Questioning the Barnes Legacy

July 8, 2012

I just finished watching the documentary, The Art of the Steal, made in 2009 to outline the controversy surrounding the Barnes Foundation and feel the need to comment. (I know, I know it came out ages ago, but I promise it’s still relevant) Rather than helping me decide my thoughts on the Foundation and its new central Philadelphia location, I feel irritated about the entire ordeal. For those of you not familiar with the Barnes Collection or the controversy to which I refer, let me offer a brief overview. Albert Barnes was an innovative post-Impressionist and early modern art collector in Philadelphia in the early 20th century. He amassed a rare collection, today valued around 25 to 30 billion dollars. It includes some of the most famous images by artists like Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso, Modigliani and Renoir. Until quite recently the entire collection has been housed in an estate built by Barnes in the Philadelphia suburbs.

The controversy originates really with Barnes himself, a rare collector of art who eschewed the moneyed art world embodied by large museums, corporations and other ultra rich collectors. Barnes’ will provided strict guidelines to protect his collection from the establishment of Philadelphia, keeping it outside the city limits and emphasizing the art’s educational value over its monetary value. However, the collection has been at the center of significant controversy for the last two and half decades as control has exchanged hands, finding itself at the center of significant financial problems. The ultimate solution, and one that has left many deeply unsatisfied (which is, I think, a huge understatement) is to move the entire collection from Merion, PA to a new facility just down the road from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Art of the Steal outlines much of the controversy, interviewing many of the characters central both to the Barnes’ preservation and to its move. It also delves into a seeming conspiracy, ostensibly at the hands of any unknown but wealthy elite, to force the eventual movement of the Barnes Collection. I chose to watch the documentary for a variety of reasons. I have lived in Philadelphia for nearly a decade myself and have been peripherally aware of the Barnes controversy for some time. I am familiar with the content of the collection and its value to modern art. I am also aware of how incredible it is to have something so colossally important so nearby. And yet, even as a professor of art history in Philadelphia, and with a great love for modern art, I have never been to the Barnes.

With the imminent opening of the new center city location (slated for September 2012) I felt the need to learn more. In the long run, I believe I agree with the movement of the Barnes Collection. I am generally in favor of efforts to make art more accessible. And the Barnes, for all the great art it holds, has been far from accessible in my experience. The museum has maintained limited visiting hours since the death of Albert Barnes, making it inconvenient at best to see the collection. This policy of limited hours has helped maintained mystery around the collection, but has also made it difficult for most, including myself. While I can easily find an afternoon to visit museums in central Philadelphia, making an appointment to drive well outside the city for an hour or two has not been at the top of my to-do list.

I will admit that muscling of the collection out of Merion seems not entirely above board. There is evidence that the same money used to move the collection could also have been used to preserve it in the original building. And yes it does feel  a little wrong to disregard stipulations of a man’s will. This art, for all its contemporary value, was the personal property of Albert Barnes. But Barnes’ ultimate wish was to share his art with those interested in learning. And this includes the tourists and the patrons of the PMA and anyone interested in educating themselves on modern art. So I am inclined to think the move is not as evil as it is presented in the documentary.

I imagine I will visit the new Barnes once it opens doors to the public. I want to see the collection and want others to have the same opportunity. I hate the idea of art closeted away for all eternity. I am mildly perplexed by the idea of powerful, wealthy groups manipulating the arts, but if the public benefits then it doesn’t seem quite so bad. If you have seen the film or have thoughts on the collection move, please feel free to contribute. What are your thoughts on the film and the move?

**For a review of the Art of the Steal, see this post of the Art Blog. I did not intend to review the film, but agree for the most part with the Art Blog’s perspective.

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