The Barnes Foundation has re-opened in Philadelphia in its new location. The collection has an unusual history. In the early 20th century, Dr. Albert C. Barnes invented a silver-nitrate compound known as Argyrol. Just a couple of drops were placed in a newborn’s eyes to prevent blindness. Multiply a couple of drops by millions of babies, and you’ve got quite a fortune. Barnes sold his company and concentrated on spending his money.
In 1912, Barnes began buying art in Paris, assisted by a former high school classmate who had become an artist. In Paris, he became acquainted with art insiders Gertrude and Leo Stein and their coterie of friends, including Matisse and Picasso. As his acquisitions grew, Barnes cast his net ever wider in the art world, embracing Modigliani and other more modern artists. His next move was to endow an eponymous foundation in the posh Philadelphia suburb known as Merion.
It’s a really wonderful collection, containing 181 Renoirs as well as dozens by Cézanne, Matisse, works by Rousseau, Degas, Manet, Monet, and Seurat. This may be the core of collection, but it’s hardly all that there is. There are European masters and a wide collection of African art. Barnes juxtaposed pieces by what he thought would be interesting to study, not geography, medium, time period, or any other more customary grouping. Barnes stipulated that the pictures must remain in “exactly the places they are.”
Barnes died in a car accident in 1951 when he was 71. His will tied up the collection rather tightly and for many years it jogged along. The Foundation was intended for serious art study and it was not always easy for the general public to visit; the hours were limited to only two and half days a week and there was no convenient public transportation. Only 500 visitors were allowed per week and requests for a timed entry to the Foundation had to be made weeks in advance. Yet, ever greater revenues were needed to maintain the building and the collection.
In the early 90s, the Foundation president took a bold step and loaned 83 of the most crowd-pleasing works on a multi-city tour, including back to Paris and just down the road to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is where I first saw the collection when we had just moved to the Philadelphia area. One of the posters from that show hung on our walls for many years afterward. This tour, like any changes at the Foundation, was bitterly and unsuccessfully opposed in court.
The enormous success of the show sparked increased interest in the collection. When the Foundation expanded the hours that it was open to the public, that in turn sparked outrage from the local residents. I can understand their point of view. When I took students there a couple of years ago, our big yellow school bus was rather out of place in the tony street.
After the show, the situation between the trustees got really ugly. Two of them sued each other and there were concerns over mismanagement of funds. A new CEO was brought in who really got things moving – figuratively and literally. The trustees petitioned to move the collection to a new home, built just a short distance from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. After a two year court battle, the 150 million fund raising campaign began. The new site opened in mid-2012. True to Dr. Barnes’ wishes, the galleries maintain the same scale and the paintings are hung just as they were. What’s different are the expanded educational and conservation facilities as well as better public amenities, such as a café and a larger gift shop. Surely Dr. Barnes would have to approve, since his education mission is still paramount.
Today’s expression, une tache aveugle (oon tash a-vuh-gluh) means “a blind spot.” Barnes’ invention saved many from blindness, but he had a blind spot of his own when it came to his Foundation. Being so rigid almost made it irrelevant to the art world. I’m supposed to be taking a group of students to the new facility next month, and I’m really looking forward to it.
- Celebrate First Friday At The Barnes Foundation This Friday, January 4 (uwishunu.com)
- Philadelphia Named One Of The Top 10 U.S. Destinations For 2013 By World’s #1 Travel Publisher Lonely Planet (uwishunu.com)
- Introducing The New With Art Philadelphia™ Hotel Package Offering VIP Access To The Barnes, PMA, Rodin, PAFA And Penn Museum (uwishunu.com)
- Welcome to Philadelphia (apartmentguide.com)
- Modern art sale set to raise £100million (telegraph.co.uk)