Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Visit to the New Barnes Foundation

On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I was excited to visit the new downtown location of the Barnes Foundation, which opened in 2012 and houses what is generally considered one of the most compelling collections of modern art in the world.  How it arrived there, on a grand promenade lined with museums, which ends at the imposing neo-classical Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a contentious and complex legal matter.  As I learned more about the museum and its history, it became clear that the shiny new museum, its caf√© and shop, were completely out of line with the will and wishes of the late Albert Barnes.  Though the artwork is unquestionably stunning and his unique curatorial style is very much in evidence, Barnes’ plans for his collection to remain solely an educational destination have been more or less overturned.

Dr. Albert C. Barnes in his Foundation

Dr. Albert C. Barnes was a Philadelphia native, born in 1872 in a working class neighborhood before attending medical school and making his fortune by developing a vaccine called Argyrol for eye infections in infants.  After moving just out of the city to Merion, he took up an interest in modern art and established the Barnes Foundation in 1922.  Barnes traveled back and forth to Europe and met with American artists in his search for the best of the Post-Impressionists.  He amassed a stunning collection of Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Manet, Prendergast, and many more.

Rather than hide away his newly acquired artwork, Barnes created a foundation that functioned as a truly groundbreaking multi-disciplinary school, teaching art history, art critique, philosophy, music and design.  The collection was not open to the public regularly, but was always available to scholars.  Barnes did not want his priceless collection to be commercialized or used for the gain of the Philadelphia art establishment or political bodies.

Interior of the Barnes Foundation

When Barnes passed away in a car accident in 1951, his will stated that the collection was left in trust in perpetuity.  It was never to be changed in configuration and never to be moved from the galleries that he built for it.  The collection was not to be regularly open to the public, but was to be used continually for study and education.  Unfortunately, Barnes did not leave any heirs, but a board of trustees to be chosen by Lincoln University.  As time passed, trustees selected by Barnes turned over their seats to others who did not share the founder’s vision.

Changes in the Barnes Foundation began gradually as the board found loopholes in Barnes’ will.  It became apparent that the $10M in endowments and trusts from Dr. Barnes was not necessarily enough to maintain the collection.  First, the galleries were opened to the public in 1961.  Then in 1993 the collection went on a worldwide tour while the galleries in Merion were closed.

In 2002, the board of trustees proposed moving the site entirely.  The chair of the board was involved with the Philadelphia Board of Tourism and while the trustees might have raised money to renovate the original Barnes Foundation, instead they teamed up with local charitable foundations to build a new institution in downtown Philadelphia.

Original Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA
Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia

Despite being re-housed, the collection is still arranged in the “ensembles” created by Dr. Barnes himself.  The galleries are created exactly as they were in his school, although housed in a much larger building.   Everything is hung salon style, mixing artists, styles, mediums and eras to highlight both the aesthetic and intellectual.  And while I am saddened by the loss of an art school and the commercialization of such a stunning collection of artwork – admission fees top out at $22 - I was nevertheless very fortunate
to be able to see the collection last week.

It would have been entirely unique at the time to hang art according to themes, rather than artist or chronology.  More unique still, Dr. Barnes was one of the first to recognize industrial design as art.  He mixed in centuries-old cooking utensils, door hinges and farm equipment with Corot and Monet.  This form of display has become much more common since, and as visitors to 13FOREST know full well, we certainly subscribe to this philosophy of collecting and combining different types of art and art forms.

The Dance, Henri Matisse, 1932-33, oil on canvas, three panels

Nonetheless, walking through the collection can be overwhelming for the viewer; all the walls are covered top to bottom with stunning modernist art.  The collection is truly priceless and its importance in the field of art history cannot be overstated.  It was breathtaking to stand in a large high-ceilinged room examining Picasso’s Peasants and glance upwards to see a mural by Matisse called The Dance.

Composition: The Peasants, Pablo Picasso,  1906, oil on canvas

While the Barnes Collection has been changed from Dr. Barnes’ multidisciplinary educational scheme through its move into a traditional museum setting, it is nevertheless a purely unique art viewing experience.  One hopes the good doctor – who after all, built his fortune on helping the sight-impaired - would have had some solace in knowing that even greater numbers would learn more about art from the expansion of his tremendous vision.

The Postman (Joseph-√Čtienne Roulin), Vincent Van Gogh, 1889, oil on canvas

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