A wall in the new Barnes Foundation museum describes Albert Barnes' educational philosophy (Photo by M. Edlow for GPTMC courtesy Visit Philly)
A New Museum Mile?
Rush hour is still two hours away, but a swarm of cars is buzzing by me on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. As I parallel park in front of the new Barnes Foundation museum and feed money into the parking kiosk, an over-sized tour bus, only a quarter full, is herding tourists down the divided highway. The overly enthusiastic guide shouts through the crackly loudspeaker like an annoying uncle belting through a cardboard, wrapping-paper tube at Christmas.
The mile-long, landscaped, auto-friendly Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which connects Philadelphia’s City Hall to Fairmount Park, is one of the earliest examples of urban renewal in the United States. Designed by French urban planner Jacques Gréber in 1917 the boulevard was modeled after the Champs-Élysées in Paris. As Ken Finkel observes, “planners envisioned the Parkway cutting across the city’s northwest quadrant to accommodate schools, hospitals, libraries, museums, cathedrals, courthouses, administrative headquarters for schools and agencies, and even a hall for conventions. If it served the public, it belonged on the Parkway.”
This month the controversial new Barnes Foundation museum opened its doors, taking its place beside the Philadelphia Free Library and Rodin Museum on this historic road.
The view of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)
The new Barnes was a rare opportunity to engage the city's foot traffic. Unfortunately, the architects failed to put down the welcome mat. (Photo © Michael Moran courtesy of Architectural Record)
Paul Gauguin, "Mr. Loulou (Louis Le Ray), 1890. Oil on canvas, 21 3/4 x 18 1/4 in. (55.2 x 46.4 cm). (Photo © 2012 The Barnes Foundation)
Back in 1917, while the city was busy knocking down houses and constructing a highway for the common good, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, who made his fortune by co-developing an early anti-gonorrhea drug, had his hands full assembling one of the world’s most important collections of post-impressionist and early modern paintings. In his lifetime, Barnes grew his collection to include 69 Cézannes—more than in all the museums in Paris—44 Picassos, 60 Matisses, and an astonishing 181 Renoirs. The 2,500 items in the collection include major works by Modigliani, Soutine, Gaughin, Seurat, Degas, Rousseau, and van Gogh, Asian prints, African sculpture, medieval manuscripts, decorative metalwork, as well as Old Master paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, El Greco, and Titian.
A self-made man who put himself through college by tutoring, boxing, and playing semi-professional baseball, Barnes despised the art establishment and old Philadelphia money. His hatred of the establishment was partly the result of a 1923 show at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts featuring 75 paintings from Barnes’ collection. The work was too avant-garde for prevailing tastes, and art critics ridiculed the works, calling them “trash,” “incomprehensible masses of paint, and an “infectious scourge.”
Barnes wrote a series of fiery letters in reply. He said the Philadelphia Museum of Art was a “house of artistic and intellectual prostitution” and claimed that the main function of museums “has been to serve as a pedestal upon which a clique of socialites pose as patrons of the arts.” As James Panero of Philanthropy magazine observes, “Barnes was a conflicted figure, a man of titanic intelligence, unflinching will, and self-destructive pride.”
During his lifetime, Barnes maintained tight control over access to the collection, requiring visitors to write and request appointments and giving preference to students and the working class over members of Philadelphia society. Writers James A. Michener and T.S. Eliot were among the visitors personally rejected by Barnes. (Photo courtesy The Barnes Foundation)
The original Barnes Foundation building in Merion sits seven minutes away from the new Barnes museum.
In 1925, the same year that the Insurance Company of North America opened its headquarters at 16th and the Parkway, Albert Barnes dedicated a new home for his collection designed by Philadelphia-based French architect Paul Cret in nearby Merion. It’s mission, “the promotion of the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts.” Eager to avoid the city’s cultural elite, Barnes built his innovative school, called the Barnes Foundation, seven minutes from downtown on a twelve-acre arboretum insulated from the new parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Barnes’ primary passion was educating the underprivileged. As Panero details, Barnes was “deeply impressed by John Dewey’s Democracy and Education” and “believed that the development of cognitive skills, rather than the memorization of facts, was the key to education…In arranging his art on the wall, Barnes…dispensed with labels, period rooms, chronological order, and the solemnity of your typical white-walled gallery. Instead, with his art hanging floor to ceiling, Barnes let the harmony of shapes and forms sing for itself. He wanted his collection to enliven the eye, not confound it with facts. He believed his students would be able to see the visual connections between disparate works, styles, and periods, and learn from those associations without the benefit of words.”
"In arranging his art on the wall, Barnes...dispensed with labels, period rooms, chronological order, and the solemnity of your typical white-walled gallery." (Photo: Room 18, east wall © 2012 The Barnes Foundation)
When the Philadelphia art establishment ridiculed Barnes' collection, he wrote a series of fiery letters in reply. Barnes wrote that the Philadelphia Museum of Art was a “house of artistic and intellectual prostitution” and claimed that the main function of museums “has been to serve as a pedestal upon which a clique of socialites pose as patrons of the arts.” (Photo © The Barnes Foundation)
During his lifetime, Barnes maintained tight control over access to the collection, requiring visitors to write and request appointments and giving preference to students and the working class over members of Philadelphia society. Writers James A. Michener and T.S. Eliot were among the visitors personally rejected by Barnes. In 1928, The New Yorker noted, “In order to get the honest reaction of a simple mind to art…[Barnes] called in a negro truck-driver who was delivering coal, plumped him down in front of a Cézanne, and asked for an opinion.”
Barnes had witnessed the Philadelphia Museum of Art take control of the collection of his late lawyer, John Johnson, and tried to prevent the same from happening to his own collection. The Foundation’s Indenture of Trust and other documents stated that the Barnes Foundation was to remain an educational institution, open to the public only two to three days a week. His art collection was to stay on the walls of the foundation in exactly the places the works were at the time of his death and could never be loaned or sold.
Until the very end, Barnes was true to his stubborn, self-destructive reputation. Panero vividly describes Barnes’ unexpected death:
“It was sunny and hot on July 24, 1951, and Barnes seemed distracted after his Sunday dinner at Ker-Feal, his country farm. Barnes decided to return to Merion. He loaded his dog, Fidèle, into his Packard and began the 25-mile drive. There was a stop sign on Route 29, near Phoenixville—Barnes had objected to its installation and refused to observe it. He blasted through the intersection and barreled directly into a 10-ton trailer truck. The 79-year-old’s body was thrown 40 feet from the car. Fidèle, near dead herself, would not allow state troopers near her crumpled master. She had to be shot.”
According to Panero, although Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were much wealthier than Albert Barnes during their lifetimes, today the value of the art assets of the Barnes Foundation are 10 to 20 times greater than either the Carnegie Corporation or the Rockefeller Corporation.
Now, sixty-one years after Barnes’ death, Philadelphia’s politicians are once again banking on the Parkway to revive the city’s reputation and economy. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway, originally named the Fairmount Parkway, is now being dubbed the “Museum Mile,” and the 25-billion dollar Barnes collection–the very collection Barnes insisted remain in Merion–is the latest bait.
One cannot simply plunk a new building along a parkway and expect it to turn a bland strip into a dynamic destination capable of rejuvenating Philadelphia's creative economy. (Aerial view from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 20th Street. Photo by Tom Crane © The Barnes Foundation)
You’ll forgive me if I remain skeptical of the hyperbolic PR spin surrounding the Barnes. Everything about this project reeks of commercial repackaging–of the unfortunate trend of “museum as theme park.” (Looking south east at the new Barnes Foundation. Photo © 2012 Tom Crane)
Art for the People
During the collection’s controversial move to the Parkway, the city and foundation’s PR machine has been quick to emphasize the egalitarianism of moving the Barnes seven minutes down the road to the “Museum Mile.” Art for the people has been the ongoing mantra. Art for the people is a cause that is easy to rally behind, though no one involved in this controversial project has been able to agree on the best way to realize this goal. Is it through educational classes like the ones taught for decades in Merion? Is it through increased access and public programming? Do you bring the people to the art or the art to the people?
If you wade through the hyperbole—the political rhetoric, the rants of angry citizens and neighbors unhappy about the collection’s relocation, the foundation’s PR spin, and the conspiracy theories proposed in the fascinating documentary The Art of the Steal—if you can ignore this hype, certain things are clear.
The foundation could have been revitalized in its original location if the right people had been so inclined. There were valuable paintings in Barnes’ personal collection (not the foundation’s) that could have raised much needed funds for building repairs, new programming, and the endowment. And there are plenty of examples of outlying architectural and cultural gems who manage to serve their missions without taking the radical step of dismantling a collection or relocating. It’s true that Barnes’ restrictions needed to be loosened in some capacity, but to move the collection in its entirely was to take the most radical step of all.
Why not partner with a nearby institution, like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and shuttle visitors from one museum to the other? During the short ride, visitors could be educated about Barnes, his collection, the architecture, and his educational philosophy. I’m sure plenty of museum visitors would have welcomed the fresh air and gardens of Merion. One day, as we all become increasingly overwhelmed by the constant assault of noise, commercialism, and technology, I suspect that the cloistered retreat offered by the foundation’s original location in Merion will be in high demand. Unfortunately, the foundation has traded one of its most valuable resources–the refuge and uniqueness of its collection set amongst historic grounds, buildings, and gardens–for the glamor of a $150 million dollar building and the almighty cultural tourist dollar.
The Barnes Foundation has traded one of its most valuable resources--the refuge and uniqueness of its collection set amongst historic grounds, buildings, and gardens--for the glamor of a $150 million dollar building and the almighty cultural tourist dollar. (Photo: Barnes protest sign courtesy outofordermag.com)
This 1926 painting of Albert C. Barnes by Giorgio de Chirico was on display in the special exhibit area of the new museum.
I won’t recount the entire controversy here (you can watch The Art of the Steal). Long story short, certain politicians and cultural institutions saw that the Barnes Foundation was floundering and took advantage of the opportunity. The foundation’s neighbors in Merion exacerbated the situation by complaining about noise and traffic, but quickly changed their minds when their community gem was at risk of being dismantled. They didn’t want the Barnes, but then they did. By the time they changed their minds and launched a SAVE THE BARNES campaign, it was too late. By then, the cultural machine had a well-crafted narrative ready. Liberate the art and bring it to the people! It was the perfect propaganda, for even Barnes himself believed in education and access first and foremost.
Perusing the Barnes Foundation’s PR materials reveals a carefully orchestrated narrative:
“Dr. Barnes’s Last Will and Testament makes no stipulations about the installation of the Collection in Merion. Among its provisions, it simply restates Dr. Barnes’s prior gift of the Collection to the Foundation. It also addresses the gift of Dr. Barnes’s country estate Ker-Feal and other real estate to the Foundation.”
Seriously? Then what has all of the fuss been about and why did the relocation of the collection require a petition to the Montgomery County Orphans’ Court? I made careful note of the fact that the relocation controversy didn’t even merit a mention in the special exhibit gallery, which details the history of the Barnes Foundation, Barnes the man, and his educational philosophy. The foundation’s new book The Barnes Foundation: Masterworks (2012), which was selling like hotcakes in the museum gift shop, also fails to mention the relocation controversy.
I made careful note of the fact that the relocation controversy didn't even merit a mention in the special exhibit gallery, which details the history of the Barnes Foundation, Barnes the man, and his educational philosophy. The foundation's new book "The Barnes Foundation: Masterworks," which was selling like hotcakes in the museum gift shop, also fails to mention the relocation controversy. (Photo © Roger Barone)
A defaced Barnes protest sign on a lawn in Merion (Photo by William Thomas Ternay courtesy Postcards from Philly)
(Photo by William Thomas Ternay courtesy Postcards from Philly)
For the most part, it appears the PR campaign has been successful. Major critics like Peter Schjeldahl and Roberta Smith have declared the museum a success, and while I was visiting the Barnes, an old man in his 80s in an U.S. Air Force ball cap leaned against his daughter as he explored the new building. In the main room on the first floor I overheard him telling a story about attending classes at the foundation as a young man. Exhausted, he parked himself on a bench next to me and gazed up at Matisse’s The Dance on the south wall. “Well I’m glad they finally brought the art here where everyone can see it,” he said proudly. “It’s all too beautiful to be hidden away.”
The truth is that everything about the Barnes collection has been askew from the very beginning. It started with Barnes and his desire to stick it to Philadelphia’s cultural elite. He did this by collecting controversial modern art, opening his own school, limiting who could attend, and giving precedent to the working and middle classes over the wealthy and the famous. A second twist of the knife came when Barnes left his collection to Lincoln University, an historically African-American college. Though Barnes was friends with Horace Mann Bond, the university’s first black president, he also knew good and well that handing his valuable collection over to Lincoln was a way of depriving Philadelphia’s art establishment. Intention is everything and the ripples caused by Barnes’ project were poisoned with ill-will from the start.
In the main room on the first floor I overheard an old man in an U.S. Air Force ball cap telling his daughter a story about attending classes at the foundation as a young man. Exhausted, he parked himself on a bench next to me and gazed up at Matisse's "The Dance" on the south wall. "Well I'm glad they finally brought the art here where everyone can see it," he said proudly. "It's all too beautiful to be hidden away." (Photo © Michael Moran courtesy of Architectural Record)
From the second floor galleries, visitors get a marvelous look at Matisse's "The Dance," which was tucked away and difficult to see in the old space. (Photo by Rick Echelmeyer © 2012 Barnes Foundation)
How (Not) to Reinvent a Cultural Institution
No institution, no parkway or city surrounding it, is fixed. Places, even the most historic ones, are dynamic and changing and shouldn’t be mothballed and left to fade into obscurity. Dioramas will be refurbished as style (and insect damage) dictates, plumbing will be upgraded, new pieces will be bought, and old pieces sold, text panels will morph into screens, and screens into projections, and the words on the wall will also change as new research requires revision to the official narrative. And this is just as it should be.
From 2009-2012 the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, perhaps the Barnes’ closest equivalent in the U.S., took the radical and controversial step of building a Renzo Piano addition to the museum in an effort to revitalize attendance and programming. The addition was contentious and required a visit to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, but the central difference between the Gardner Museum and the Barnes Foundation is that Gardner’s original vision and legacy remained intact. It is hard to imagine city and museum officials deciding to relocate the Gardner collection elsewhere, while leaving its original home vacant. It would be unthinkable.
There are many ways for an institution to recreate itself–some better than others. To separate artwork from its context is the worst sacrilege of all, particularly for an idiosyncratic collection like Barnes’, which was meant to be seen in a specific setting. It’s true that the foundation needed to be reinvented in some capacity, as well as stabilized financially. It needed more transparency and quality leadership capable of establishing priorities and reinventing the institution. But the idea that the collection was being held hostage or needed to be rescued is hyperbolic adspeak. After all, this isn’t World War II. There were no art-rabid Nazis or destructive dictators at the Barnes’ doorstep–only powerful political figures who saw that the Barnes Foundation, in its weakened condition, was ripe for the picking.
The best art and architecture is by nature radical and unconventional in some respect---if not radical politically, then radical to the senses. Barnes' collection was the most radical art collection of its day and the building he created it for it was carefully designed to showcase this unique, original work. (Photo: Room 23, West Wall © 2012 The Barnes Foundation)
Henri Rousseau, "Woman Walking in an Exotic Forest (Femme se promenant dans un forêt exotique)," 1905. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 3/4 in. (100 x 80.6 cm). (Photo: © 2012 The Barnes Foundation)
Barnes’ restrictions handicapped the institution from the start. As Panero details, Barnes “limited the salaries of the foundation’s employees without mechanisms that could account for inflation. He restricted any changes to the collection or to the facility’s grounds. Perhaps most importantly, he restricted the investment of the foundation’s endowment, restrictions to which the Old Guard scrupulously adhered. During Barnes’ lifetime, the indenture granted that the endowment could be invested in ‘any good securities.’ After his death, however, the corpus could only be invested in federal, state, and municipal bonds. Over time, this restriction severely eroded the endowment.” The inflationary decades after Barnes’ death dealt a further blow to the endowment. According to Panero, by the early 1970s, says former Girard banker and Barnes trustee David Rawson, the endowment “had lost money.”