Sweatin’ to the oldies at Philly art museum

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The Philadelphia Museum of Art is designed as a place for quiet contemplation. Works by Titian, Eakins, Picasso, Duchamp have been carefully acquired and thoughtfully displayed in ways  museum curators hope will enlighten visitors about art, history, and what it means to be human.

That’s why it’s so weird to hear disco hits from 40 years ago echoing through the hallways.

The Museum Workout, by the New York-based Monica Bill Barnes & Company is a hybrid of performance art and aerobics class. It is presented as part of Philadelphia’s Fringe Festival.

On a recent day, a troupe of about 15 people dressed in running shoes and workout tights jogged through the galleries, stopping at about a dozen pieces of art to do squats and lunges.

But you’re not watching this; you are one of them. Participation in the Museum Workout is mandatory.

“You come in and hear the Bee Gees, you’re wearing running shoes and clothes you sweat in, and you feel totally inappropriate,” said Robbie Saenz de Viteri, artistic producing director of the dance company. “I think people laugh at the beginning a lot. Then something settles in.

“The novelty wears off, and I think it starts to feel like a different emotional experience of the museum.”

Monica Bill Barnes & Company started doing Museum Workouts at the Metropolitan in New York a couple years ago.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art took notice and invited them to adapt the workout to its galleries, seeing the Museum Workout’s tongue-in-cheek aerobics as a way to commune with art more physically than intellectually.

“People walk through museum galleries feeling a huge amount of judgment, that they are supposed to know something they don’t know, or intuit something they don’t understand,” said Emily Schreiner, curator of public programs. “What this piece shows is you can have a physical relationship with a work of art, or tap into it on a really personal level.”

The dance company worked with noted children’s book author Maira Kalman to map out particular pieces of art and a dizzying route to visit them all in a sweaty 45 minutes.

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