Report

The Importance of Place (Winter 2005-2006 Trust Magazine article)

  • February 01, 2006
  • By Marshall A. Ledger

Moving its galleries to Center City Philadelphia will enable the renowned Barnes Foundation to have the support and public access its founder desired. 

“The truth is,” said Vincent van Gogh in a letter written in 1890, “we can only make our pictures speak.” One of the few listening attentively to the art itself—rather than to, say, the painting's subject matter or an edifying lesson it might suggest or its historical context—was Albert C. Barnes. Born in 1872 and trained as a physician but more interested in pharmacology and chemistry, he co-developed a novel anti-inflammatory drug, Argyrol, which went into production in 1902.

His earnings from that and other medicinal products gave him the means to collect important art in staggering numbers—for instance, just among the avant garde of his time, he gathered 69 works by Cézanne (reportedly more than in all of the museums of Paris combined), 59 by Matisse (including Joy of Life, considered one of the 20th century's most important paintings), 181 by Renoir, 44 by Picasso, works by Seurat, van Gogh, Modigliani and many others—as well as sculpture, native American textiles and jewelry, American furniture and industrial hardware.

Barnes's earnings also gave him the leisure to extend an interest in art that he had as a youth, and he began to school himself in art appreciation. And in this, he started as he had as a scientist: He observed, disaggregated, analyzed in an orderly manner and then saw the whole anew.*

Letting his paintings “speak” to him, he “heard” them in terms of aesthetic qualities: color (which “comes nearest being the raw material of painting,” he said), light, space, line and mass. These were, to Barnes, “plastic elements” which, when properly unified, permit a work to aspire to art. These elements, he wrote, might be “shuffled and recombined” in any sort of visual material—for instance, in a magazine illustration—but without the artist's profound “individual perception,” they amount only to “decorative patterns,” not fine art.

Barnes not only sought the experience of individual works of art. He also compared them, one to another, in terms of their plastic qualities. Further, he compared modern works to classical art and to works of various ethnic origins—especially African and African-American—because, to him, all art demonstrated “the essential continuity of the great [artistic] traditions.”

The educational process was difficult and expensive. Some acquisitions did not stand up to his investigation, and he removed them. In 1915 he noted, “I've given more time and effort to trying to find out what is a good painting than I've ever given to any other subject in my life.”

As he was teaching himself, he began teaching others. He had established classes in various academic subjects for his workers, and on the factory walls he hung art that he would sell to them at cost if they expressed an interest in particular works. To Barnes, this educational venture was the forerunner of The Barnes Foundation, the institution to which he dedicated his entire collection, which grew within his lifetime to some 2,500 paintings and thousands of other objects.

The foundation's mission, according to its bylaws when it received a state charter in 1922, was “to promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts; and for this purpose to erect, found and maintain . . . an art gallery and other necessary buildings. . . .” The gallery would be “an educational experiment” and, after the death of Barnes and his wife, the trustees would ensure that “the plain people, that is, men and women who gain their livelihood by daily toil in shops, factories, schools, stores and similar places, shall have free access to the art gallery and the arboretum upon those days when the gallery and arboretum are to be open to the public.”

When the foundation opened on Latch's Lane in Merion, a Philadelphia suburb, in 1925, the installations reflected Barnes's pedagogy—and continue to do so. Works are not hung chronologically or by an external theme or even with explanatory labels other than the artist's name. Instead, they hang, floor to ceiling, according to similarities or contrasts in their plastic qualities, which visitors are intended to grasp through patient, yet alert and increasingly sophisticated, observation.

The burlap-clad walls are renowned for their unlikely juxtapositions: works by a Flemish Baroque master, a French Impressionist and an American folk-art painter, all hung together. Or works created a millennium apart, separated physically by only inches. Or works of art placed just above, below and astride such everyday objects as chairs, tapestries and rugs, candlestick holders, iron door latches and andirons.

Barnes encouraged other comparisons. In the 13-acre arboretum on the foundation's grounds, he arranged the landscaping outside the building's windows so that viewers would make further connections as their eyes scanned the gallery walls and caught sight of flora outside. Seeing links to music, he had Beethoven's Fifth Symphony playing in the background while he gave a talk on Cézanne's Card Players.

All along, Barnes's aesthetic principles were becoming more firmly grounded, and he published a series of books that both applied those fundamentals in scrutinizing art and showed others how to understand art. The most comprehensive of these was The Art in Painting, first published in 1926, adopted by many universities and schools in its time and still used as a textbook at the foundation. Key to his “method,” as he called it, is direct “contact with the paintings themselves” so that the viewers can go through an objective, if not scientific, process of observing the art, reflecting on the artistic elements and testing their conclusions by examining the painting again.

As rooted as was his artistic vision, however, Barnes never stopped (in his phrase) “learning to see.” Broadshouldered, with heavy eyebrows and penetrating, blue eyes, he would confront an ensemble of artworks arranged on the wall, just as he requested, to highlight comparisons and contrasts among them. Looking from piece to piece, consulting his notes, he would see new connections, according to Barton Church, a teacher at the foundation who joined the institution in 1949 and was interviewed by Ralph Blumenthal for The New York Times in 2002: “‘You'd hear him holler, “Chris! Chris!”' said Mr. Church, recalling Barnes seated before a wall of paintings and calling for his handyman, Chris Naughton. ‘He would pick up his hammer and nails and come running to rearrange a picture.'”

For Barnes, the aesthetic experiments and refinements came to a standstill on July 24, 1951, when he died suddenly in an auto accident. But the foundation continued as a school, fortified financially by his endowment—initially $6 million and then a bequeathed $10 million—and by its charter assuring its permanence in suburban Philadelphia.

Time, however, outpaced Barnes's codified indenture. Most significantly, the endowment proved insufficient. Barnes required that it be invested conservatively, and over time it eroded. Meanwhile, expenses rose. The indenture had gone so far as to set staff salaries, which by 1971 had become inadequate, and the foundation required court approval to modify the document and pay employees fairly.

Eventually, the foundation sought to raise money by extending the visiting hours and admitting more visitors. In the 1990s, it floated proposals to enlarge the parking lot, send a portion of its holdings on a worldwide tour and sell off some of the paintings. The idea of deaccessioning was withdrawn after vociferous complaints from the art world and others, but the tour occurred and earned $17 million, a large part dedicated to updating the building.

By the turn of the century, however, legal proceedings, which included challenges from the local community on zoning issues that effectively restrained the number of visitors, drained the endowment to the point where the Barnes, with its priceless collection, was in danger of insolvency.

Public access was another sticking point at the foundation. With the focus on art classes—it currently has some 150 students—public admission has always been limited, and when Barnes himself was in control, arbitrary. (He famously turned away not only scholars and others devoted to the visual arts but also people who had made an important mark in the world, such as the poet T.S. Eliot, and even the sculptor Jacques Lipschitz, whose own works were on display inside.)

In 1961, the foundation was required to honor its nonprofit status by opening its doors to the public one day a week. Reservations, however, were generally necessary, and still are; the foundation is now open three days a week, but weekly admission is capped at 1,200, including school children.

Time has also changed the perception of the collection. Back in 1923, Barnes released 94 modern works for an exhibition in a Philadelphia museum, and the reviews mostly disparaged them as “incomprehensible masses of paint,” “diseased and degenerate” and “unclean!”

Eventually, however, the general public caught up with Barnes's own artistic taste and clamored for entrance. By 1952, it was “morally indefensible to exclude the people always,” as the former Barnes student Abraham L. Chanin argued at that time: “For plainly and simply, the collection is so magnificent that no really adequate idea of Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse, Soutine, Modigliani or Picasso can be formed without seeing it. Many who cannot join classes are entitled to see the splendor.”

In September 2002, the Barnes trustees, in looking for longterm solutions to the problems of both finances and access, determined that they could not only ensure the institution's survival but also best fulfill Barnes's educational purposes by relocating the collection to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Center City Philadelphia and restructuring the board.

At issue regarding the board was its “uncharacteristically small size,” as the petition to the court stated. It could not provide the “level of donor support” required for the foundation, the arboretum and Barnes's country home, Ker-Feal, which, on a 137-acre estate, has its own arboretum and houses American antiques. The five trustees sought an increase to 15 in order to have “a broad-based board that has access to numerous resources.” The Philadelphia location would permit the extensive public access appropriate to a great art collection held in the public trust.

Before seeking the legal changes, the foundation's board sought outside financial assistance. The Trusts and The Lenfest Foundation agreed to help raise $150 million to build a new facility in the city, relocate the collection and establish an endowment to ensure the foundation's future security, “all in keeping with the mission of Dr. Barnes as set forth” in the foundation's original documents, and the Annenberg Foundation also pledged substantial support.

With these assurances, the Barnes trustees filed a petition in the Orphans' Court Division of the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas to move to the city, expand the board from five to 15 members, and make amendments to the foundation's original documents “to eliminate obstacles to increased revenues and to ensure efficient operation and administration of the foundation.”

The petition was granted in December 2004. In response to the ruling, Bernard C. Watson, Ph.D., president of the Barnes, stated that the decision “has provided the foundation with the means of preserving the Barnes collection intact, enhancing our ability to carry out the educational functions which are at the heart of our mission, and ensuring our financial well-being going forward.

“The key element of the petition— relocation of the gallery collection to a new facility in Center City Philadelphia— will be a great and very exciting challenge. The planning and execution of the major capital campaign to fund the design and construction of the new Barnes gallery will now, of course, become a major focus for the board of trustees.”

Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell said that the ruling will promise “an exciting new future for the Barnes Foundation and create an invaluable, new addition to downtown Philadelphia. I look forward to making this goal a reality.

“The relocation,” he continued, “will make [the art] accessible to the thousands of people who visit downtown Philadelphia each day, and increase exposure to the amazing collection, which, along with its educational value, was the intention of Dr. Barnes.”

The Barnes board began to name new trustees with international and national experience in the arts, education, business and philanthropy. And for a site, the city offered a place on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a thoroughfare that has been called “Museum Mile” because of the many cultural institutions that flank it: the Rodin Museum and the central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia on either side of the new Barnes, with the Franklin Institute and the Academy of Natural Sciences virtually across the boulevard, the Philadelphia Museum of Art at one end of the Parkway and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts not far away— plus more than 60 public sculptures, including works by three generations of Alexander Calders.

In announcing the location, Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street said, “In my judgment, this is a huge, important advance for us in the city. We have, over the years, continued to grow into a world-class place, and this is just an enormous step in that direction.”

In an editorial, The New York Times called the legal decision “an act of judicial common sense” and went on to predict “a new beginning for The Barnes Foundation,” especially in its new geographical context.

In a subsequent article, the newspaper reported on the Parkway's cultural cluster, quoting Meryl Levitz, president and chief executive of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, who called the institutions “a string of pearls” for potential visitors; and Anne d'Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who observed, “The idea of a concentration of [museums] is wonderful. The more things you can do, the more ways you can educate yourself, the better it will be.”

The Philadelphia Daily News carried the point further: “The goal of animating the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, to become a vital place that attracts people and activity, comes closer to reality. But it's not just the Parkway that will benefit. The waves that emanate from this decision will ripple into the surrounding neighborhoods and affect not just residential and retail, but the business climate as well.”

Indeed, the Barnes move fits into a larger rediscovery of Philadelphia. In an editorial, The Philadelphia Inquirer, noting especially the influx of new residents to Center City and nearby neighborhoods, called Philadelphia “one hot city.” And National Geographic Traveler, seeing it as a premier visitor destination, called it “the next great city.”

Relocating the Barnes will also benefit local artists as well as the arts and heritage organizations that make their work available to the public. As Marian A. Godfrey, the Trusts' director of Culture and Civic Initiatives, points out: “The arrival of the Barnes gallery in Philadelphia is a real turning point for local culture. The region already enjoys a vibrant community of artists and arts organizations, and these offer a dazzling array of work for local audiences and visitors. The Barnes will benefit from the reputation Philadelphia already has as a major cultural center, and, in turn, our other arts organizations both large and small will shine that much brighter in the glow of excitement generated by the arrival of this unique institution.

“Together, they will create a place that is far more than the sum of its parts—an indispensable destination for anyone interested in the arts.”

The move will also serve Albert Barnes's own desire for his collection to have greater public exposure after his death. As the Inquirer expressed in an editorial: “Rarely has an act of desperation [the court petition in order to avoid insolvency] held out so much promise—for a venerable art institution, and for a city and region that now will be able to embrace The Barnes Foundation as never before.”

*Author's note: Mary Ann Meyers explores this connection in Art, Education and African-American Culture: Albert Barnes and the Science of Philanthropy (Transaction Publishers, 2004). I relied on her lucid study, which is thoroughly grounded in archival materials, for corroboration of other points as well as quotations and facts.

More on The Barnes Foundation can be found at its Web site, www.barnesfoundation.org.

Marshall Ledger is editor of Trust.