New Barnes Building Opens, Why People are Upset

by Whitney Kimball on May 16, 2012 · 11 comments Opinion

Old Barnes Foundation, with partial view of Matisse's "The Dance II," 1932. Photo courtesy of artnet.

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 MagazineJames 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.

  • http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/art Tessa

    This is something that I’m sure artists will be debating for years.  There are valid arguments on both sides but it is ultimately it is up to the next generation to preserve the history and legacy of the artwork. 

  • Jerrysaltz

    As you wrote, Nobody should expect to make personal, preferential demands of a future world; if they succeed, that only makes us a bunch of suckers.”Well put.And true.Art first; all else will follow.
    PS. Once Barnes got what he wanted from an artist he dropped them like a hot-tamale.After Barnes got Matisse to make the mural – basta.Barnes NEVER allowed Lipshutz to even SEE the bas-reliefs he made for the outside of the old Barnes!Matisse’s ‘Joy of Life’ used to hang in a dingy stairwell with NO LIGHT.If a viewer even asked the WRONG QUESTION to one of the docents, they were FORCED TO LEAVE!Art-police and purists who argue for the strictures of owners are often not arguing for ART.Let my people go! (My ”people” being art, not my fellow Jews.)Way to go.Jerry Saltz
     

    • whitney_kimball

      Thanks! Frankly, Barnes was a dick. There. I said it. We can all come out from under the floorboards now.

    • http://www.facebook.com/eyaari Evelyn Yaari

      Jerry, let’s ask whether there is any additional benefit  – beyond seeing art - to  going ever so slightly out of the way to visit a nearby serene place that resonates with a rich history, where the artists who created some of our most beloved artworks spent time. Barnes IS being portrayed as a dick in numerous articles, as if to say, “See?  He deserved to be raped!” The man was big in his gererosity as he was in his collecting. What’s so wrong with simply asking that the collection remain in a perfectly assembled total installation? Isn’t that installation “art,” too? 

      And your examples of art-police are highly exaggerated. Anyone who wanted to come there, could. The obstructions to access weren’t because of the local township, but by the Barnes Board, which never filed an application seeking to expand access through a change in zoning.  The neighbors (you know, those “hostile” people) DID file the application which approved having at least 145,000 people a year plus tens of thousands of school students — all of whom would be able to see an authentic place instead of a re-creation.  But even after the zoning was changed, the Board made almost no changes to improve access.  And what about the money? They’ve sunk $150,000,000 into re-making something that was already effectively in Philadelphia, while schools, libraries are closed, school art programs are non-existent. Let’s not pretend that an annual visit to the “New” Barnes is a replacement for art education in school all year.  Sorry for the harangue, but the move is not the “way to go.” Needless, destructive, and a lot of deception to pull it off. The public has lost something extraordinary.

  • Hoffman

    It is a shame that non-ideal as it may have been in terms of lighting, the opportunity to see a collection in situ as arranged by the collector is lost. It is not just about one person’s dominance, it is about a snapshot of history and personal acquisition fading away.  If anyone has been to the Gardner – again, lighting is not ideal, but you get to see art being lived with instead of dropped in the sterile environs of a white box.

    I also think it’s sad that once again the “awful collector” is at the bottom of the pile.  So often cast as the villain, cause of the decline of art thanks to commercialism, etc. etc.  Get over it.  Without collector money none of this art would be around to preserve, none of the museums in this country would have collections, there would be nothing for critics to write about, and who would read this blog.  Oh, and the next time you are sipping champagne and schmoozing at some high priced art event, don’t forget to pick up your “ethics” with the coat you checked at the door.

  • Hoffman

    It is a shame that non-ideal as it may have been in terms of lighting, the opportunity to see a collection in situ as arranged by the collector is lost. It is not just about one person’s dominance, it is about a snapshot of history and personal acquisition fading away.  If anyone has been to the Gardner – again, lighting is not ideal, but you get to see art being lived with instead of dropped in the sterile environs of a white box.

    I also think it’s sad that once again the “awful collector” is at the bottom of the pile.  So often cast as the villain, cause of the decline of art thanks to commercialism, etc. etc.  Get over it.  Without collector money none of this art would be around to preserve, none of the museums in this country would have collections, there would be nothing for critics to write about, and who would read this blog.  Oh, and the next time you are sipping champagne and schmoozing at some high priced art event, don’t forget to pick up your “ethics” with the coat you checked at the door.

    • Will Brand

      I’m not really sure what that second paragraph is in response to. Does the piece villainize him? Does the piece label him the cause of art’s decline? Does the piece ever call him “awful”, or anything close? Whoever you’re writing at, I don’t think it’s us.

      All we’re saying is that the guy probably wasn’t so awesome that we need to listen to him 60 years after his death.

      Also, I’m not sure how you know to lump the new Barnes in as a “sterile” “white box”. After all, it doesn’t open until tomorrow.

    • whitney_kimball

      I’m pretty sure most great art would have been made with or without collector money. 

      Also not exactly sure how this puts a collector at the “bottom of the pile.” Aside from the comments here, all I did was use a direct quote and make a general statement about what people should expect to happen when they die. Nobody’s denying that artists and writers are indebted to collectors, but how far does this extend? Which collector gets precedence? Whoever dies with the most art wins?

      In exchange for preserving art, collectors have the option of making astronomical profits, they can keep the work in their homes, and their names live on in our institutions. I think that’s more than enough reward.

  • Dave Delcambre

    Barnes’s personal failings (and he had alot of them) aside, I still think there’s much to be said for preserving the pure individuality and quirkiness of his vision as Ouroussoff pointed out. It was a unique place created by a most unique individual with a unique agenda.  The place had soul and a highly unusual museum-going opportunity is what has been lost. I just think we need more of those.

    Simply recreating the Cret building’s interiors with modern amenities in a more favorable location on museum row seems lacking to me.  I’m sure the new museum will be widely visited, that Tsien/Williams have created a magnificent building and sure, the new elegant restaurant will be great.  More viewership is good, the work will be accessible to those who would have never ventured off the Parkway to see it otherwise and I’m sure the numbers won’t hurt the local tourism industry any.  But as an art viewing experience its akin to standing in line to see a replica when the real McCoy is just down the road and so much more interesting to ponder.

    The appeal of the Barnes Foundation was the sheer fact that you had to make this unique trek to see (and most importantly EXPERIENCE) art under circumstances which almost no other museum would dare replicate.  Most people would say that’s a good thing but still…  Yes, Barnes was a jerk in his domineering swagger and dictatorial means of controlling access but the prickly demands of his lifetime don’t seem as pertinent in a contemporary viewing experience some 60 years now after his death. It’s not like he’s gonna pop out of some corner now and toss you out of the building if you don’t agree with his point of view after the fact.  

    The financial mismanagement and wholesale purging of the endowment due to legal fees is the really sad part of this whole story.  The funds squandered in court battles in recent decades really seems to be what doomed any future chances for the original lower Merion location.  That’s the real tragedy…  I can’t help but wonder how Boston would react if the Gardner (lucky to already be in a much more favorable location for tourists) were to suddenly up and move?

    • whitney_kimball

      But that’s exactly what I’m saying: the argument that the Lower Merion space was a cultural artifact takes into account the living people who deserve to see this work. The idea that one collector should have the right to determine how we view thousands of works, long after his death, just because he said so, does not.

  • Dan

    The move is a shame. Wouldn’t it have been nice for the Barnes collection to remain intact, like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum? If it hadn’t been mismanaged/manipulated, maybe it could have been. That said, Barnes’ original rationale for keeping it locked down is very easy to poke full of holes in the 21st Century.

    Also, I’d really like to blow critics of the moves’ minds by explaining to them what goes on in a conservation lab. Suddenly moving art will seem benign.

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