Life Imitating Art Imitating Life, or Something

Noire et blanche by Man Ray, 1926

You there: Settle a bet. Would this be art imitating life, or life imitating art? Or life imitating art imitating life?

This is going to take some explaining, so please be patient.

Round House Theatre’s production of Thomas Gibbons’s Permanent Collection, about a racially charged struggle for control of a museum, doesn’t open for three weeks. But the Phillips Collection is hosting a preview of selected scenes this evening. Why the Phillips? Because it’s about to close Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens — a brilliant, unconventional exhibit that touches on many of the same issues vis-à-vis how race impacts art’s perceived value that Gibbons’s 2004 drama does.

A discussion panel will follow the preview, featuring Blake Robison, Round House’s producing artistic director; Dorothy Kosinski, director of the Phillips; and Timothy Douglas, director of the play. Plus Wendy Grossman, who mercifully has the word “director” nowhere in her title. She’s the freelance curator who spent years prepping Man Ray.

Permanent Collection is a work of fiction, but its plot echoes the real-life history of the Barnes Foundation, a suburban Philadelphia museum and education center founded by pharmaceuticals whiz Alfred C. Barnes in 1922. Barnes, who died in 1951, left behind a trust document stipulating that his collection — which includes African sculptures along with lots of Picassos, Cezannes and Matisses — never be sold, lent, or moved. He also gave Lincoln University, a historically black college, the power to nominate new trustees to the Foundation’s board when existing members left.

In 1990, the Barnes’ Foundation elected a new president, who argued that the trust had to be broken for the institution to survive. The Foundation has subsequently spent much of the last 20 years embroiled in court fights and controversy. The most significant over-Barnes’s-dead-body change to result is the scheduled relocation of the entire museum to downtown Philadelphia, where its permanent new facility is set to open in 2011.

Grossman’s exhibit isn’t quite as volatile as all that, but it still gets right to the heart of how museums judge one culture’s art against another’s. She has worked since 1995 on the show’s material (it started out as her dissertation), which presents African art objects along with seldom-seen photographs of those same objects by Man Ray and other noted modernists. The show considers how Ray’s pictures helped to stoke Western collectors’ interest in African art, and whether this constitutes yet another act of cultural imperialism.

Craig Wallace and Jeff Allin in Permanent Collection. Photo by Clinton Brandhagen

Neither Robison nor Kosinski can recall who first suggested that Gibbons’s play and Grossman’s museum exhibit might comment on each other in interesting ways.

According to Robison, Round House decided to stage “Permanent Collection” before he’d heard about the Phillips exhibit. “It’s been on our list for a couple of years,” Robison says. But the serendipity delights him. Several cast members have visited the Phillips in preparation for their roles.

“We try to find opportunities like this for every production in our season,” he says. “I’m fond of saying that the play should only be the starting point. Ideally, the drama is a springboard for discussion.”

Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens closes Sunday. The preview and discussion of Round House Theatre’s production of Permanent Collection is tonight from 6:30 until approximately 8 p.m. Jazz pianist Allyn Johnson will perform the music of jazz artist and Man Ray confederate Henry Crowder beginning at 5 p.m. A cash bar will be available.

Permanent Collection will be performed at Round House Theatre in Bethesda Jan. 27-Feb. 21.

This story appears in today’s Examiner.

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