch hangs above Renoir's 'Girl in Pink Bonnet.'Fred Dixon: You have here a large painting at the bottom here by Cezanne. It’s called Provence Peasant. And in this painting it’s an older woman gripping very tightly a book and it’s like she’s not going to let that book get out of her hands. And above that you have a much more lyrical, smaller painting by Renoir called Girl in Pink Bonnet and she’s either tying or untying the strings on that bonnet and her hands are partly open.

So what’s a metal door latch doing above the paintings?

Again, Fred Dixon.

Fred Dixon: A door latch opens and it closes so it becomes a metaphor for the opened hands of the one girl and the tightly closed hands of the other woman in the painting.

Barnes docents can tell you a lot more than just why this painting ended up next to that chair.

Listen as Fred Dixon’s wife Martha tells a story about Henri Matisse’s famous “The Dance Mural”:

Martha Dixon: He supervised the hanging of the paintings and he had a minor heart attack and Dr. Barnes whom you know was a doctor – a medical doctor – he gave him a shot of whiskey and sure enough Matisse lived for another 25 years.

And here’s Martha Dixon talking about a Picasso painting of a woman, who she says is the painter’s first lover:

Martha Dixon: Picasso had seven significant women in his life and when he was in love with them he painted them one particular way, typically with curvilinear lines – this is a generalization – and then when he was out of love with them and he was debasing them that’s when he got into his Cubist and Surrealism period where he had very sharp lines.

The docents’ passion for the Barnes – the art, the architecture, the arboretum, the spirit of the place – comes through in almost every sentence they say.

As Phyllis Slocum puts Henri Matisse's famous "The Dance Mural" hangs above the main

Slocum: When I’m not at the Barnes for a while I almost feel like I’m missing a friend.

That helps explain the deep emotions that flared over the Barnes Foundation’s plan to move the bulk of the collection to a new building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The new building’s layout will mimic the original, with the art displayed the same way but with improvements including, Gillman says, better lighting.

The Barnes docents definitely will still be on the job. They may have even more to do, helping more visitors a day and probably being peppered with questions about how the new Barnes experience on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway differs from the way it was on Latches Lane in Lower Merion.

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