by Jim Harris
Last Friday, I attended the exclusive pre-opening gala for the Barnes Museum. It was not easy getting in. I had to hide under a pile of mulch on the grounds for 36 hours so I could be inside the celebrity perimeter when the function began. Additionally, I printed out a fake “V.I.P.” badge from FakeBadges.com and wore a beret so folks would think I was artistic.
Actually, I consider myself something of an expert on museums. In the 1970s, when I lived in my Volkswagen bus, I visited a number of roadside museums and attractions around the country. In Maryland, I saw the world’s biggest ball of dryer lint. In California, I sat on Liberace’s fur-covered piano stool. In Tennessee, I visited the American Decoy Museum. Upon entering, I found it was just an empty building, and when I went back out, someone had stolen my car. I also looked for the Camouflage Museum in Kentucky, but was unable to find it.
So I thought I had done my homework going in to this Barnes gala, but as I mingled with the A-list guests, I learned a few things I hadn’t known. First of all, in spite of all its antique weather vanes and brass hinges, it’s NOT a museum about Pennsylvania Dutch barns. Barnes is actually the name of a man who made a fortune in the drug business and spent his money on art. You could say his vocation was anesthetics, but his avocation was aesthetics.
While ordering a diet Dr. Pepper at the bar, I met the building’s architects, a nice couple named Ted and Billie. I asked them if they realized that the middle section did not line up evenly with the other parts. Surprisingly, they said it was supposed to be that way. I asked if they had ever considered using Legos as building material instead of expensive stone shipped over from Israel. Billie said no, adding in a rather accusatory tone, “You smell like mulch.” I told her that it was a new cologne called “Wood Thrush” and politely excused myself to go talk to someone more important.
I managed to corner the curator in the gallery. She seemed a little annoyed when I asked her if all of the artworks were originals. She replied that all of the paintings were indeed originals and were arranged on the walls according to a plan designed by Dr. Barnes himself. “It’s based on elements like shape, color and size,” she said. “For instance, a painting of a large yellow triangle could hang next to a medium orange parallelogram, but not next to a small brown square. The plan also requires that the paintings be viewed in the proper sequence.”
She then graciously agreed to take me on a private tour of the collection. “Start over there,” she said, “and move in an eastward direction. No, east, I said, east! Wait; you’re looking at the wrong painting. You’re out of order. Stop!” At which point she struck me with a pearl-handled walking stick, rendering me unconscious.
I awoke to a tuxedo-clad waiter leaning over me offering some sort of cheese puff on a toothpick. It was pretty good, so I grabbed a handful. For the remainder of the evening, everyone pretty much avoided me like the plague.
I was just about to leave when I ran into a guy from the Tourism Marketing Corporation who asked me what I thought of the city’s new slogan, “With Art Philadelphia.” After trying unsuccessfully to parse those words into anything making even a modicum of sense, I suggested they try something a little more intelligible, like, “We Art Broke” or “Come Spend Thy Money.” Personally, I liked their previous slogan better: “Philadelphia: After you pay all your taxes and parking tickets, we’ll leave you with enough money for a small breakfast!”
If you’re planning to visit the Barnes, be aware that bus routes 32 and 33 run right through the building, stopping at the gift shop and the cafe. If you drive, remember to park according to the color, shape and size of your car, or else your vehicle will be towed to the river and dumped in. For an extra $15, a valet will park your car, shine your shoes, draw a caricature of you in the style of Renoir, overturn Dr. Barnes’ last will and testament and serve you cheese puffs. Enjoy thyself.