Mar 14, 2018

Connection through participation. Introducing Let’s Connect: Philly’s Artists Take on the Barnes

by: Shelley Bernstein

Shelley Bernstein is the Deputy Director of Audience Engagement and Chief Experience Officer at the Barnes Foundation. This post originally appeared on

Today we’re launching a new project called Let’s Connect and the premise is fairly simple. Philadelphia’s artists are invited to create works inspired by the Barnes collection. Our community and a group of curators are invited to view the works and select which four artists will get a residency onsite at the Mural Arts Studio at the Barnes.

Barnes and Mural Arts are partnering for Let’s Connect: Philly’s Artists Take on the Barnes.

I’ve architected a few participatory exhibitions for the Brooklyn Museum, including Click! A Crowd-Curated ExhibitionSplit Second: Indian Paintings, and GO: a community-curated open studio project; each one was specific in design and Let’s Connect is no different. In creating this one, we were considering the goals of the Barnes and nuances specific to the city of Philadelphia. Also, how a partnership could fill our own gaps to make the project stronger.

Let’s Connect is important for the Barnes because of our audience development goals, a need to connect given our newish location within the city, and our objective to continually engage people around a collection, which froze at the death of Dr. Barnes in 1951.

Let’s Connect is designed to provide free access to all participants — artists get unlimited free visitation during the entire period of the open call, while curators and the public get a free visit to cast their selections. It encourages participants to be inspired by this collection, create, and discover something new — artists take the collection as a starting point for their own work giving the public the chance to see something new in the connections that they make. The project is designed to give everyone ownership in the process — artists create their own lens on works in our collection, while the public gets the chance to tell us which artists should be featured in residencies on site for an entire year.

The power of Philadelphia cannot be underestimated in this design. This is a city that takes enormous pride in place and, to that end, Let’s Connect is designed to engage locals. The localization is extremely important because audiences within Philadelphia County are a priority in the Barnes strategic plan. The artist open call is only for those living or working within the city line and we’ve specifically invited those with direct connections in the city to participate as curators. In working with local curators, artists get the benefit of eyes on their work from those who are actively engaged in hiring and showing work in Philadelphia. In this way, the Barnes serves as a hub of connection — one that we feel is incredibly important given our move to the Parkway.

You’ll notice, too, that Mural Arts is playing an incredibly significant role as partner. If you consider that the Barnes is a fairly new member of the community having moved to center city just five years ago, Mural Arts represents a deeply rooted organization. They’ve been working in Philadelphia since 1984 engaging communities throughout the city, not just in a single “place” or facility, and they have deep relationships within the artist community because they hire more than 200 artists a year. Mural Arts is Philadelphia — they are embedded in the fabric of the city, seen everywhere all at once. It’s easy to see how they make a perfect partner for this endeavor.

Let’s Connect is designed to integrate the Barnes into the fabric of the city and be more accessible than ever before by engaging its citizens — artists, community, curators — around a single idea: the collection at the Barnes is here to be seen and interpreted by you. Participatory design is the thing that can bring the elements together and we’re looking forward to seeing what this process brings.

Let’s Connect is a project of the Barnes Foundation in partnership with Mural Arts Philadelphia.​

Artist Open Call: March 19–April 30, 2018
Exhibition: May 21–June 4, 2018
Artist Announcement: June 14, 2018
Artist Residencies: July 1, 2018–June 30, 2019

Last updated: Mar 15, 2018

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