After years of controversy and legal battles, the Philadelphia-based Barnes Collection has moved. Its initiator, pharmaceuticals mogul Albert C. Barnes, who died in 1951, clearly stipulated in his will that none of the work should leave its salon-style installation in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania. Barnes left behind one of the most significant late 19th and early 20th century art collections in the world; by 2004, the Foundation reported severe financial and maintenance problems and planned its move to the new building in downtown Philadelphia, next to the Rodin Museum. A judge ordered that the arrangement be replicated in the new building, and, according to Justin Davidson and Jerry Saltz, the new museum actually allows visitors to see the work, which was difficult in the dark and crowded old house. “Owners are temporary caretakers,” Jerry Saltz points out. So if we’re much better able to view a few thousand artworks, including 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, and 44 Picassos, and it’s still hung the same, then why worry about the demands of a dead rich guy?
The move was the subject of 2009 documentary “Art of the Steal,” which paints this as a decades-long plot by local politicians to create a tourist attraction for downtown Philadelphia. According to the film, the Foundation’s imminent bankruptcy was exaggerated in order to facilitate the move. Barnes, a man of blue-collar roots, had hoped to keep the now $25 billion collection out of enterprising hands.
Barnes was also an early collector and advocate of black artists. When he died, he left the Foundation in the stewardship of Lincoln University, a historically black college, giving it the right to nominate four out of five members of the board. At the time of the move, the Barnes Foundation expanded the board from five to fifteen members, effectively curbing the university’s control of the board; the Pew Charitable Trusts, The Annenberg Foundation, and Lenfest Foundations all raised the $200 million for the move. According to the Friends of the Barnes Foundation website, Lincoln University agreed to drop all opposition to the move in 2003, three days before holding a board meeting in which they discussed the receipt of $80 million in new taxpayer funds.
What was so loved about the old location, wrote Nicolai Ouroussoff for the New York Times, was a connection between collector, art, and viewer which was deeply personal—”like poking around in someone’s bedroom.” Like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the Barnes was one of the few remaining alternatives to conventional museums. That wasn’t accidental; as Ouroussoff writes, “What the museums all had…was an eagerness to challenge convention. Albert C. Barnes and J. Paul Getty saw themselves as cultural outsiders. Both saw their museums as ways to thumb their noses at cultural insiders…”
As Tyler Green pointed out a few months ago, there was a Matisse mural in the original house which was considered site-specific. By moving it, he argued, the Barnes Foundation was destroying many of its innate characteristics, like its relationship to the view out the window and the proportions of the archways on which it was painted. But this raises a daunting question: what would every single one of the artists in the Barnes collection—including Native Americans, African artists, and folk artists—have wanted? Somebody probably wants this Fang “Reliquary Guardian Head” back, too.
Plus, it’s not as though Barnes acquired all of this stuff with the wishes of former collectors in mind. Similar to MoMA’s pipeline from Europe during WWII, Barnes accrued most of the collection during the Great Depression. Writing for Philanthropy Magazine, James Panero of the New Criterion quotes him: “Particularly during the Depression, my specialty was robbing the suckers who had invested all their of money in flimsy securities and then had to sell their priceless paintings to keep a roof over their heads.” If the Barnes Foundation’s bankruptcy plea was true, and Panero makes a convincing case for it, then there’s a poetic justice to those words.
Aside from the impact of the move on Lower Merion and Lincoln University, the argument that we should uphold Barnes’s wishes in perpetuity, simply because he had the legal rights to these objects at the time of his death, is stupid. While Panero argues that failing to uphold Barnes’s wishes could “discourage future donors from believing that their intent will be honored,” collectors should know that circumstances will fast outstrip any plans for the future. Decisions will inevitably be made, and each generation will have to ensure that the work is handled responsibly for a little while. Nobody should expect to make personal, preferential demands of a future world; if they succeed, that only makes us a bunch of suckers.