The Controversy Over Moving the World's Best Art Collection You Haven't Heard Of

The Barnes Foundation's move to metropolitan Philadelphia inflames the art world

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In February, the premier of a new documentary sparked fierce debate in the fine arts world. The Art of the Steal, directed by Don Argott, centers on the controversial relocation of early-20th-century pharmaceutical magnate Alfred C. Barnes' private collection of post-impressionist and modern art--the largest in the world--from his Beaux-Arts mansion in Merion, PA to a larger, more accommodating facility at the heart of Philadelphia. As Katya Kazakina reported for Bloomberg News in February, the collection maintained by the Barnes Foundation after Barnes' death in 1951 includes "181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis and seven Van Goghs." The artwork itself was not the only attraction to the Barnes estate: "Barnes, who had eccentric tastes in display, insisted that the paintings be hung densely amid medieval relics, African art and modernist furniture."

The controversy arises not from the sheer wealth of art but its rightful display. When Barnes established his foundation, he mandated that his collection be used "for art education, not commercial display." "The artworks couldn’t be lent, sold or moved,"noted Kazakina. "The galleries were to be open to the public only two days a week; other days were dedicated to educational programs." But after decades of litigation surrounding the foundation, Barnes' original wishes for his collection were gradually superseded. In a heartfelt article departing from the Weekly Standard's usual conservative line, Lance Esplund chronicled the recent history of the museum after decades in hibernation following a dispute with Philadelphia Inquirer publisher Walter Annenberg in 1951:

When the foundation reopened in 1995, it had audio guides and a gift shop that sold coffee mugs, T-shirts, color reproductions, and jewelry. A gallery referred to as the “Dutch Room,” housing decorative arts, had disappeared and an elevator taken its place. With increased visitors came pollution and traffic. The Barnes’s neighbors understandably complained: Tour buses blocked their driveways; fast food wrappers littered their lawns, which were trampled by tourists. [Barnes Foundtion president Richard] Glanton embarked on rounds of endless litigation—including suing the Barnes's neighbors for racism (Glanton is black). In the end, nearly $6 million of the Barnes’s endowment was spent on attorney fees. The Barnes was suddenly broke. When Glanton was not reelected, a new president was instated. Admission fees were again increased; a parking lot was added; 1,200 visitors were allowed in per week. But those in charge were truly only interested in the final solution. ...

The new Barnes is scheduled to open in downtown Philadelphia by 2012.

Since the release of "The Art of the Steal," admirers of the Barnes collection have howled over the move:

  • It's A Legal Problem  Discussing the film in March, Jamie Johnson of Vanity Fair portrays the conflict as couched in legal ambiguities, declaring the controversy over the Barnes collection "glaringly manipulative, and sometimes unlawful, interpretations of high-profile wills." "Contrary to what most people might believe, the rich routinely fail to draft effective trust agreements that faithfully carry out their dying wishes," notes Johnson. "In fact, power struggles over inherited wealth are so endemic in the culture of affluence that nearly all of the nation’s most profitable law firms maintain trust-and-estates divisions whose sole purpose is to handle such disputes—and reap the financial rewards." While Johnson concedes that "no illegality has ever been proven" with regards to the specific stipulation's in Barnes' will, there remains the distinct possibility of outside influences commandeering his legacy. "Thanks to the vagaries of legal documents and the general greed that money seems always to breed in humans, the rich rarely get to control their bequests from the grave."
  • It's A Commercialization Problem  In the Weekly Standard, Esplund bemoans the Barnes collection's move to the center of a commercial circus. "It is such people who are hell-bent on turning museums into shopping malls with ease of access to the 'customer,'" seethes Esplund. "Through homogenization and expansion, they have already ruined once-great institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Morgan Library. There is a belief that getting more people in the door is a museum’s prime function." Esplund emphasizes the need to respect the founder's intent: what would Barnes have wanted? "Barnes gave life to a unique institution, and its present-day stewards should be obligated to follow the ethical oath of others (medical doctors and art conservators among them) entrusted with the care of the living: First, do no harm. The relocation of the Barnes is disguised as altruism, but it is fueled solely by ignorance and avarice."
  • It's About Context  The Los Angeles Times' Christopher Knight agrees with Esplund's assertion that the Foundation's move is fueled by "ignorance." "The uniqueness of the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa., is a primary reason for the difficulty in explaining why the planned move ... is such a gut-wrenching tragedy," laments Knight. "A simple sentence, encapsulating shorthand or a brief paragraph just cannot explain it. The problem is compounded when most readers are accustomed to museum galleries that have almost nothing in common with the Barnes. Sui generis, constituting a class of its own, the Barnes Foundation is literally incomparable." Knight's closing criticism of Esplund and the Weekly Standard only drives home his conviction on the Barnes Foundation's move. "On art, Esplund is a critic with whom I don't agree about much," scoffs Knight. "And I think the Weekly Standard is, typically, a magazine best picked up with long-handled tongs..." Nevertheless, he calls Esplund's article "often enlightening."
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