The Dilemma of "Salon Style"

Katherine Gregory
Apr 23, 2013 1:41AM

Working in Philadelphia over the summer, I was fortunate enough to visit the Barnes Foundation several times in its new home on Franklin Parkway. Though it boasts an imposing façade of limestone, steel, and bronze, the interior still cozily houses the infamous collection in a web of welcoming, earth-toned rooms. The Barnes is unique in the combined quality of its collection and the density with which it is displayed; one gallery wall will bear up to fifty priceless works of art. This installation format is foreign to 21st century viewers, who are accustomed to visiting a museum and being instructed how to behave according to its severe, sparse, quiet, and open format. The paintings in the Barnes, by contrast, are protected by no such velvet ropes, plexiglass cases, or motion detectors. The rich, tactile works are, instead, at eye level, tightly packed, and invite our intimate participation. In this way, museum visitors are left to wonder if "appropriate museum behavior" is applicable, because he or she is given no instruction through the gallery architecture. Every time I visited the museum, I witnessed at least five visitors attempt to (and sometimes succeed in) touching priceless artworks. As of May 1, the Barnes will raise its admission prices by four dollars, prompting the question of whether the institution desires to assertively proclaim its status as an elite, exclusive institution. One wonders, however, if the Barnes will effectively communicate its monumental prestige to everyday museum-goers without those conventions of 21st century museums, or loud and harsh instructional plaques.

Katherine Gregory