We Tried It: The Museum Workout With Monica Bill Barnes

January 17, 2017

I was doing jumping jacks in front of a sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this morning when a security guard’s face caught my eye. He was grinning from cheek to cheek. And his smile reminded me, Oh right, this isn’t normal.

Instead, it was Monica Bill Barnes‘ latest experiment: The Museum Workout.

For the next four weeks, Barnes and her longtime performing partner Anna Bass will lead small groups of visitors on a 45-minute, two-mile journey through the museum in the hours before it opens to the public. A score of disco and Motown hits plays out of a speaker strapped to the back of Barnes’ creative producing director, Robert Saenz de Viteri. Barnes and Bass wear their signature sequined dresses and sneakers; the rest of us wear our finest athleisure outfits.

The two dancers greeted us on the grand steps just off The Great Hall. After a short introduction (and, of course, a warning not to touch the art), de Viteri hit play, and the sounds of the Bee Gees filled the atrium.

We followed Bass and Barnes as they jogged, marched and power walked through galleries until reaching, for example, John Singer Sargent’s “Portrait of Madame X,” which we’d face for a minute while doing something like squats. There was no commentary or time to read any explanation about the works. But it felt oddly reverential, like we were doing some ritual movement to honor the art gods.

No, it wasn’t exactly bootcamp. But my calves did feel the burn, and my overpriced moisture-wicking garb came in handy as I quickly started sweating. There were no movements that all ages in the group couldn’t handle, though. We were basically doing a better-choreographed version of your mom’s low-impact aerobics class. While surrounded by fine art.

But why were we working up a sweat in a museum, of all places?

Clips of recorded conversations with illustrator Maira Kalman, who curated the route and chose each piece we visited, offered some insight. She explained that when we work out in nature, rather than trying to understand everything we see, we just observe. The implication was that there might be a benefit in taking that same approach to art. She also spoke about how much she personally hated having to talk to people at museums, how you were expected to comment on the work—something we didn’t have to do while jogging.

The workout ended with us all lying down on the floor of the American Wing. (Meanwhile, outside the large windows, cyclists and runners were doing their workouts in Central Park.) Looking up from the floor, I saw Harriet Whitney Frishmuth’s “The Vine.” And for the first time, I noticed just how beautiful it was: The line of her cambré arches back gloriously; her outstretched fingers would even make Balanchine proud. I don’t know anything about this work or the artist’s intention, but I couldn’t help getting swept up in its dancer-like beauty.

Who knows if I would have noticed the same thing had I not just been following along with two dancers for the past 45 minutes. But I realized that I loved being in a museum without having to stand around so much, the way you usually do. Being able to really move through it felt, if not exactly natural, at least more comfortable.

Not that I plan on doing squats in front of my favorite paintings during my next visit. But I might be tempted to walk around a bit more. And maybe sneak in just a couple jumping jacks before the security guards catch me.