The Barnes Collection | - May 22, 2012

“Stolen and moved, but not the same…”

The Barnes Collection, that multi-billion dollar Philadelphia-based collection of some of the finest art of the early 20th century, has been moved from its comfortable home in Lower Merion, a quiet neighborhood just 10.7 miles-17 minutes (Google Maps) from its new location on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in central Philadelphia. The “new” home for the collection is right next to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its poorly-rendered sculpture of Rocky Balboa on the steps, posed as in the movie, “Rocky.” I said moved but some would say “stolen and moved.” AND WHY!

In so many areas of my life I have had a: “it is what it is” or a “they won, you lost, move on” attitude. But this is different – this is The Barnes.

This amazing collection was brought into being by the late Dr. Albert C. Barnes and he built a small museum to house it all in 1925. He chose Lower Merion BECAUSE it was not in Philly proper. And I guess the word “proper” is the operative word here. Barnes had very little use for the Philadelphia elite and they knew it. They showed him disdain and he returned the favor. He was not one of them (Old Money). He was a self-made man and reveled in the sense of freedom that gave him. He built a world-renowned collection and housed it where he wanted to, displayed however he wanted to and made it available to those he wanted to (mostly students). Yet those same elite envied his collection and worked for decades after his death in 1951, to acquire it for the “people” of Philadelphia. The end result is the “New” Barnes Museum, which opens this weekend. But, I digress.

I became aware of the Barnes over a decade ago, before there was any controversy and no plans to move it. Here are the facts.

The collection contains more than 2,500 objects – including 800 paintings – estimated to be worth about $25 billion. These are primarily works by Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist masters, but the collection also includes many works by leading European and American artists, as well as ancient works from other cultures. On my visit, I was surprised to see Southwest Pueblo pottery on display among these other artistic genres.

Visits were controlled. Only a few visitors were allowed in the museum at any one time, because of the need to preserve the educational concentration that Barnes wanted. One had to make a reservation rather far in advance and get to the museum on time. But the restrictions are no more stringent than getting a ticket to see a Wagnerian opera at Bayreuth, the opera house that Wagner built for his operas. There you have to enter a lottery and it might take years before you are allowed a ticket. The controlled atmosphere at The Barnes made the experience even more delectable.

Barnes built his museum in Lower Merion, a quiet suburb of Philadelphia, and stipulated in his will that works in the collection never be loaned, never be moved or re-hung and never, ever be removed. He meant the collection, hung as it was in a, seemingly, random, salon style, to be a unified teaching tool and gave control of the foundation to predominantly-black Lincoln University to keep his legacy intact.

Enter Walter Annenberg, the Pew Charitable Trust, et al, into the Montgomery County Orphan’s Court a decade ago to plead their case for moving the collection. To say these machinations were Byzantine would be to render Byzantium an injustice.

It is all best observed from the detached lens of producer and director Don Argott’s view of the proceedings in the “The Art of the Steal,” a wonderful documentary that was seen here in Santa Fe during the 2009 Santa Fe Film Festival.

Certainly it is easy to see the conspiratorial nature of this entire enterprise and of course, there are villains. I certainly have more faith in the words of Julian Bond (quoted in the film), than in those of, either former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell or the late Annenberg, former United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom and philanthropist, both of whom pushed the move with power and money. 

In the movie, Bond speaks about why, in his opinion, the elite of Philadelphia waged such a strident campaign to take this magnificent collection from its ancestral home and parade it into Philadelphia as a tourist attraction.

The Barnes Foundation and Lincoln University became puppets of the wealthy members of Philadelphia society and the Foundations they guided, as these “patrons of the arts” battled in court to break Dr. Barnes will and move the collection – and they won.

My thoughts about all of this.

Was the presentation of the work in the Barnes/Merion quirky? Certainly it was. Barnes often placed pieces of Pennsylvania Dutch ironwork (barn hinges and other utilitarian pieces of Americana) right next to major masterpieces by Renoir (181 works), Picasso (46), Matisse (59), Modigliani (16) or Cézanne (69) and, yes, wonderful works by American Post-Impressionist, Maurice Prendergast were all hung above doorways. But, that’s the point. That is the way in which Barnes wanted you to experience the work. You see, often the ironwork referenced a theme, angle or viewpoint in the painting and that echo in your mind would help you understand the painter’s intention more fully. After all, The Barnes was a teaching institution.

The collection is now housed in a building within a building on Museum Row in Philadelphia – this, in an attempt heed a court order that the collection be displayed in the same exact configurations as in the original building. I have not seen the interior of the new space-within-a-space, but I am sure that if I did I would say: “close but no cigar.” Yes, Prendergast paintings are all over doors but the black electrical tape on the wood floors in Merion is now approximated with inlaid wood. The original tape was a subtle reminder not to get too close to the paintings, as there were no guards. It was very effective and much more pleasant than hovering guards, of which, I am sure, there are many at the “new” Barnes.

And then there are the Matisse murals. The Dance II, a triptych by the artist, was to be placed above three arches spanning the windows of the main hall of Barnes' gallery. In Nice, France, Matisse executed the mural on canvas provided by Barnes and the murals were installed exactly where Barnes had decided they should be. In fact, their form was dictated by the space available. Well just like Disneyworld, the “new” Barnes building has imitated the architecture of Merion with faux arches to house the murals.

In the words of Don Argott, “The Art of the Steal” filmmaker: “The Pew [Charitable Trust] and the Annenberg [Foundation] do great things for Philadelphia; it doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes and shouldn’t be held accountable for them."

The dimensions are the same. The Matisse murals of The Dance II are in place and just like Disneyland it all seems right – kind of.

In the official remarks at the gala pre-opening of the new museum, participants in the Barnes move hailed a “new era of life and vibrancy” for the collection, one that will provide access to the art to “a broader world.” But, that’s not what Barnes intended.

But all of this IS NOT THE POINT.

If Barnes wanted to leave his entire collection to his dog that would be just fine because it was HIS WISH. Hell, even Leona Helmsley’s wishes were granted and $12 million of her estate went to her dog.

Meanwhile, as noted in “Art of the Steal,” Annenberg’s own collection of canvases, works on paper and modern sculpture are going from Sunnyland, his estate in Rancho Mirage, California, to specific locations, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sunnyland, itself, according to his will, is supposed to be open to the public. What if someone richer and more powerful than the late Annenberg had other ideas of where his collection should reside and who should get to see it? If I live long enough, perhaps I should mount a court challenge to break his will.

I, for one, will never set foot in that place on Museum Row, preferring to enjoy the DVD of the “real” Barnes, obtained from the gift shop in Merion.

I close with a note to Barnes that has been rattling around in my head for some time:

Dear. Doctor Barnes,

Do not turn over in your grave. There are many of us who are turning for you in our own lives. I will forever hold the memory of a drizzly afternoon spent in Lower Merion amidst all of your treasurers. My spirit thanks you.

Now where is that DVD player remote?