The Barnes Foundation: Grand Larceny, or Bitter Grudge Unwound?
In 2012, The City of Philadelphia began hosting art tourists at the Barnes Foundation at 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway in a modern museum facility.The interior of this latest addition to Philadelphia’s “Museum Mile” mimics the galleries that once graced Dr. Barnes’s former estate just outside of the City limits a few blocks from Route 1 (City Line Ave.). Albert Barnes (1872-1951) had powerful philosophical leadings, and he used his considerable pharmaceutical fortune to carry his passions through to fruition.
In his first big initiative as a collector, Barnes sent his University of Pennsylvania college friend, William Glackens to Europe in 1912 with $20K to select and purchase artworks for Barnes’ collection.Barnes made several buying trips himself, and was simultaneously acquiring African art, furniture, and wrought iron pieces through dealers.For 40 years, his collection evolved and grew to more than 4,000 pieces.
But others in the art world did not share Barnes’ passion for modernism in the early 20th Century. Eleven years after his buying spree in Europe, Barnes’ collection was ridiculed asa “Shrine For All the Craziest ‘Art” in the Philadelphia Inquirer following a public showing at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Critics panned the show, initiating a long-simmering feud between Barnes’ and what he identified as the privileged art establishment.
The Barnes Collection features 179 works by Renoir, and dozens by Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse.No longer are cubist and impressionist painters disparaged by art critics – Au contraire!The size, scope and diversity of the works in the Barnes Collection would be worth billions on the open market today.But the value of individual pieces are just a part of the story.The arrangement of the collection has been hailed as as much of a treasure as the individual pieces within it.
The art world began, in fact, to covet access to the Barnes Collection just a generation after the disparaged PAFA exhibit.After Barnes’ death in 1951, the Foundation was sued to allow the public in to view the art.By 1967, the original 1925 Foundation building on Latches Lane was open to the public for 3 days a week, and remained so until the 1990s.By 1993, the rout was on against Barnes’ indenture and the by-laws he established “in perpetuity” for oversight of the Foundation.A portion of the Collection entitled “The Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation” was temporarily removed from the collection and was put on display in seven international cities to great acclaim in the early 1990s.
Signs went up across Philadelphia’s Main Line “Save the Barnes” and “The Barnes Belongs in Lower Merion”, but relations with nearby neighbors had already soured after public parking and access to the Collection was expanded, and by the 1990’s, TV news stories were appearing regularly showing irate neighbors complaining about bus fumes and road congestion near their homes.
Featured in the documentary film “The Art of the Steal”, the Montgomery County Orphans’ Court approved expanding the Board of Trustees and moving the Barnes Collection galleries from it’s 1925 home in Lower Merion to Philadelphia near The Philadelphia Art Museum, the Rodin Museum, the Franklin Institute and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in 2004.Philadelphia won a huge victory by adding the esteemed collection along Museum Mile of the Parkway (and simultaneously demolishing the troubled Youth Study Center (1952), where juveniles had been adjudicated and incarcerated).
Barnes chartered his namesake Foundation in 1922 as an educational institution to help teach people how to appreciate and value art.He viewed education as a crucial component of a democratic society.Those “Grand Larceny” conspiracy theorists who are critical of the collection’s move to the Parkway say that what visitors mostly do now is gawk at the collection, and that the educational focus that Barnes intended has been lost or dissipated.Those who are supportive of the move argue that expanded access (Thursday through Monday, 11am-5pm) translates to increased education, even though visitors can choose to gawk or to learn by osmosis instead of engage in tours and courses by the Foundation’s staff.
Thousands more “visit” the Barnes for education virtually every year through their online lecture offerings. The Barnes educated 6,500 school children in 2022-23 through field trips, curriculum support, teacher training, and in their bi-lingual Puentes a las Artesafter school program for children ages 3 to 5.
Peter Evans PA Philadelphia Oct 22, 2023 Arts Museums People
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Peter Evans Oct 22, 2023
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