Being Public Is An Outside Situation

French choreographer Boris Charmatz, renowned for his innovative Musée de la danse, was invited to engage with the Philadelphia public by co-curating a one-time-only dance event at the Barnes Foundation. His curatorial proposal posed the question: How do we claim our right to public assembly in public spaces through dance? Entitled the Philadelphia Museum of Dance (PMD), it was his latest, and perhaps his last iteration of Musée de la danse. PMD was an epic undertaking produced by Drexel University’s Miriam Giguere in collaboration with Charmatz and a consortium of US-based organizers and organizations.1

It was also an odd proposition given that the Barnes Foundation has always been a private situation. Albert Barnes’ collection has historically been hard to see.

Barnes (1872-1951) was a successful entrepreneur and passionate advocate for working class education. The last two hours of the work day in his factory ended with educational sessions for predominantly African-American employees. He grew up in Kensington, a working class Philadelphia neighborhood, attended Central Public High School, and went to the University of Pennsylvania. He ultimately made a fortune by discovering and marketing a groundbreaking silver nitrate antiseptic that saved thousands of lives.

During his lifetime, Barnes required a formal letter to request an appointment to visit his collection, and he is said to have often declined requests from powerful people. After his death, his collection was open to the public only two days a week. The limited access to his collection, due to his self-imposed idiosyncratic rules and local community pressures, was in direct opposition to his articulated values of access, experience, exploration, and education for all.

A devoted student of American philosopher and educator John Dewey, Barnes intended his collection as a site to cultivate open and analytical thinking, a place where philosophy and theory could be realized through art. Artworks were to be interacted with, to be addressed in relationship to one another, with ever changing juxtapositions to be debated and explored. Barnes, guided by Dewey, was engaged in a bold experiment, placing art at the center of democracy and as critical to social progress.

Albert and Laura Barnes’ home was a 1775 fieldstone house in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia. This area is known as the “The Main Line” and has been home to many of Philadelphia’s oldest and wealthiest families. Due, in part, to his neighbors’ complaints about traffic, access to the collection was severely limited. After more than fifty years and many court battles, Barnes’ collection got a new home on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in center city Philadelphia. The collection now resides in an exact replica of the interior of his home. Every West African and French art object is still exhibited precisely where he last placed it. Wrapped around this colonial-era interior is a neo-modernist building designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The Barnes loomed large in my childhood. My older brothers and sisters were artists. My sister Chrissie, who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), also studied privately with our neighbor, Mrs. Ryan, an artist who sometimes taught at Tyler School of Art. The third floor of our home was an art studio and from the age of four, I regularly posed for drawings and paintings. Art, French art in particular, was part of the daily conversation. With these older siblings (13 to 16 years older than me), I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art quite often. But only once did we make the pilgrimage to the Barnes. I was about 10 years old. I remember the ritual of it: the hard-to-get appointment for just a few, my mother allowing me to take a day off school, the car ride to an unfamiliar neighborhood with massive estates, and our reverential silence upon entering his house. I mostly remember Matisse’s La Danse installed high up like a stained glass window with bespoke curves created for that specific wall and fabricated by the master himself. La Danse was more expansive, more energetic, and more joyous than any painting I’d seen before. Matisse’s undulating figures dancing on blue, pink, and black jagged triangles still hold the same magic today in the new Barnes as they did in the old.

Henri Matisse, The Dance, 1932-33, oil on canvas, three panels, The Barnes Foundation, 2001.25.50a,b,c.

In its new home, the collection is much more accessible, but it is still far from an open public space. And, as with any museum, there are restrictions, among them:

  • Notetaking and sketching with graphite pencil is permitted using notebooks no larger than 9 x 12 inches.
  • Stay about two feet from any wall.

These are good, old school guidelines. But there are also some unwritten rules not found on the website. For example, I was required to take my suit jacket off before entering the galleries because the guard deemed it an inch too long. One can only imagine how many restrictions there are about what cannot happen in those galleries. Dance is one of them.

Given all this, Charmatz’ proposition —‘to reclaim public space through choreographic assembly’ at the Barnes — was radical.

The Philadelphia Museum of Dance’s public choreography was realized on the edges: behind a window, in the open court, on the terrace, outside the front doors, on the front lawn, in the parking lot, on the plaza, in a glass garden in the basement; anywhere but in the galleries. And that turned out to be more than OK. There was more freedom to move in the peripheral spaces. Dancing bodies and watching bodies moved together and alone, reverently and irreverently, in large and small spaces, on the margins.

A few vivid images from the day:

A lanky figure confronting me on the sidewalk, wide-eyed, menacing, in my face. Raphaëlle Delaunay.

Little girls performing Isadora Duncan’s Revolutionary Etude on the front lawn with traffic flying by on Ben Franklin Parkway. Fragile revolutionaries.

A Trisha Brown/Steve Paxton demonstration performed elegantly by Lisa Kraus on the outdoor plaza.

Primary-colored geometric shapes and white pointy shoes on glacially slow bodies — Maria, Oisin, Hristoula, Jessie 2 — outside the museum entry next to the reflecting pool.

Maria Hassabi and dancers perform STAGED? (2016)_undressed at the Main Entrance of the Barnes.

Paul Lazar on the floor of the great hall just outside the main galleries, reciting Claire Bishop’s critique of The Shed, a massive new cultural facility in New York City. “What is the ritual space of the 21st century?”

Clyde Evans Jr. instructing an adventurous, awkward crowd how to participate in a Soul Train – (yes, make two lines and progress to the front of one of the lines before you dance down the middle!). Soul Train is joyful, even when awkward.

Soul Train led by Clyde Evans, Jr.

Equally joyous, the juxtaposition of Soul Train with Charmatz’ 1973 performed by 150 cacophonic students who occupied the large entry area while dancing idiosyncratic gestures at high speed.

1973, a collective dance structured by Boris Charmatz

It’s Showtime NYC! flexing dancers bringing all their WOW to the Barnes. Genius.

A medley of choreographed and freestyle pieces by It's Showtime NYC!

Brigitta Herrmann, barely visible, floating inside a glass atrium through a garden of trees in homage to Mary Wigman.

Earth's Lament Via Gratitude performed by Brigitta Herrmann

Charmatz’s post Charlie Hebdo attack choreography, danse de nuit, with dancers moving aggressively through the museum parking lot at night. On the sidewalk just outside the lot, two young women wearing hijabs stop, watch for a minute and ask me what is happening. “It’s a dance performance.” They look at me incredulously. “It can’t be!” They continue walking.

danse de nuit (2016) by Boriz Charmatz

We are outside: Outside in the parking lot looking in from the sidewalk, outside on the lawn, outside on the plaza, outside the galleries in the halls. We are outside looking in through windows, outside the inner sanctum, where Matisse’s dancers are safe from the living dancers who are engaged in a choreographic assembly performed outside, in public, and on the margins.

Yet, as on my first pilgrimage to the Barnes, I am enthralled by the ritual of it all. A day out of the office, a train ride from New York, and a walk down the wide, grand Parkway to the museum. Silently watching dance for six hours. Experiencing expansive, energetic, and free bodies in public spaces. A bold experiment demonstrating that freedom of thought, speech, action, art, and dance are crucial to democracy.

Judy Hussie-Taylor Bio

Since taking the helm at Danspace Project in 2008, Hussie-Taylor has developed a critically-acclaimed series, the PLATFORMS, featuring artist curators, publications, and new contexts for performing arts presenting. The former director of the Colorado Dance Festival (CDF), she also previously served as Artistic Director for Performance Programs at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art and Deputy Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver. From 2000 – 2005 she taught in the Department of Art & Art History at the University of Colorado-Boulder and served as faculty, committee member and interim director of the Department’s Visiting Artist Program. Through her work at CDF, she co-developed multi-year projects including “Let’s Dance: The Americas” exploring social dances of the Americas and, with Marda Kirn, organized a three-year project looking at the relationship between dance, the arts, and the environment from multiple cultural perspectives. From 1991 – 1998 she participated in the National Performance Network and the National Dance Project. From 2005 - 07 she served as a consultant and on the faculty for the National Dance Project’s Regional Dance Development Initiative (Pacific Northwest and San Francisco Bay Area Dance Labs) and for NDP’s Contemporary Art Centers Initiative.

She has been a guest speaker and panelist at national and international convenings including APAP, Dance USA, and NYS Dance Force convenings; Philadelphia’s Pew Center for Arts and Heritage; UC Berkeley Arts Research Center; The Ringling Museum; “Show Me The World: Curating Live Art Symposium” Munich, Germany; and the first International Symposium on Performing Arts Curation in Montreal. Hussie-Taylor developed a Danspace Project partnership with the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) Department of Media and Performance Art to develop ancillary programming for the dance series Some sweet day curated by Ralph Lemon. A second collaboration between Danspace Project and MoMA marked the historic MoMA acquisition of Simone Forti’s Dance Constructions. She has contributed essays and interviews to publications on curation including in a new anthology Curating Live Arts (Berghan, 2018), an on-line publication for the Pew Center/UC Berkeley’s Arts Research Center and in the Yale School of Drama’s journal Theater. She has served on national grant panels including the Pew Multidisciplinary Fellowships, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and MAP Fund awards. She has been a curatorial advisor to Drexel University’s Boris Charmatz’s Philadelphia Museum of Dance, Philadelphia Contemporary, Bryn Mawr College (PA), Naropa University (Boulder, CO), and The Walker Art Center’s interdisciplinary think tank (Minneapolis, MN). She is currently on the Advisory Committee for the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance, a program of Center for the Arts, Wesleyan University, co-founded in partnership with Danspace Project. She received the first Bessie Award ever given for dance curation in 2016 and was conferred a Chevalier D’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government in 2014.

Judy Hussie-Taylor photo © Michael Kirby

1 PMD was produced by Miriam Giguere over a two year period and in close consultation with Charmatz. Aspects of the project were organized by Simon Dove, Manfred Fishbeck, Giguere, and Lois Welk for Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design; and by Charmatz and Martina Hochmuth for Musée de la danse. Film/video series curated by Terry Fox. The Philadelphia Museum of Dance was organized in close partnership with Thom Collins and Kathleen Greene for the Barnes Foundation with major support from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.
2 Maria Hassabi, Oisin Monaghan, Hristoula Harakas, and Jessie Gold performing Hassabi’s choreography.

Judy Hussie-Taylor
Executive Director & Chief Curator, Danspace Project, New York