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Master of Arts

Thom Collins ’88 brings his visionary touch to the Barnes Foundation

Thom Collins ’88, the new executive director and president of Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation, has big plans. 

“I keep joking that we moved into this new building but we still haven’t unpacked,” he says about the world-famous art collection’s move to the city three years ago from its original suburban home. 

“Unpacking” is a herculean concept, however, when you’re thinking about the museum’s contents, which encompass a staggering number of impressionist, postimpressionist, and early modern paintings, along with many other works, including one of the first significant collections of African art.

“I would argue that we can talk about every important idea in the modernization of the West using the Barnes collection,” says Collins, citing examples such as the changing views of gender, race, ethnicity, and the natural environment. 

He envisions the Barnes, with its iconic artworks intended from the outset to be teaching tools available to all, as an educational forum. 

Collins believes that art collections, unlike other performance-based cultural expressions such as theater, are similar to the Internet, in which learning can occur in a self-structured, visually oriented manner. 

Last Garnet Weekend’s McCabe lecturer, Collins has honed this belief ever since he fell in love with curating during a three-year fellowship at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Gravitating towards jobs that, he says, offer “growth and change” rather than “maintenance,” he has worked in museums all over the country, most recently as director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami. 

Starting from “a rigorously academic place,” Collins hopes to connect stories to the Barnes’s artwork that enhance their meaning through historical and modern contexts, building on the foundation’s original method of teaching purely visual literacy.

Take, for example, the collection’s 1876 painting by Claude Monet called The Studio Boat. It depicts the painter in the titular watercraft. But what the viewer may not know is that the boat was specially constructed with openings that enabled Monet to frame views of nature at the edge of Paris, screening out evidence of rapidly encroaching industrialization. 

This is the kind of story that Collins plans to advance by developing new handheld audio/video touring tools and online materials, along with the more established educational routes of books, lectures, symposia, films, and community outreach programs.

He developed his deep appreciation for art at a very young age when he and his brother—Chris Collins ’90—visited Philadelphia-area art museums with their father, a social studies teacher and football coach who understood paintings not only as pleasing aesthetic experiences but also as conveyors of social meaning. 

That lesson became even more compelling to Collins at Swarthmore, where he was an art history honors student with a religion minor. He raves about his teachers, calling them “really smart, and just so engaged and so available.” He loved his work-study job in the art gallery, where, among other tasks, he organized receptions, unwittingly preparing for his future. Collins also sang in the a cappella group Sixteen Feet, and indeed still enjoys singing in nightclubs or, in his words, “anyplace louche.” 

His education dovetailed very well with his upbringing in which, he explains, he was “already attentive to lots of the dynamics around difference, class, race, gender, and how they play out in representation in some nuanced way.” It is a mission he now enthusiastically advances at the Barnes. 


+ watch Thom Collins ’88’s 2015 McCabe lecture.