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.
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The Barnes Collection should be accessible to the public. It was shown – or parts of it – at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto in 1994 and it became the hottest event in town then. It was hugely successful and attracted over 500,000 visitors. Art cannot be elitist and cannot be restricted. One cannot restrict human creativity and imagination any less than human emotional response to beauty.
I often hear people use the phrase “accessible to the greater public.” How is the Barnes not accessible? One simply orders tickets, drives or take mass transit and then enjoy the greatest private collection of art. There are museums across the country that are not that accessible by closure during the winters or lack of public transportation.
Today, the foundation possesses more than 2,500 objects – including 800 paintings – estimated to be worth about $25 billion. These are primarily works by Impressionist and Modernist masters, but the collection includes many by leading European and American artists, as well as ancient works from other cultures.
As a child, I was adminstered Dr. Barnes’ awful Argyrol. I visited the handsome house and beautiful grounds and found that there were no labels on the collection because he wanted people to take his educational art course. Mixed in with the great items were often fakes or lesser works. Visitors had to check their handbags/parcels and were allowed only a sheet of Kleenex to carry in the galleries.
Even after a renovation, the lighting was neither enhancing nor protective of the art.
The neighbors are not happy about the move. Neither are many citizens, especially to less attractive surroundings.
There is a reason Barnes chose to make it an educational collection, still accessible but in a restricted fashion. It helps create it as a destination and place of reflection. When it came to Toronto that was one of the reasons it was a hit, because we knew it was a rare thing. This wealthy collector had more foresight and funding ability than the institutions who now covet the collection. As for the title of this piece The Art of the Steal are you refering to the city of Philedaphia or to Barnes, who bought pieces at market prices of the period in which he lived and supported artists through their careers by purchasing their works and enjoying them, or the City who covets this collection without having had the foresight to create it themselves over the years. Barnes likely thought his foundation could manage it more successfully than a government agency, and have it reflect a interesting private collectors tastes.
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