Pop Goes the Museum

Cast out of the art world, Dennis Barrie reinvented himself as a museum-making pop-culture historian at the Rock Hall and Washington's Spy Museum. Now, he's bringing the secret history of Las Vegas, and America, back to life inside Sin City's new Mob Muse

In 1949, Moe Dalitz, bootlegger boss of the Cleveland Syndicate, admiral of Lake Erie's rum-running "Jewish navy," moved to Las Vegas to go semi-legit. He bought a stake in the Desert Inn, where he built the Vegas Strip's first entertainment lounge, and invested in the Stardust and other casinos. Dalitz, who once reportedly threatened boxing champ Sonny Liston with death, also became one of modern Las Vegas' founding fathers, building a hospital, the convention center and much of the local university. One of his obituaries called him "Las Vegas' most distinguished citizen."

Sixty-three years after Dalitz's big move, another new Vegas joint is opening, and again, a Clevelander has a nice piece of the action.

Dennis Barrie, the guy who made a museum out of music at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and who initiated visitors into the secrets of Cold War espionage at Washington, D.C.'s International Spy Museum, has just opened a new safe house for Dalitz and his associates. He's creative director of Vegas' new Mob Museum — the colorful alias of the respectable-sounding National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement.

Like Dalitz, Barrie had to reinvent himself under pressure from various authorities. He was once an art museum director, and his white beard, brushed-back hair and refined voice tone still give him a sophisticated affect, like an American actor playing an English king. But a shattering experience estranged him from the art world.

Barrie has a unique place in modern American history: He's the only museum director ever charged with obscenity for his museum's content. In 1990, he was put on trial in Cincinnati for showing explicit works by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Though he beat the smut-peddling rap, the cops and the DA gave him a black eye: He lost his job.

"It ended one career and started another," he says.

Now, Barrie has had two decades to perfect his new M.O. When the art world cast him out, pop culture took him in. Barrie tackles catchy subjects not enshrined in museums before — rock stars, spies, mobsters — that are all outsiders in some way. Give him a controversial subject, and he'll show you how the apparent outsider is deeply important to American culture.

Barrie does that while immersing visitors in a multimedia experience: sound, touchscreens, film and videos, all in service of a story. Rooms aren't bare collections of display cases; they evoke a mood.

"You've got to get people into a mindset," he says, "that they're in a different world, a different setting, [with] different attitudes."

Visit the Mob Museum, and you'll feel like you're under arrest. You'll be hustled from an old courthouse lobby into a ratty elevator that leads to a 1950s police station. You'll be paraded past the vintage mug shots on the walls and into a police lineup. Then you'll be herded into a small room, where a film will tell you what to expect on the inside: wise guys and dames from Little Italy and their pals from the Jewish neighborhoods and the Irish side of town.

Flashy colors and gloriously tacky designs will welcome you to the museum's section on Vegas casinos' mob ties. The "We Only Kill Each Other" section has corrugated walls, like a warehouse where a gangster's going to bump you off. Over in the Prohibition era, you'll line up to watch a movie about the bootleg wars, projected against the most prized artifact in the museum's collection: the brick wall from the garage where seven men, most of them members of Bugs Moran's Chicago gang, were executed in the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre. The wall, reassembled brick by brick, is pock-marked with bullet holes.

"It's like our Mona Lisa," Barrie says.

Barrie, now 64, grew up in Cleveland's Mount Pleasant neighborhood. His family's frequent visits to the Cleveland Museum of Art and trips to Washington, D.C., instilled a love of art and history. After graduating from Oberlin College, Barrie headed to Detroit, where he became the Midwest director of the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art and earned a doctorate in American cultural history at Wayne State University. He developed an eye for contemporary art and began giving museum curators tips about new artists. When his Smithsonian job turned routine, he parlayed his new passion into a job: director of Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center, which had a long history of exhibiting cutting-edge art.

Barrie pushed it further, mounting photography and architecture exhibits at a time when interest in both was on the rise. Chosen to pick a sculpture for the gateway of the city's Sawyer Point Park, Barrie provoked the town by picking Andrew Leicester's Porkopolis, which celebrates Cincinnati's history as a hog-butchering river port with four towering steamboat stacks topped by winged pigs.

Then, in 1990, Barrie brought Robert Mapplethorpe's photography to town. Mapplethorpe was known for his moody celebrity portraits, still lifes and nude studies, but also his "X Portfolio," an explicit documentary series depicting sadomasochistic gay sex acts.

Barrie, moved by a show of Mapplethorpe's photos at the Whitney Museum in New York, booked another exhibition, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment. Soon after, U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms denounced the federally funded traveling exhibit, which included several photographs from the "X Portfolio."

"We knew we had a real fight on our hands," Barrie recalls. "I told the board, •I'm not going to bow out. You can fire me if you like, but I'm not doing it.' "

The curves of the calla lily's petals, the two tulips reaching toward each other — the flower studies were Mapplethorpe's sexiest photographs, Barrie thought. His favorite photos were the nude figure studies, especially a series that showed a male model, his arms crossed over his knees, on a pedestal in a classical pose. As for the photos that provoked Cincinnatians to send 600 letters and petitions to the prosecutor, no way would Barrie exclude them from the show. The nude boy, perched atop an upholstered chair, and the girl, sitting half-exposed on a stone bench — Barrie saw innocence in those photos and knew the children's parents had given permission to shoot them. He thought some of the "X Portfolio" was a bit much but felt it artistically explored a dark subject.

On Friday, April 6, 1990, about 4,000 people, a who's who of Cincinnati, jammed into the arts center's second-floor gallery for a member preview of the show. Buoyed by the support, Barrie headed to work the next day to open it to the general public. Another 1,000 people came. Then a reporter called: The police were on the way.

The vice squad walked in and told Barrie he and the museum had been indicted on charges of pandering obscenity and illegal use of a child in nudity-related material. They ordered the museum closed so they could videotape all 175 photos as evidence.

"I was devastated," Barrie says. "Our museum had been violated. It [looked] like stormtrooper time, like something out of Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union, or some cheap dictator somewhere." He felt art and museums had a mission to spark discussion of difficult issues. "I really thought, If they can do this, where do they stop?"

Crowd noise built in the atrium and stairwell: Museumgoers were roiling with anger, perhaps on the verge of violence at the police's show of force. Barrie calmed the crowd. "I said, •We're closed for a while, but we'll reopen. We're going to remain open.' "

A federal judge ordered local authorities not to close the museum or seize its photos. The show stayed open for the rest of its six-week run, attracting 81,000 people, including cook and author Julia Child and political commentator William F. Buckley. Child loved it, the conservative Buckley less so.

"Magnificent show," Barrie recalls Buckley telling him, "but you should go to jail for 13 of the images."

"Mr. Buckley, I'm only indicted for seven!" Barrie replied.

Barrie traveled the country as his trial neared, speaking about First Amendment rights and raising money for a legal defense. He faced up to a year in jail. In October 1990, he took the stand in court and described the artistry he saw in Mapplethorpe's work, even the S&M photos.

"The intention was to take a tough, brutal, maybe disgusting subject and bring beauty to it," he told the jury.

"I think they saw that I wasn't some wild-eyed radical, that I had a family, I had little kids," he says now.

The jury found Barrie not guilty. Congratulatory calls and faxes came in from around the country. But the price of First Amendment heroism had already become steeper than Barrie anticipated.

The Mapplethorpe battle had made him one of the most hated men in Cincinnati. People had called his house and threatened to kill his two sons. His wife, Dianne, had supported his legal fight, but the months of tension had strained their marriage.

"We were not happy," Barrie recalls. "We had fights. We had challenges. She was very supportive all the way. [But] it was very hard on both of us." They soon separated and divorced.

In 1992, Barrie resigned from the arts center. Some news reports blamed budget disagreements with the board of directors; others suggested the free-spirited Barrie had trouble meeting fundraising deadlines. But Barrie now says members of the board asked him to leave because they were weary from the Mapplethorpe battle.

"I don't think anybody wanted to be the focus of national attention," he says. "People just wanted to go back to life as they know it."

He couldn't find a new art museum job. "Even with the victory, once it had become such a national controversy — especially in the art world — nobody wanted to touch me." During his legal battle, he'd felt stung by museum directors who'd declined to sign letters supporting him. Some felt Mapplethorpe wasn't worth fighting for.

"The art world is often so petty," Barrie says. The experience left him seeing the art world as too elite and rarefied.

With his career stalled, Barrie met a Scottish artist painting a dozen images of Elvis Presley. "Elvis is the most important American of the 20th century," the Scotsman explained. Inspired, Barrie organized an exhibition of Elvis art for Presley's estate.

A reporter asked if he'd ever direct a museum again. An idea popped into Barrie's head. For years, he'd been excited about an unfinished project in his hometown. "Only if it happened to be the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!" he said.

A week later, a Rock Hall recruiter called him.

The Mapplethorpe fight impressed the record company executives on the Rock Hall's board. Many had gone through their own censorship battles in the '80s and early '90s. They needed a director with museum experience to convince people that the hall of fame would be more than an enormous Hard Rock Cafe. A few months after the Rock Hall's 1993 groundbreaking, Barrie got the job.

Barrie walked into Berea Moving and Storage for his first look at the Rock Hall's collection. I.M. Pei's design was taking shape at North Coast Harbor, and it was Barrie's job to decide how to fill the tall glass pyramid.

He'd read that the Rock Hall had collected 60,000 objects. But now, Barrie and a Rock Hall employee were standing before a storage space smaller than a two-car garage.

"We opened the door, and there was a keyboard, a multi-headed microphone that I think belonged to the Temptations, and five or six cardboard boxes," Barrie recalls. "I said, •Where's the collection?' And he said, •It's here.' "

Inside, Barrie found some of the Temptations' blue suits, newspaper and magazine clippings, and piles of CDs. That was it. The Rock Hall had been building its building, not its collection.

"I just thought, We are so screwed," Barrie recalls.

Barrie quickly recruited a curatorial team who knew rock •n' roll, mostly music journalists. Jim Henke, former music editor at Rolling Stone, became chief curator. Dividing the country by region and genre, they set out to convince musicians, their families and collectors to donate or lend their guitars, handwritten lyrics, outfits and posters. Barrie and the curators led musicians on hard-hat tours of the unfinished Rock Hall. Soon, key objects fell into place. Yoko Ono donated a bunch of John Lennon memorabilia. Jim Morrison's mother offered his childhood report cards.

Barrie rejected an early plan that relied on a row of display cases to tell rock's history. The Rock Hall couldn't be an encyclopedic institution, he decided. It had to be arranged by themes. He also made a move he's repeated at every museum he's worked at since.

"This is a subject that's all about hearing and seeing, and we have no hearing and seeing!" he remembers saying. He and Henke increased the number of films and videos from two or so to about 15.

When the Rock Hall opened on Sept. 1, 1995, it had 3,000 artifacts. Only recently has a renovation revised the template that Barrie's team created in 1995, the mix of displays and films commemorating rock genres from psychedelia to punk to grunge.

"[Barrie] was able to convert and translate his ideas and feeling for rock into exhibits," says Milt Maltz, who owned local rock station WMMS in its '70s heyday and was involved with the Rock Hall's founding. "He understood how to create a physical exhibition from an idea, from music."

Mystery Train, the first film in the Rock Hall's lower level, reflects Barrie's ambitions. It starts slowly, with the enigmatic image of a man's foot stepping off a train, evoking a lonely America before rock •n' roll. Then it shows how American society's outsiders — freight-hopping, train-song-crooning folk singers, bluesmen who fled Southern segregation for Northern opportunity — inspired the nation's most popular music. It chugs toward its destination, rock's birth, with '40s R&B star Louis Jordan blowing his sax.

"We knew we had to convey the earlier roots of rock •n' roll rather immediately," Barrie says, "so somebody didn't think rock just started one day with Elvis Presley or with the Beatles." Film was the best way, he says. "You can tell so much in a very short time."

Barrie didn't stay at the Rock Hall for long after it opened. He didn't get along with some members of the museum's board, including Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner. He thought they were micromanaging; they questioned how he'd spent money. In October 2005, the board installed a businessman, former Stouffer Hotel Co. chief executive William Hulett, as Rock Hall CEO, diminishing Barrie's authority. In January 2006, Barrie was asked to leave.

Maltz thought Barrie had gotten a raw deal. He hired him to work on a new project, something that had never been done in the museum world before.

Dennis and Kathy Barrie don't really have a how-we-met story. Instead, they tell the tale of standing by their fax machines as he sent her a top-secret proposal for a new museum.

They'd been friends for years, since they served together on a committee that awarded Ohio Arts Council grants. She was the founder and director of Cleveland's nonprofit Committee for Public Art, and Dennis was on her board of directors. But he wanted to hire her as project manager for the museum he was building with Milt Maltz. He didn't want anyone to see the idea but her.

The fax crept from her machine. "International Spy Museum," it read.

The intrigue captivated her. She called him. "Yes!" she said.

During the long nights working on the Spy Museum, their professional relationship became something more. They married in 2001. Several CIA spies — consultants for the museum — attended their reception.

The Spy Museum was born of Maltz's experience declassifying intelligence documents in the Navy, which convinced him that the American public undervalued good spycraft. Maltz had no museum experience, so he hired Barrie to help him make the museum work as a business venture.

The question intrigued Barrie. Seeing the Contemporary Arts Center lose funding because of the Mapplethorpe exhibit had helped convince him that museums needed to pursue financial independence.

"I hate structures where you're at the whim of an individual, or a government body, or public opinion," he says. "So as much independence as you can create through sound business practices, the better off you are."

So when Barrie and Maltz adapted a building on Washington's F Street into the Spy Museum, they set aside room for rentable meeting spaces, a high-priced restaurant, a huge store to sell souvenirs and books about spies. And they charged a hefty admission fee: $11 when the museum opened in 2002, $19.95 today.

Even more than at the Rock Hall, the Spy Museum immerses visitors in a multimedia experience. Touchscreens ask visitors to memorize a false identity and repeat it later in the museum before the skeptical eyes of a computerized border guard. In Barrie's favorite part of the museum, the recreated office of Soviet spy chief Felix Dzerzhinsky, ominous Russian choral music plays, evoking the terrors wrought by the KGB. A room about the Soviet Union's efforts to build an atomic bomb tells the story with photos, illuminated one by one behind translucent walls, until the room is enveloped in an overwhelming white flash and red glow, imitating a nuclear explosion.

"These days, museums contend with every other form of entertainment and learning," Barrie says. "Because attention spans are short, because people don't read enough, you've got to learn how you present something in multiple ways."

Many thought a Washington museum that charged admission could never compete with the Smithsonian's free museums or that a profit-driven business wouldn't take museums' cultural mission seriously. But the Spy Museum opened in 2002 to huge crowds, and it's still popular 10 years later. Six million people have visited it. Lines can stretch out its doors during the summer tourist season. It still turns a healthy 20 percent profit, Barrie says. (The museum doesn't release financial information.)

The Barries and Maltz worked together on one more project, the Maltz Museum of Jewish History in Beachwood, which opened in 2005. The Barries' curatorial team assembled its collection and displays about Jewish immigrants' experience in Cleveland and the community they founded here — and, by extension, the experience of all of the city's immigrants in that era. The rooms' layout, full of diagonal walls and pathways, and the variety of its collection — from photographs to reproductions of ethnic newspapers to memorabilia from downtown's theaters — creates frequent surprises and gives visitors a sense of history as discovery.

It was Malrite's last museum. So the Barries left to found their own consulting firm, and Dennis became cultural planning director for Cleveland architectural firm Westlake Reed Leskosky. He works on museum projects around the country from its Euclid Avenue office.

It didn't take long for the Barries to find their next big project.

In Las Vegas, mayor and former mob lawyer Oscar Goodman was thinking about how to revive the city's downtown.

"What makes us special as a city?" he recalls asking. "And the mob idea came to my mind."

After a career defending such notorious Vegas figures as Meyer Lansky, "the mob's accountant," Goodman knew Vegas is the only city that considers gangsters its founding citizens. He announced that the city would buy the old federal courthouse for $1 and renovate it as a museum dedicated to organized crime. Critics howled that the museum would glorify criminals, but Goodman didn't care. He just needed partners unafraid of controversy.

Goodman visited the Spy Museum and was impressed that it had sparked redevelopment of Washington's once-scary Penn Quarter. Word got to Barrie: Goodman wanted to hire him and his wife.

But their first meeting didn't go well.

"I didn't like Dennis," Goodman says in the deep, booming voice that launched a thousand criminal defenses. "It was not one of those love-at-first-sight relationships. I made my feelings known. I was cold, aloof, distant."

Goodman, now a tourism ambassador for Las Vegas, can't say why — either that, or he's too polite. He just says he got used to judging people on first impressions while picking juries, and he and Barrie didn't click.

"While pondering the decision, I was watching a ballgame upon which I had a very substantial bet," Goodman says. During halftime, he flicked through channels and came across the Showtime movie Dirty Pictures, a dramatization of the Mapplethorpe trial starring James Woods as Barrie.

So Goodman called the real Barrie. "Boy, did I make a mistake in judgment," Goodman remembers telling him. "You're my man."

The Mapplethorpe drama convinced Goodman that Barrie had the two qualities the Mob Museum needed.

"He's an artist," Goodman says, "and he's fearless."

Once, Dennis Barrie thought he'd spend his career in the art world. If not for the Mapplethorpe exhibit, he says, "I'd be in a midsized city as director of an art museum."

Now, Barrie's favorite object in his latest museum project is a barber chair in which, in 1957, hit man Albert Anastasia died as he'd lived, shot five times. The chair, formerly owned by comedian Henny Youngman, is displayed in the Mob Museum next to a crime-scene photo of Anastasia's bloody corpse. "It's kind of an amazing moment," Barrie says.

The Mob Museum (which was scheduled to open Feb. 14 as we went to press) is about more than gore and fun, of course. Dennis and Kathy Barrie's historical research and big-picture themes are key to the Mob Museum's ambitions for respectability. Their film crew interviewed more than 40 former mobsters, mobsters' relatives and law-enforcement agents. The interviews play inside the museum. So do recordings of actual FBI wiretaps and a grainy video of a Mafia initiation ceremony.

But this is a Vegas joint, and the Barries aren't above kitschy, flashy flair. The museum has also purchased the late New York mob boss John Gotti's 1972 Jaguar XKE from Gotti's widow, Victoria, and may use it in a promotional kiosk on downtown Vegas' Fremont Street.

It's hard to imagine Barrie running an art museum now. A life without rock stars, spies and gangsters? Too dry. Too rarefied. Too few opportunities to challenge the audience and the old, staid ways museums used to work.

"When I look back at the fact that he was an art museum director, in a certain way, that was rather limiting," Kathy Barrie says. Even when she and Dennis met, in the '80s, "He was always thinking of new ways of doing things," she says — "more interesting, more accessible."

Many of the Mob Museum's exhibits help make Barrie's point that mobsters weren't complete outlaws; their influence affected presidents, unions, the CIA and Americans' lives.

One exhibit, "A Seat at the Table," invites visitors to discover their home city's mob ties. Inspired by the meetings mobsters frequently held at restaurants such as Cleveland's Theatrical Grill, the exhibit looks like a mock dining table, but the dinner plates are actually touchscreens. Clevelanders can look into them and see Moe Dalitz and his associates; Cleveland Browns founder Mickey McBride, grilled by the Senate Organized Crime Committee about his ties to a horse-race wire service; Angelo Lonardo, the Mayfield Road mob boss turned star federal informant; and Jewish gangster Shondor Birns and his equally explosive partner-turned-nemesis, Danny Greene.

In a recording booth named "Your Connection," visitors are invited to record a video about their brush with organized crime.

"You'll be surprised," Barrie says. He's discovered that almost everyone has a mob story. Even his own dad, a "really straight guy" who had an office job with Midland Steel, had a few friends who got him a good off-the-truck deal — maybe a TV once, Barrie thinks.

In those days, the mob was sewn into the social fabric of Cleveland, he says. Everyone knew where the mobsters lived. "So people had ties," Barrie says.

"I never had a tie," he adds, for once uncomfortable with the line of questioning. "I didn't run numbers for anybody.

"But now," he says, "I know hit men and Victoria Gotti." His voice perks up. He sounds entertained by the turn in his life, even a little bit proud.

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