A week ago we had a family gathering in Philadelphia to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of my oldest grandchild. As you can imagine it was a very busy few days and there were times that we were neither needed nor wanted around. So we decided to profit from this unusual freedom of time in Philadelphia and went to visit the Barnes Collection. My wife had not been there since she was a graduate student and I believe my last visit was when I went as a lad with my parents. Our son and his wife joined us for what may be a last chance to see the Barnes in situ.
The issue of moving the Barnes Collection from its suburban location to a new museum building in the center of Philadelphia where it would be more accessible has inspired heated controversy and even a recent sensationalist movie ”The Art of the Steal”.
Dr. Albert C. Barnes was the co-developer of an early antimicrobial drug called Argyrol. It made him an incredible fortune and with a healthy portion of that money he started collecting art.
He built a phenomenal collection of predominantly late 19th and early 20th century French art as well as a bit of everything else. Decorative arts of several countries. American paintings, African sculpture, even some Native American pots and Navajo silver and textiles. There are some Old Masters, as well but those are not worth a visit on their own.
As a setting for his collection Dr. Barnes and his wife bought a twelve-acre arboretum on which to build and house his collection. At first, the floor to ceiling installation of pictures and artifacts looks haphazard but it was Dr. Barnes’s own hang with the concept of being able to discuss and compare the art of different periods and cultures.
He strongly believed in art education and The Barnes Foundation was established in 1922 as an educational entity to study horticulture and art which it continues to do today.
The main reason for visiting the Barnes is to see the fabulous collection of Cezanne, Matisse, Renoir and Picasso. I do not remember seeing so many in any one space except for a monographic exhibition. Most importantly, the quality of much of it is absolutely tops.
Dr. Barnes was very interested in the plight of the working classes and most especially the “negro people”. He wished to empower the “Negroes” by putting them in charge of his foundation and he appointed the majority of his Board of Directors from Lincoln University, a Black college in the outskirts of Philadelphia.
Dr. Barnes wanted his collection open to the workers and not to the art establishment. In the past, if you worked for a museum it was best not to disclose the fact when trying to book a reservation. His theories of arts education were also unusual and soon he ran afoul of the establishment in Philadelphia and forbid any of the trustees from the major local Universities or Museums from joining the Barnes’s Board.
For many years the people of Lower Merion complained about traffic, the cars parked illegally on their residential streets, and the invasion of the public in their quiet corner of the world. When the Barnes began to have financial difficulties a loan tour of part of the collection was organized. Although it was hugely successful (it attracted 1.5 million visitors at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris) the funds raised were deemed insufficient.
Discussions began of the possibility of moving the Barnes to Philadelphia proper, to a new building near the Philadelphia Art Museum. Of course, at that point the people of Lower Merion began to object and a fight began over the legality of changing Dr. Barnes’ will. After a protracted court case it was decided that the Barnes could be moved. The new downtown building should be ready for occupancy in 2012.
I see both points of view and am very glad not to have had to make that decision. But no matter how hard the new stewards of the Barnes try to adhere to the original installation, as they have promised, it will certainly not be the same. As my wife pointed out, one cannot hang a major Van Gogh tight into the corner of a gallery because of the number of people who will try to squeeze in to see it.
In any case, seeing this idiosyncratic collection amid the crowds who will be driven by curiosity to flood the new downtown museum will surely evoke nostalgia in those who made the pilgrimage to the secluded esthetic sanctum of an inspired collector.