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. In the museum, the crucifix—out of context and freed from its explicit functions, symbols, and metaphors—can operate on a universal level: It is allowed to speak not just to or for Christians but to all—and to other works of art. In the museum, the crucifix, just like the totem, the fertility figure, the landscape, the nude, and the abstract painting, communicates to us as an expression of universal values. In art, spirituality is not denominational but expressed through plastic form.
This is what Albert Barnes understood and advocated. His foundation is a modern temple of aesthetics. Artworks exist outside—above—their specific movement, mythology, time, and place. Each piece is a gateway into an exploration of the language of art; the subject is secondary, even tertiary, to its function as a vehicle for life.
The controversy surrounding the Barnes seems to ignore one central feature of the debate. The Barnes ran out of money. The ideal solution would have been to find another benefactor who supported Dr. Barnes’ vision to fund it. Lacking that private sector support, the public trust cannot be served by Barnes’s elitist dictates. The two functions are completely at odds.
No Museum Left Behind (The Weekly Standard)