Fresh Outlook, New Building, (Amazing) Old Museum

When the Barnes Foundation museum officially unveils its new Center City building this month, its first chief curator will also experience a debut of sorts. Although Judith Dolkart GFA’97 has held the position since she joined the museum in January 2010, only now will she be fully able to assume the duties envisioned for the newly created title.

Two of the most important will be creating a series of special exhibitions and supervising a rigorous schedule of catalog publications that promise to closely examine the famed assemblage of, among many, many others, 181 Renoirs, 59 Matisses, and 46 Picassos.

 “A curator’s job is to care for and interpret the collection,” Dolkart, 41, observes. “Although making connections between objects is a profound thrill, it’s actually a very small part of being a curator.”

And in the case of this very particular museum, almost a moot one. Amassed by Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a chemist who made a fortune by co-developing several medications during the early 1900s, the paintings and objects in the museum are legally bound to be grouped according to his precise instructions. 

It’s those piled-on layers and quirky juxtapositions that have always proved most gasp-inducing to visitors to the original Merion, Pennsylvania, locale, and which will be meticulously replicated, down to the burlap-covered walls, on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Dolkart remembers her own initial encounters with the collection while pursuing her master’s at Penn in the mid-1990s.

“To actually see so many of the works I’d been studying—Matisse’s ‘Bonheur de Vivre,’ Van Gogh’s ‘Postman’—in person and presented in that cheek-by-jowl arrangement was just amazing,” she says.

Dolkart’s time at Penn represented the culmination of a journey that began when she was a junior in high school.

“I spent a year abroad in Rennes, and art history was a requirement,” she recalls. Her time in the capital of the French province of Brittany opened her eyes to the glories of the Western canon. “I decided right then that I’d be involved in the art world in some way,” she adds.

After receiving her BFA from Harvard-Radcliffe College in 1993, Dolkart returned to Miami, where she’d grown up, to work at the Wolfsonian, a new decorative-arts museum.

“Looking back,” she says, “I see that in some ways it was a parallel to the Barnes. It was diverse, and it was the vision of a single collector.”

The experience fine-tuned her art-career focus. It became clear that she needed to pursue a career in museums rather than the academy. 

“A lot of the aspects appealed to me,” she says. “I liked the long durations of each project, and that they involved many departments.”

So, in 1995, she came to Penn, all the while continuing to work during the summers at the Wolfsonian. Next, she spent two years in Paris researching her doctoral thesis—on painters such as Jacques-Louis David, who dabbled in designing clothes for the Revolutionary and Empire governments.

“It was a time when the existing symbols were being reconsidered,” Dolkart explains. “David and others wanted to create a kind of costume of everyday dress that represented the new political ideas.”

The intimate relationship between art and fashion has carried through in other aspects of her career.

“When you look at portraiture, questions around clothing come up again and again,” she points out. “What does it say about the society? What does it say about the subject, the painter? Is it a true depiction, or embellished?”

While working on the dissertation, however, Dolkart’s track took another unexpected detour: to the prestigious Brooklyn Museum, as an assistant curator of European painting and sculpture. She’d end up spending almost a decade there, moving up the ranks under the mentorship of Elizabeth Easton, the museum’s then-chair of European painting. 

“She had a magnificent eye, so I learned a lot just by looking at pictures with her,” Dolkart says of Easton. “But more importantly, she’s Big Picture, and I’ve always been detail-oriented. Her expansiveness was really good for me.”

It’s not hard to imagine Dolkart letting her curly hair down—her outfit of flowing shibori scarf, kicky brown boots, and just-for-the-heck-of-it olive tights offers a hint—but these days she’s wrapped up in her work and wrapped under a tight Barnes publicity machine that’s wary of renewing any hint of the controversy that once roiled over its move.

Surely, Dolkart—and museum officials and the building’s architects—must be tired of reassuring everyone that the museum’s galleries will be faithfully recreated. Instead, she prefers to focus on what will change.

“What the move comes down to,” she says, “is taking one of the world’s greatest art collections and making it a lot more accessible to a lot more people.” Some of the new public spaces—an auditorium, the special exhibit space, a light-filled indoor courtyard—will only enhance that experience, Dolkart adds.

“But my favorite change is the abundance of natural light that will enter the galleries,” she says. “I think it will be revelatory for every single visitor.”

—JoAnn Greco

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