Philadelphia Story

William Pym on local reactions to the Barnes decision


Left: Albert C. Barnes, 1940. Right: An interior view of the Barnes Foundation.

Located well off the beaten track on a sleepy residential street on Philadelphia’s Main Line, the Barnes Foundation contains dozens of Impressionist and modernist masterpieces that eclipse the proudest holdings of many a big-city museum. It’s remote enough and allows so few visitors (by appointment only) that you need a car and a serious advance plan to get inside, and once there, you'll find it unprofessionally maintained and lacking in amenities. But it's as magical and odd as it is because Albert Barnes, an irascible patent-medicine millionaire, took a page from Isabella Stewart Gardner’s playbook and stated in his will that the collection must be preserved and exhibited as it was conceived. Thus the same eccentric hang, same architecture, and the same lighting have been in place for fifty-three years.

But not, it seems, for fifty-four. Last week a judge ruled that the Barnes Foundation could move to a new location in downtown Philadelphia, breaking Barnes’s will in order to alleviate steep debts. The foundation has been losing money for decades, thanks to its measly opening hours, velvet-rope admission policy and general lack of buzz. Barnes was a moody man who felt ostracized by the major Philadelphia institutions; he left the foundation in the hands of historically black Lincoln University, whose administration was given control of the Barnes’s board of trustees. In the 1990s, the trustees occupied themselves with infighting and litigation while the foundation’s always-shaky fiscal situation grew officially dire, and in 2002, having ousted controversial board president Richard Glanton, they began their battle for the right to relocate. To save the collection from dispersal or dereliction, the trustees insist, it must be moved downtown and plonked between the marvelous beaux arts public library and the Rodin Museum, there to become a star revenue-generator on Philadelphia’s rapidly developing Museum Mile. It sounded OK to the judge and clearly sounds OK to the big-money trusts (Pew, Annenberg, Lenfest) that have cobbled together more than $150 million for the cause. Those of us who work around art and keep up on things here have been following the story in all its Byzantine convolutions for a couple of years now. But since Monday, when the judge broke the will, which sounds awfully dramatic, the local press has just gone bonkers. Last week brought front-page spreads, full editorial pages and monster Sunday features in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The art community, as a result, has Barnes once again much on its mind, and the chatter is more heated than ever. Mere mention of the story sparks voluble outpourings from dinner-party tablemates and openings-circuit chums. John Ollman, a dealer with thirty-five years of experience in Philadelphia, favors the move; or at least, he favors an immediate end to the mythology that surrounds the foundation: “It was conceived as a place of teaching for the disadvantaged, a new, accessible place for education,” he told me, referring to the nondegree art courses offered by the Barnes. “But under the purview of people with no institutional background it has become just the opposite, as inaccessible and elitist as the old institutions Barnes hated. It aspires to be a populist environment, but it is just dressed up to look like one.” Alex Baker, a savvy young local curator, laments the loss of the beguiling museological relic that is the original Barnes. “It is a site-specific thing. I understand that the move is being made to market Philadelphia as a cultural destination, but who says cultural tourism can save Philadelphia? And if private investors can bankroll the move, why can’t they bankroll it staying where it is?” Ingrid Schaffner, senior curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, takes a justifiably sentimental stance. “The pilgrimage was part of the experience, and it's a pity to lose it. I'll miss the trip out to the Main Line, and the short walk through the beautiful suburb of Merion, to see one of the world's great idiosyncratic collections in the building, on the grounds, landscaped with the specimen plantings—all of a piece as Albert Barnes intended it.”

The Barnes Foundation is indeed an inimitable piece of American history, and no dream team of top-shelf architects, curators and money men will make the downtown experience as rich as the goofy and old-fashioned one in the suburbs. But lethargy is depressing Philadelphia and the local artists struggling to feed off the city’s enfeebled resources, and the controversy has proven to be a galvanizing force. Elegies for Barnes’s Main Line folly will soon be replaced by brawls about architecture and installation and the relative merits of various Matisses and Modiglianis that many of us will be seeing for the first time. Barnes would no doubt be appalled by the impending move, but he did love to stir things up in his famously straitlaced hometown. In that sense, at least, his legacy will continue to live on.