The Art of the Steal
By Andrea KezdiAlbert C. Barnes (January 2, 1872 – July 24, 1951), who gained wealth through his breakthrough scientific research, was an art collector and owner of the Barnes Foundation, a museum established around his collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist art. The Barnes Foundation is located in Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania.
Barnes was known as an eccentric person, who quickly acquired a discerning taste for art. In 1910 at around the age of 30, Barnes began to dedicate himself to the pursuit of art, and commissioned a friend and painter to purchase several modern French paintings, which later came to form the core of his collection. Barnes was well connected and became acquainted with the likes of Matisse and Picasso; with an excellent eye for art, Barnes quickly recognized the value of the works of these artists, who were often dismissed by contemporary critics. Due to his wealth, and the poor economic conditions during the Depression, Barnes was able to acquire several of their works at affordable prices. Soon he had amassed a staggering collection, including 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, and 14 Modiglianis. Today, the 9,000 piece collection is valued at over $25 billion.Perhaps due to his personal experiences with educational institutions, Barnes was known to be critical of the educational systems, museums, and the ‘art establishment’ in place at the time. Barnes did not follow traditional curatorial notions, but instead hung his artwork according to his ideas of the relationships between paintings, which he paired with finely crafted furniture, metalwork and other objects in his collection. Barnes limited access to the institution and insisted that it be used solely for educational purposes. The students of Lincoln University were regular visitors, and others were required to make appointments by letter. Barnes insisted that his collection remain private and even went to great lengths to produce what he considered to be an ‘iron-clad’ will to ensure that the institution remain this way after his death. It was stipulated that the institution be open to the public only a few times a week, and more importantly that the collection never be loaned or sold. The paintings were to remain in the exact original locations.
The estate remained this way, according to Barnes’ wishes until the death of the first Trustee in 1988. This is when the controversial legal battle over the control of the Barnes foundation began. It now appears that the collection will be moved into a new museum in Philadelphia, a decision the Philadelphia museum, the mayor of Philadelphia, and a series of charitable organizations have been fighting for.
Does the collection belong in Pennsylvania, on the walls of the Barnes Estate, dedicated to the study of art, or does it belong in a museum accessible to the greater public? Tell us your thoughts.