The Interview: Thom Collins, Barnes director

The Interview: Thom Collins, Barnes director



The Philadelphia Daily News
September 20, 2015
By Lauren McCutcheon

The Barnes Foundation's new director is smart - super smart. He could speak for days in several languages about the museum's 40 galleries of world-renowned art. He can expound on the Barnes' brand-new exhibition Strength and Splendor and its wrought-iron antiques (including lighters shaped like pistols, corsets and tiaras, and a lock that could break a wrist) from the Musée le Secq des Tournelles in Rouen, France. He can discuss painter Ellen Harvey's companion abstract Metal Painting, a reorganized (and magnetized) replication of the Barnes' iron collection.

With degrees from Swarthmore and Northwestern, the sought-after curator - and author - was the driving force behind the smash opening of Miami's Perez Art Museum a few years back. In March, he came here. And guess what? Sure, he's smart. But he's also one of us.

Born in Philly, raised in Media, Thom Collins is the son of a hospital administrator and high school history teacher-slash-football coach who took him to Eagles games - and, of course, a whole lot of museums. He spoke at the Barnes to Lauren McCutcheon about growing up, coming home, changing minds and, yes, living with his name.

So, welcome back to Philly.

I'm very happy to be back, after 20 years. This place has changed so much in my lifetime, so much for the better. The physical fabric of Philadelphia has always been good, but it's very polished up. There's a very youthful energy, and I want to be hanging out with the youths (laughs).

What was your youth like? Did you come here has a kid?

Oh yeah. I grew up going to the Barnes. My parents took turns going to graduate school when my brother and I were in preschool. When my father was solo on the weekends, he'd distract us by taking us to museums.

He loved it. But we LOVED it - this idea that all these things are aesthetic but they're also knowledge objects, that they code all this knowledge, this information.

And you appreciated art, as a preschooler?

We'd go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We'd go to PAFA [the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts]. We'd go to the Barnes.

[My dad] once took us to go find The Gross Clinic when it was at Jeff. [The Center City hospital later sold the famous Eakins painting to the Art Museum and PAFA]. We found it. Talk about disturbing for a 4-year-old!

At the Barnes, I remember The Card Players. I remember Seurat's The Models. I remember The Music Lesson, the Matisse. Of course, I remember the Courbet, Woman with White Stockings, an erotic picture. It's startling today. But imagine, as a child.

Obviously you weren't permanently scared away.

For sure, my dad made me interested in and comfortable with cultural institutions. He's the reason I approach art in an educational way, a way that's not elitist, that's really attempting to be accessible, democratic. That's all from my dad.

What are your plans for the Barnes?

We have hundreds of iconic works of art on view. In our history, we've taught people how to see them, and how to talk about what they see. What we haven't done is we haven't taught them to unpack their meanings . . . the larger social, cultural, historical stories they tell.

These stories come from the modernization of Europe and the U.S., from the Industrial Revolution forward, whether they're about the changing nature of the city, the advent and struggle of the middle class, the changing relationships between genders, about race and ethnicity - all issue that are still deeply relevant today. We want to help people figure out new ways to move through the collection, to understand the different stories that it tells.

Big plans, then.

We did a huge thing in building this huge facility and moving. Now the other challenging thing is how we talk about what's in the collection, and also how we are going to grow our services, to be a catalyst in the social services arena.

I'm very interested in what we could be doing with people in shelters, what we could be doing with people in prisons, what we could be doing with people with Alzheimer's or dementia, or PTSD . . . We're also trying to engage the millennials and the digital natives.

What about when you're not at work?

I'm an opera guy, and I love the Institute for Contemporary Art. I also go to Eagles games with my dad. This is Philadelphia. We do it all. We're well-rounded.

Gotta ask about your name.

First of all, I'm a junior. My father, Tom, was named by first-generation immigrants. They weren't cocktail people. They were lucky if they were beer people.

Still, every day, someone says to me, "Do you know your name is the name of a drink?" Yes, I do. I even started spelling my name with an "h," because at least when people read it, it throws them off a little bit.