Underneath the Manhattan Bridge in the Lower East Side, at 9 AM on a Monday, the Coleman Skatepark is empty, save for an older skater with a Yarn Bard-shaped board from The Program, reminiscent of a World Industries board circa 1989. After a few tricks, the skater points out that the park is framed by outstanding arches and a massive Egyptian Revival pylon wall in the Beaux-Arts tradition, while the bridge’s entrance columns are a miniaturized version of St. Peter's in the Vatican City. The lone figure is skater-turned-art history professor, Theodore “Ted” Barrow.
After more than a decade living in the neighborhood and working in tawdry bars, Barrow now splits his time equally on skating and bartending, but now lives on the Upper West Side and teaches art history at the City University of New York while working on his PhD. These days, he moonlights as a tour guide.
“It's the best job I've ever had: instantly gratifying, always exciting, and great to be around an audience that actually wants to hear what you have to say,” says Barrow.
Dressed in a dark indigo corduroy blazer paired with white Vans Sk8-His, Barrow leads groups for Big Onion Walking Tours through art and architecture walks around the city, from Greenwich Village to The Met Museum. He researches and authors the guides himself, and, pursuing his doctorate degree in the Gilded Age, tends to focus on the drama built out from artists from 1870-1915.
The Met can be a daunting experience with so much art to see. Yet with Barrow taking the lead, there is a brisk and directed flow, starting with the design of the museum itself. Sure he expounds on what feels like ancient history, but Barrow exudes a measured confidence and pleasure. His half-smile reels you into obscure facts but you actually relish in the information. He moves through the museum spaces in a relevant way and explains why art is hung where it is. You begin to understand the monolithic institution as an amalgamation of quirky collectors, impassioned artists, and status-hungry socialites: their coupling, their envy, and their demise. It all becomes cinematically complex.
Big Onion was founded in 1991 by Seth Kamil, himself a graduate student at Columbia University who was looking to make ends meet. Kamil has made the commitment to only hire graduate students, like Barrow, who can make serious academic ideas accessible to a larger public. While tours and tones differ, the graduate student guides blend in their varied specialties into their tours, like trecento Sienese altarpieces, images of female labor in the Second World War, or Barrow’s obsession with the American masters. Kamil says he hopes his tour guides are able to “teach levels of empathy, tolerance, and diversity,” with their art tours, by reflecting on and linking to historical movements of the past.
Born to an artist father. Barrow is accustomed to the personalities surrounding him. He says, being raised with “all of his [father’s] weird funky art friends were the adults that I must have subconsciously emulated, and studying art history seemed like a good way to dovetail my literary, historical, and aesthetic questions." These themes are present in the tours and lectures Barrow now gives. He’s able to contextualize an artist and historical movement through space and time and make them palatable and conversational. Barrow translates ideas of antiquities and neoclassical architecture into common language.
Take, for example, the story of Audrey Munson, a real life "it" girl and model in the New York artist community around 1906. Her likeness was recreated in 15 statues around New York City, including a panel at the entrance of the Manhattan Bridge. Barrow calls attention to the statue’s legendary naked figure, which is now considered historical, transfixing his identity as equal parts skater and academic. Kamil says it’s this ability to pull from different cultural contexts that makes Barrow a great lecturer.
Perhaps Barrow’s greatest skill is taking his street knowledge he’s honed skateboarding through the boroughs of New York and repurposing the paths as well-trafficked art tours and vice verse. His tours, like his lectures, are easy to follow, quirky, and informative. He makes audiences forget that they're learning.
“Having been a skateboarder for three decades, everything helps to put the development of art in some sort of perspective, he says. “Like, does it really matter that Rodney Mullen invented the 360 flip if Jason Lee legitimized it? Does it change the way I do 360 flips? Not much. But perhaps being part of something that has changed rapidly has helped me to teach 2,000 years or art history to college students.”
To learn more about Barrow's Big Onion Walking Tours, click here.