Dennis Barrie, Museum Consultant
2012 MARTHA JOSEPH PRIZE
Indicative of the breadth of Dennis Barrie’s museum curatorial career, the guest list at the Barrie house has featured rock stars, CIA and KGB operatives, and mobsters. It’s all in a day’s work with his wife Kathy (CAP 1998), his partner in Barrie Projects, a consulting firm dedicated to museum and cultural planning and implementation.
“When we tell you we know spies and hit men, we know spies and hit men,” he says with a characteristic fun-loving laugh. “They’ve been to our house, and it’s great.”
Dennis has taken a natural path to become one of the world’s premier – and most passionate – museum creative directors, ever since his parents packed Dennis and his brother in the car and visited museums, historic sites, and national parks. As a native of Cleveland, his childhood included many weekend trips to the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Upon graduating with his MA in cultural history from Oberlin College, he strapped on a backpack and explored Europe for the summer. He returned to a stack of messages from a woman trying to contact him.
Unbeknownst to Dennis, one of his professors had recommended him for a research position at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art.
He took the job and an 11-year journey into the lives of numerous American artists, doing interviews nationwide, while collecting drawings, journals, and other artifacts. By 1983, however, he needed a change.
“I had abundant ideas for exhibits and artists I wanted to show,” he informs. “I was offered the museum director position at the wonderful Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, so I took it.”
He never suspected that he would become embroiled in one of the most high-profile, contentious legal battles to hit the art world. In 1990, his museum was set to open “The Perfect Moment,” a traveling exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs that included a handful of homoerotic images. Cincinnati’s Sheriff and Police Chief sided with conservative groups, and tried to shut the show down. They also indicted Dennis on obscenity charges. Facing possible jail time and heavy fines, Dennis, supported by his staff and Board, held his ground.
“We did the right thing,” Dennis says. “It became a watershed case for the First Amendment, freedom of expression and keeping museums from being completely violated.”
The case became a watershed moment for his art museum career, too. Despite making the art world safer for all, he knew his director days were over, since “controversy” represents an unattractive line item on a CV in the museum milieu for fear of making funders apprehensive. Instead, he went on to a distinguished career as a freelance curatorial and design consultant.
Name any of the most exciting and cutting-edge popular culture museums in the country, and Dennis Barrie’s name is on it: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, where he served as the director who guided its construction and opening; the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC; Bethel Woods Center for the Arts (Woodstock concert museum) in Bethel, New York; the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles; the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood, Ohio, and most recently, the Mob Museum or National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, in Las Vegas.
Barrie Projects just designed “Spy: The Secret World of Espionage,” a traveling exhibit that opened in New York City in May. He is currently working with the Pro Football Hall of Fame on designs for another traveling exhibit, “Gridiron Glory: The History of Football,” that will open in Pittsburgh in October, and is a consultant for the National Museum of African-American Music planned for Nashville, Tennessee.
Whatever he designs, there’s always a rebel underneath that cool, collected, affable exterior. “Dennis is fearless about trying new things and bucking what people say you’re not supposed to do,” Kathy says. “But he doesn’t do it to create a fuss. He does it in a smart way with real purpose behind it.”
Everything he believes about museum design was evident in perhaps his favorite endeavor, the Rock Hall. “I loved the challenge of showing the importance of subject matter that a lot of people wanted to dismiss,” Dennis recalls. “I also have a great affection for this city, and that project was a game-changer for Cleveland.”