Step Closer

Van Gogh Twelve Sunflowers
Sunflowers (F455), repetition of the 3rd version
Oil on canvas, 92 × 72.5 cm
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, United States.

Museums on Sundays
Whenever we can we both go
And stay there for hours
Feeding our spirits
Beauty is still free
Beauty is not exclusive
Beauty is ours to touch and to know
–Karen Peris

A nod to The Innocence Mission for these lines buried twenty-five years ago in my song-brain–  however, when I visited Philadelphia Museum of Art this past Sunday afternoon, these words echoed ironically in my mind.

If you plan to visit this museum with children, you may want to make a note of the following:

If you count on using a stroller to keep your one-year-old from running around while you use the bathroom, you will be turned away with the following unhelpful explanation, “They don’t allow strollers in the bathrooms.”

If you allow your five-year-old to sit on the bottom-most, cube-shaped balustrade in Great Stair Hall, just as several adult patrons are doing, you will be signaled to remove him.

If you encourage your eight and five-year-old children to clasp their hands behind their backs and step closer to more intimately observe Van Gogh’s 130-year-old brush strokes in the third version of his series, “Sunflowers”, you will be swiftly remonstrated.

If you situate yourself on a bench in the center of a single, small gallery and instruct those same two children to “stroll the perimeter of this gallery” and “stop in front of any painting that catches your interest” and then come back to you and tell you what they observed, you will be told, before they have managed to travel more than eight feet away from your elbow, “Ma’am, you can’t let your children go off on their own.”

Although these encounters were unimaginative and irksome, I am not interested in discussing art museum policy. Rules evolve, and I get that. The most burdensome ones usually grow up in reaction to some rare and unlikely event. Also, personalities vary among rule-enforcers, and this can determine how arbitrary a rule feels.

However, if you wanted to get me started, I could easily go into some detail about toddlers in public bathrooms, and with great sincerity argue that a stroller can be the difference between a non-event and hypothetical anecdotes such as: “That time when my toddler threw open my bathroom stall door”, or “Our E. coli adventure”. (I eventually found my husband and left both toddler and stroller with him so I could use the bathroom. Had I been alone, I would have appealed to the woman who had turned me away.)

What caught for me in all this was the tedium and anxiety that characterizes the space where valuable, vulnerable works of art are displayed, and how much the act of maintaining and curating such art contrasts with the original passion and courage of the person who set out to make that great art in the first place.

I have since imagined Vincent Van Gogh absorbed in a work in progress as the two children he lived with crept shyly into his sightlines. In my scenario, he says, “Step closer”, or in his case, “Stap dichterbij.”

My husband and I discussed this as we walked away from the museum. On one hand, there is this amazing gift of philanthropically-funded public space offering curated access to beautiful things. However, it becomes a fraught proposition to preach public access to that art if you aren’t prepared to hold to a reasonable baseline of trust that members of that public will exercise good judgment.

While we did “stay there for hours”, what most fed our spirits was the time spent out-of-doors walking along the stretch of Kelly Drive that led from the museum toward our parking spot. We stopped several times so that our children could frolic beneath a line of London Planes, wishing on dandelions gone-to-seed and sniffing white stars-of-Bethlehem. Watching children do what they do best, I mused how an institution dedicated to preserving beautiful things can at the same time quash the winsome, curious, or adventurous spirit in us that powers creativity.


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