Art in the Round

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George Widman/AP

Art in the Round: The Barnes Collection

March 18, 2009
by Isabel Cowles
Albert C. Barnes stipulated in his will that his extensive art collection was to remain intact and displayed at his home in Merion, Pennsylvania. But the Barnes Foundation’s endowment has dwindled over the years. In 2004, a judge ruled that the collection would have to move to a larger location to generate sufficient revenue. Although art lovers dispute how Barnes would have handled the situation, they all agree that the collection is a wonder.

Albert C. Barnes: Entrepreneur, Art Lover

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Born in 1872 in Kensington, Philadelphia, Albert C. Barnes attended the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, but decided to make a living as an entrepreneur. Using his background in chemistry, Barnes co-invented an antiseptic silver compound called Argyrol and established a successful pharmaceutical company.

Barnes sold his company in 1929 at the height of the stock market, and walked away with a fortune before the crash. In the 1930s, he had enough wealth to invest in art, which was being sold at extremely low prices. Barnes also had money to buy several properties, one of which became the site of his famous collection and its adjoining arboretum.

Barnes began collecting with the help of philosopher and educator John Dewey, an advocate of experiential learning and a lover of French Impressionism. Both Dewey and Barnes agreed that philosophy and art were only of value if they invoked elements of every day life and both considered art an essential form of education.

The Collection

Dewey helped Barnes establish the collection, which includes a variety of Impressionist work as well as Greco-Roman and African art: a visual tour of the galleries is available through the Barnes Foundation Web site.

When initially displayed, the collection, which included works by Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani and de Chirico, was dubbed “morbid,” “emotional,” “diseased” and “degenerate” by critics. Enraged by these views, Barnes decided to show the exhibit by invitation only. The decision prompted him to establish the Barnes Foundation, a private space for art and education where working-class citizens were especially welcome.

The educational component of the Barnes Foundation was integral to Barnes’s conception. According to Foundation archivist Katy Rawdon-Faucett, “Barnes felt that by learning to look at art critically and learning it from your perspective, you would be able to improve your own mind. So it wasn’t just that you were learning dates and numbers and names but that you were learning … how to think for yourself. It was really a social improvement methodology.” The Foundation continues to offer workshops and classes.

The Controversy

In his will, Barnes stipulated that to preserve the integrity of the collection, none of the art should be moved from his purposeful display.

In 1998, the Barnes Foundation, in need of funding for structural repairs, sent some of the most recognizable works on a world tour to raise money. Unexpected costs arose and the foundation found itself on the verge of bankruptcy: with help from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Lenfest and the Annenberg Foundations, the collection managed to stay open.

In 2004, a judge ordered that the collection be moved to a location where more visitors could see the paintings, thereby generating greater revenue. David Nash, a Manhattan dealer who appraised the Barnes collection many times, said: “It’s a terrible shame. The whole concept of the Barnes will be ruined. The installation, the building itself, was like seeing something under a glass dome. It would be as though the Frick were dismantled and put back together at the Met.”

A look at some of the controversy surrounding the Barnes Foundation is available from the Friends of the Barnes Foundation Web site, which also includes a link to “sensible solutions” for maintaining the Barnes Foundation as is.
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