Hosting art and science salons since 1983, Spirit of the Senses is an educational oasis for curious Phoenicians.

Club Ed

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: Valley News Issue: September 2016
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A Very Incomplete History of the Salon

Ancient Greece: Athenians held symposia in their homes so artists, historians, politicians, philosophers and others of various social ranks could meet in an egalitarian setting.

17th- to 18th-century France and England: London’s coffeehouses and Paris’ salons (French for “reception room”) were frequented by Samuel Johnson, Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin and gave rise to the Enlightenment. 

Early 20th century: American expat Gertrude Stein hosted the likes of Picasso, Matisse and Hemingway in her Paris apartment, while Dorothy Parker and “The Vicious Circle” of wordsmiths convened in New York’s Algonquin Hotel.

Professor Ian Moulton sits, monarch-like, on a cushy chair next to a crown, a lion and a fox. “It’s late 16th-century London,” he tells his audience, “and you’ve come to see a play by Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta.” He reads a monologue from the ghostly character Machiavel: “There is no sin but ignorance.”

It’s an atmospheric opening for a talk on Machiavelli, and atmosphere is important at these salons. This Paradise Valley living room is a homey setting that fosters friendly discussion. And lest anyone take things too seriously, tonight’s hosts have topped the speaker’s table with a plush toy lion and fox, Machiavelli’s symbols for a strong and crafty prince.

This is Spirit of the Senses, an organization that hosts around 120 salons a year in homes across the Valley, plus trips to cultural and academic meccas in New York and California. “People have said it’s like NPR or PBS, with the ability to be there and ask questions,” says Patty Barnes, who directs the organization with her husband, Thomas Houlon.

There’s nothing exactly like it anywhere else in the U.S., the couple says. Cognoscenti like Arianna Huffington host salons, but unless your name is Warren Beatty, you’re not getting in. Meetup groups typically focus on one topic and rely on attendees’ conversational contributions. Spirit of the Senses is open to anyone who can pay $360 a year to attend five salons per month ($6 a session). Its 300 members hail from all points on the political, social and belief spectrum. Its events – helmed by eminent authors, artists and scientists – are an intellectual smorgasbord: How Physics Makes Us Free, Brunelleschi’s Dome, The 2016 Election, Plato’s Myth of Er, An Evening of Modern Jazz Guitar, and so on. 

The 33-year-old group was the brainchild of Houlon, a Phoenix native and one-time ASU art student. “I wanted to create a social situation where people could have meaningful conversations, and it would be fun,” he says. “I had this far-reaching vision that it would maybe make Phoenix a better place.”

At first, that vision seemed like a dot on the distant horizon. After Houlon put up fliers around ASU to promote the first salon, about dance, he “was convinced we were going to have a million people.” About five showed. 

A few years later, he met and married Barnes, a former New York gallery manager and ASU art major. “I was looking for an outlet in Phoenix,” Barnes says, “because I was of the mind that everything was in New York and nothing was out here.” When she and Houlon combined their interests and social circles, Spirit of the Senses snowballed. “That made me think, ‘Wow, I could live here,’” she says. “Phoenix is so dynamic.”

Houlon and Barnes run the organization full-time. They wake up at 5:30 a.m. and instantly start chasing curiosity, perhaps reading Plato to each other over breakfast, listening to podcasts and taking online classes. 

Their omnivorous interests and connections, built over decades, fuel the salons’ variety and cachet. The couple befriended Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, both of whom have spoken at salons. “Spirit of the Senses is one of the things that makes Phoenix unique,” Krauss says. “I don’t know of any other city in the world that has a comparable salon where you can listen, in an intimate setting, to people that you would never otherwise have access to. Every time [I’ve spoken] it’s been a wonderful experience: good questions, beautiful homes and wonderful hosts.”

On their New York trips, the group has visited Village haunts with artist Fritz Scholder, pondered string theory with Brian Greene at Columbia University, and enjoyed a kitchen tour and dinner from Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud. 

Barnes says the cross-pollination of ideas has led her to deeper questions about what it means to be human: “It’s opened up a new world and a realization of my own ignorance and smallness in a vast soup of interesting stuff. I don’t think you’re born with that. You need to build it in some way, because you don’t even know what you don’t know until you start looking.”