Controversial in the early 20th century for their stylistic innovation, the work of modern artists such as Matisse are debated in the early 21st century for sociological reasons in Thomas Gibbons’ “Permanent Collection.” Closely adhering to the issues swirling around the Barnes Foundation in suburban Philadelphia, this skillfully packaged docudrama is given a mostly satisfying legit treatment at Baltimore’s Center Stage.
The Philadelphia-based playwright (who, for the record, is white) understands what lies behind the headlines and knows how to raise racially tinged questions that are easier to ask than to answer. Considering how polemically charged this story has been in the art world, he does an evenhanded job of giving each side its say.
In this fictionalized version, the old guard in the dispute is represented by Paul Barrow (Thomas M. Hammond), a white, middle-aged museum education director, and Ella Franklin (Elain R. Graham), an African-American, longtime administrative assistant. Both are faithful to the intentions of the Albert Barnes surrogate here known as the late Alfred Morris (John Ramsey), whose ghostly presence hangs around, providing harsh running commentary.
Morris had quirky ideas about everything from an unchanging installation to strict admission policies, and the old guard is determined to honor his wishes forever.
Morris’ will granted considerable power over the board of directors to a historically African-American local university, and the opposition to Barrow and Franklin comes from a black businessman with no background in art, Sterling North (Terry Alexander), the recently named museum director. North wants more of the financially struggling museum’s African art holdings brought out of storage and installed next to the European impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces. Curatorial warfare ensues when North and Barrow exchange their aesthetic and legal views.
It’s inevitable that the testy dialogue will carry a heavy didactic load in such a drama, but Gibbons seems admirably determined to remain impartial. It helps that he keeps the speeches short and that director David Schweizer keeps the pace snappy despite thematic redundancy in the final scenes.
Also ensuring every museum display case does not become a soapbox are two relatively unbiased characters, North’s eager young black assistant, Kanika Weaver (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), and a white journalist, Gillian Crane (Christina Rouner), who ask the questions we’d like to.
Although the interwoven considerations of art and race are deftly presented by largely sympathetic characters incisively portrayed by the cast, these figures never completely transcend their pragmatic function as representatives of distinct viewpoints along an ideological spectrum. They’re not stereotypes, but they’re not really memorable people.
The most problematic character is Barrow, whose knowledge of art history seems superficial for a man in his position. Also, the playwright is sloppy where chronology is concerned. Art collector Morris has been dead for about 50 years, but Barrow, who is in his 40s and has a perpetual grad student look, says he was hired by Morris himself. A docudrama can’t afford such carelessness.
More secure is the production design that shrewdly takes us from the particulars of the case to the larger questions raised. Andrew Lieberman’s set evokes a museum and its offices without cluttering them up. Especially nice is the salon-style installation of paintings periodically raised and lowered in a curtainlike manner.Matthew Frey’s atmospheric lighting and other tech credits emphasize a somewhat dreamy quality, creating a suitable abode for Morris’ opinionated ghost.