(March 2010) No one feels worse than Emsworth that the Barnes Foundation’s fabulous collection of post-impressionist and modern art is leaving its home in Merion, Pennsylvania and moving to downtown Philadelphia.
What an extraordinary place the Barnes is! We discovered it about 15 years ago: the world’s richest stash of Cezannes, Renoirs, Modiglianis, Matisses, van Goghs, and Picassos, all hidden away in a marvelous mansion surrounded by exotic gardens on a hard-to-find residential street in suburban Philly. [Update: we went back to Merion one last time. See this post.]
Seeing these masterpieces has been all the sweeter for the sense of enjoying stolen fruit. The Barnes management has always done its best to make visitors feel unwelcome, starting with its arbitrary and complicated rules for making “reservations.” If you do manage to find your way to North Latches Lane, the security people look over your paperwork at more checkpoints than East Berlin during the Cold War. The gallery personnel inside are hostile and irascible. No photography’s allowed, never mind the ostensibly educational purposes of the Foundation. Emsworth was once chastised by parking lot personnel for eating his breakfast muffin inside his car.
But the aggravation would be worth it if it were only for Seurat’s stunning “Models” and Van Gogh’s “Postman.” For years we were torn between wanting to tell every art lover we knew about the Barnes and the fear of what might happen if it got to be too well known. But now it’s all moot, because the Barnes Foundation is hopelessly and irretrievably broke, and its directors have arranged to move the entire dazzling collection a few miles south into a real museum that’s already being built on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, just a few blocks below the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 2010 is the last year we’ll be able to see the Barnes pictures in their natural habitat.
Words cannot convey the richness and wonder of the Barnes collection . The Cezannes alone! Dozens of first-quality Cezannes, many more than in any museum in the world. The Card Players — the finest and largest in Cezanne’s celebrated series. One of the three Large Bathers pictures (the other two are at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and in London). Breathtakingly perfect still lifes. And glorious Cezanne landscapes, including Emsworth’s favorite of all the Mt. Saint Victoire vistas.
And more Renoirs than anywhere else in the world. And one of the most important canvases in the history of modern art, Matisse’s 1909 The Joy of Life.
They’re are all being moved, and some people are extremely upset. A couple weeks ago we paid Time-Warner Cable $7.95 to see an overwrought documentary movie entitled The Art of the Steal, whose makers want the world to believe that a cabal of rich Philadelphians have successfully conspired to acquire control of Barnes’s incredibly valuable art collection for their own greedy purposes. (The movie isn’t scheduled to play at Rochester’s Little Theater until April; how was it already on cable?)
The flaws and fallacies in this documentary were so transparent that Michael Moore himself might have produced it. To begin with, nobody has actually stolen anything; the Barnes Foundation still owns the paintings and will continue to own them. The Philadelphia Museum of Art and other downtown Philadelphia venues will simply benefit from having the Barnes pictures in a nearby museum that’ll be easy for tourists to drop in on. The people in the film kept yammering hysterically about a $100,000,000 state budget item that supposedly showed that money to save the Barnes was available and that the move was unnecessary, but one can tell just from the movie itself that no funds had actually been appropriated, and our research has confirmed that this was the case. It was even clearer that any such money would have been earmarked for a new home for the Barnes collection — not to keep the Foundation operating in Merion!
The only part in The Art of the Steal that we don’t really doubt is its drumbeat that Dr. Albert C. Barnes never wanted his art collection to go anywhere else, especially not to downtown Philadelphia. He despised the art establishment types who ran the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and he wanted his works of art to hang on the walls just as he left them for the benefit of art students who would be taught his own idiosyncratic theories of art.
But what of it? There’s a lot of tiresome talk in The Art of the Steal about how Barnes hired the best trusts and estates lawyers money could buy to make sure his egocentric vision would be carried on after he died. But stating your intentions in a will is one thing; funding those intentions and making sure they’re carried out is something else. Albert C. Barnes didn’t do either.
Good lawyers, for instance, hardly would have advised Barnes to leave the management of the Barnes Foundation and its money to amateurs. No doubt Barnes thought that giving a small Philadelphia college a perpetual right to name five trustees for his Foundation was a good joke. But what made him think that the college would name the right people? Clearly they didn’t; the results were disastrous. The first director named by the trustees, one of Barnes’s disciples who was even more hostile to the public than Barnes himself, didn’t even keep the collection open to the public for the two days a week that his will stipulated, foregoing important income. For decades the trustees failed to make timely repairs to the building, risking damage to the art. And they failed to develop sources of external financial support for the Foundation.
Whose fault is that? And if Barnes wanted to make sure his enemies in the Philadelphia art community could never get their mitts on his Foundation, why didn’t his will provide that the board of trustees could never be expanded so as to make room for them?
Rich as he was, Barnes apparently didn’t endow the Barnes Foundation adequately in the first place, or wasn’t able to. The movie libelously implies that, in recent years at least, the trustees deliberately wasted money and ran the institution into the ground so that the collection would have to be moved from Merion. That’s hard to swallow. But no matter whose fault that was, when the money was gone — and with no one volunteering to put up $150,000,000 to keep the pictures in Merion — what else could the trustees do?
It’s hard to believe that the Barnes pictures are really leaving Merion, no longer to be enjoyed merely by intrepid, difficult-to-discourage art lovers like Emsworth, but instead by unworthy, unwashed masses of tourists in downtown Philadelphia. But only blind fools would think it couldn’t have happened without perfidy and sculduggery.
[We made a final visit to Merion in September 2010. See this post.]