Seeing the Barnes Foundation’s Limitations

Barnes FoundationEdward Soznaski dares to utter the obvious about the new Barnes Collection in the center of Philadelphia. The move to the center city wasn’t a radical enough change for the collection:

Moving to Center City might have made the collection more accessible, but it also has made the collection’s quirks, and especially its deficiencies, more obvious.

Barnes-Merion was a completely integrated experience involving architecture, horticulture, and the presentation of the art. On the Parkway, the collection presents itself more as a historical artifact in an artificial, and not especially resonant, environment.

Consequently, Barnes’ eccentric method of displaying his collection, and even the philosophy behind it, make less sense on the Parkway than in Merion. Equally to the point, now visitors more readily notice that much of the art in this storied collection is mediocre.

Even at Merion, it seemed obvious that the founder placed himself and his dubious theories above the achievement of individual artists and the flow of art history. His wall “ensembles” are arbitrary conceits that blend the great, the good, and the ordinary into an indiscriminate, aesthetic jumble.

Higher-quality paintings are usually given prominence in the ensembles by being placed in the center, but not always. For instance, in one gallery a Van Gogh portrait of postmaster Joseph Roulin, one of the artist’s iconic images, is jammed into a corner by a covey of Cezannes, serving neither artist adequately. […]

In transforming the foundation from a 1920s private gallery to a 21st-century public museum, the art, the artists, the public, and even Barnes would have been better served by a radical rethinking of how to present the higher-quality portions of the collection.

Art: Back at the Barnes, A Second Look (

Here’s Something Else for Barnes Defenders to Freak Out About

The New York Times profiles the museum architects Billie Tsieh and Todd Williams fingering their decision to re-create, not replicate, the interior of the Barnes Foundation in Merion. For those who consider it a crime that the foundation is being moved to a more accessible location, the idea that Barnes’s vision might be altered in any way ought to provoke storms of outrage.

Why they’re not outraged that the art is imprisoned in Barnes’s matrix is another matter entirely. Here’s the Times on the changes Tsieh and Williams made:

In Merion, the galleries flow from one to another, meaning visitors can see not only items in the room they are in, but items in adjacent spaces.

Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien had no problem installing the new galleries in the same sequence. But they decided to “open up” the new building, by inserting a reading room, a classroom and a sunken garden court into the procession of small spaces. That means that, in some cases, the rooms won’t open directly into one another, as in the existing museum.

During a recent interview, Ms. Tsien said they worked to make sure those new rooms wouldn’t be jarring to visitors. “They were meant to be a gentle breath; we don’t want them to be a hurricane,” she said.

As for the galleries themselves, Mr. Williams said that they considered trying to enlarge them, even by just a few inches, to make them feel more spacious.

But the paintings can’t change size, Mr. Williams noted. “So if we enlarged the rooms, the relationships between the paintings” — the relationship that Albert Barnes was focused on — “would start to fall apart,” he said.

For the New Barnes, Everything Old is Old Again (New York Times)

What We Lose When the Barnes Moves

Lance Esplund has a learned, perceptive and moving essay in The Weekly Standard on the importance of the Barnes Foundation as a bulwark against the trend toward museums as places that replicate modern commercial experience.

Art evolves as we evolve. And as art evolves so, the argument goes, must museums: No Museum Left Behind. Museums are the principal nurturers of our engagement with art, dictating not only what art is but also the environment and decorum surrounding it. And art is dependent upon the life we allow it. Before the museum, there was no such thing as art: statues, fetishes, masks, and pictures were tools and never meant to be elevated to pedestals. The primary weakness of the museum is that through its displacement of objects from their original contexts, things are disavowed of their functions and disempowered of their magical properties. Statues become sculptures, crucifixes become compositions, and portraits become pictures.

But this weakness can also be a strength. Continue Reading

Discuss Barnes & The Art of the Steal

We’re testing some new forums for Art Market Monitor. If all goes well, we’ll start using them more during the Armory Show next week. But with the intense interest surrounding the Barnes documentary, it might be interesting to hear what you all think about Dr. Barnes’s vision for his foundation and why (or why not) that has been threatened by the move to a new building downtown.

In other words, does the Barnes stand for anything more than Barnes’s own resentment toward a local establishment that is now long-dead?

Let’s start with this quote from Mark Lamster’s story in The Architect’s Newspaper:

In 1923, Barnes exhibited his collection at the Institute of Fine Arts, expecting a hero’s reception. Instead, he was denigrated, in the press and in Main Line drawing rooms, as a purveyor of tasteless degeneracy. Barnes was not the type to mollify his critics. He turned up his nose at the Philadelphia Philistines and took his toys to suburban Merion. His foundation, chartered a year earlier, would be devoted solely to art education. Even minimal public viewing hours—two days a week—were not instituted until the 1960s.Continue Reading

What Did Barnes Stand For?

The central issue of the new documentary about the Barnes Foundation move is the question of Barnes’s intent, and, drawing that further, what Barnes stood for. Here’s how one of the film’s producers puts it in a Bloomberg story about the documentary:

“It’s a story of David and Goliath,” said producer Sheena Joyce. “Dr. Barnes is David. It’s his idea that’s being attacked by the outside forces.”

Yet Barnes’s idea is rarely discussed or validated for the present day. It is simply asserted as taking precedence over all other “public trust” uses of the art. Barnes’s original idea may be superior to the plan to move the museum. And perhaps the movie makes that argument. But the above clip doesn’t suggest that.

Barnes $25 Billion Art Trove, Boardroom Fight Drive Documentary (Bloomberg)

Barnes v. The Public

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All Things Considered uses the Art of the Steal documentary to explore the idea of conspiracy to move the Barnes. It’s funny to hear the way the argument is framed. Clearly Philadelphia’s civic boosters had a strong interest in moving the Barnes. That could easily be framed as a conspiracy; it could also be seen as small city trying to make the most of its assets.

Here lies the most interesting aspect of the Barnes controversy. Let’s let the movie’s producer raise the point:

“It’s not our story, it’s his story,” Joyce says. “He left an indenture of trust. And that was the blueprint. It was important to bring him to life and tell the story as he would want it told.”Continue Reading

Polarizing Barnes

Leave it to a film review to bring out the most interesting aspect of the Barnes Foundation fight. This Sunday’s New York Times looked at the polemical new documentary, The Art of the Steal from an entirely different angle:

“Barnes’s opinions about art were dogmatic, and the acolytes he attracted were equally and possibly more rigid,” said Maggie Lidz, the estate historian at the Winterthur Museum near Wilmington, Del., another institution whose collection was amassed in the early 20th century.

“Anyone trying to understand the history of the Barnes institution is presented with opposing and irreconcilable viewpoints,” Ms. Lidz added. “Everyone seems to insist that their stance is the only moral one. But the problems that beset the Barnes have never been black and white. Polarization is as much a part of Barnes’s legacy as the paintings.”Continue Reading