Art Appreciation: 'The Barnes Collection' Muses on the Museum
The Barnes Collection, produced for Philadelphia PBS station WHYY, tells the story of the somewhat misunderstood art magnate Dr. Albert C. Barnes through his own letters and ledgers.
The Barnes Foundation was established by this chemist and pharmaceutical industrialist in 1922 to “promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts and horticulture.” Barnes had the bold idea to create an educational institution that would make art available to those who did not have access to such aesthetic pursuits. In so doing, he believed he could help people just be better citizens and experience the world in a richer way. Barnes amassed a 3,000-plus-piece collection that is regarded as the greatest assortment of post-impressionist and early modern art, as well as American and African art and sculpture, in the world.
The goal for show producer Glenn Holsten was to humanize Dr. Barnes through his own letters. “There has been a lot of mythology about him.” The curmudgeonly side of him is well known and his cranky reputation precedes him, but when Holsten read the letters, he was touched by the younger man he found searching for answers through painting and art. “He really becomes a searcher, someone on a quest,” Holsten says. “That’s what I responded to in the letters. That’s why they are so prevalent in the film.”
Barnes’ letters provide the visual context to the film and also his voice. “We highlight certain key words and phrases in animation and have an actor, David Morse, read them as we see them on screen,” says Holsten. Graphic designers on staff at WHYY animated the text of newspaper clippings to provide visual punch. “We have a lot of old headlines, a lot of traditional PBS storytelling elements, but we made them sing and move and dance so they are very much alive,” he says. “It’s really fun to reinvent the way they are used for the story—to take these archival elements and give them different depths and energy.”
Holsten worked with the Barnes Foundation archivist to identify photographs, documents and letters. “Our free library in Philadelphia was a terrific help,” he says. “We have a lot of great institutions in the area that have a lot of records of the city. I used that material to create a portrait of Philadelphia soon after the turn of the century.”
Holsten was able to read all of Barnes’ correspondence and see receipts from art purchases going back to 1912. “Those receipts are in the film, too, because they are beautiful,” he says. “The letterhead from the gallery in Paris is gorgeous. Hopefully the documentary will feel very much like going through his papers.”