Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Barnes Foundation: The End of an Era

On Sunday, July 3, the doors to the Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion, PA will close. Its priceless art collection will be taken down, wrapped and shipped to its new home in Philadelphia, a mere five miles away. Barring some last minute reprieve, the Sunday closing in Lower Merion marks the end of the Barnes Foundation as it was created and endowed by its founder to be, and another victory for greed, power and money über alles.

To fully understand the gravity and significance of what is about to happen in Philadelphia, Don Argott’s 2010 documentary, The Art of the Steal is a must-see. The film, as entertaining and suspenseful as any who-dunnit, maps out the complex machinations of what has been called the world's largest art theft since World War II.

Albert C. Barnes’ Post-Impressionist art collection is estimated today to be worth approximately $25 billion. The collection includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, and 7 Van Goghs. The Barnes Foundation was never intended to be a museum. Barnes' will left specific instructions that the foundation would remain a school and that the work would never be loaned, moved or sold after his death.

Vincent van Gogh, Joseph-Etienne Roulin, 1889, 66.2 x 55 cm, The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania
The Art of the Steal paints a vivid and convincing picture of an Albert Barnes who was infuriated by the ignorance of the cultural elite in Philadelphia, an elite who had publically ridiculed his art collection when it was first shown. Barnes is quoted as saying “Philadelphia is a depressing intellectual slum” and “the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a house of artistic and intellectual prostitution.” The film portrays Barnes' attitude as the driving force for creating his foundation in Merion, vowing that the "provincials” in Philadelphia would never get their hands on it.

In its rebuttal to the film the Barnes Foundation glosses over Barnes’ hatred of Philadelphia society saying simply: “Any suggestion that Dr. Barnes situated the Foundation in Merion in order to keep it away from the area's elite or conservative art establishment is entirely unfounded.”

I'm not convinced.

Barnes died in a car crash in 1951 and control of the foundation was left to Lincoln University, a small, under-funded, African-American school. The job of running the foundation fell to Barnes’ right-hand person, Violette de Mazia, who ran the school as Barnes had intended for the next 30 years. Upon de Mazia’s death in 1988, Richard Glanton, president of the board of Lincoln University, decided to take control of the Barnes. Understanding its revenue-producing potential, Glanton set out to get the Barnes the worldwide attention he felt it deserved.


Paul Cézanne, Nature morte au crâne, 1895-1900, 54,3 x 65 cm, The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania
Claiming that the building housing the collection had been neglected, Glanton proposed selling off some of the art to pay for the cost of the repairs. Objections were raised that selling the work was illegal and unethical according to the terms of Barnes’ will and the plan was abandoned. Glanton then came up with another plan, to tour the collection worldwide to pay for the repairs, also in direct opposition to the terms of the will. This time, however, Glanton prevailed and the first major attempt to chip away at Barnes’ will was a fait accompli.

With the entire world now clamoring to see the Barnes collection, politicians, huge charitable trusts, rich socialites and tourism boards (all of whom declined to be interviewed for the film) swarmed in and fought to gain control of the collection and move it to Philadelphia. Eventually, $150 million was raised to fund the new facility in Philadelphia -- more than enough money to address any problems that the Merion location presented.

Henri Matisse, Le bonheur de vivre, Oil on canvas. In the collection of the Barnes Foundation. 175 x 241 cm
Fighting these powerful forces were a handful of artists, Merion residents, historians and lawyers. Interviewed in the film are LA Times critic Christopher Knight; Julian Bond, whose father, Horace Mann Bond, was the first black president of Lincoln University; John Anderson, author of Art Held Hostage; former student Jay Raymond and David D’Arcy, correspondent for The Art Newspaper. D'Arcy states:

“My feeling about Philadelphia is that it doesn’t do itself justice saying ‘we need to be a world-class city’ by stealing an art collection and bringing it down to what I call a ‘McBarnes’ in downtown Philadelphia.”

Henri Matisse, whose large site-specific mural, The Dance II, 1932, is being moved to the new facility in Philadelphia is quoted as saying: “The Barnes Foundation is the only sane place to see art in America” . . . until Sunday.

Click here to buy the DVD from Amazon

Survey Results

Thanks to everyone who participated in last week's survey, "MFA: Is It Necessary?" Click here to see the results. Be sure to look at the comments -- lots of interesting opinions and anecdotal information. As I mentioned last week, I've been invited to participate in a public debate on this topic as part of Artillery Magazine's debate series, Artillery Sets the Standard, here in Los Angeles. I'll be posting the text of my argument after the July 10 debate. (Hint: I'm arguing the "not necessary" side.)

Ongoing at Offramp Gallery

Mark Steven Greenfield: Doo-Dahz has been extended through Sunday, July 3.


  1. Times change circumstances change the world moves on, I don’t know who is right, is the Barnes will a forever lasting decision about art that in reality belongs to the world, are past morays and sensibilities not to be violated regardless of modern realities, I don’t really know, but should someone’s whishes, who has been dead all these years decide present pathways concerning such an important matter.

  2. The question to ask yourself is, how would you feel if it were your wishes being ignored. The length of time gone by should not make a difference. If it did we would be minus many universities, scholarships, and foundations today.

  3. Yes, what a wonderful movie. Full of intrigue and devious people with less than ideal motives.

    Let's say that Dr Barnes was being spiteful in his will and final wishes because his collection was rejected by the so-called cultural elite of his day. By the time that he died, he knew that he had a very, very important collection. Personally, I have no issue with his wish to keep the collection out of the hands of the cultural elite; however, his collection has become too important to neglect it from touring the world for the hundreds of thousands of its admirers. In my estimation, that is Dr. Barnes' only mis-calculation.

    I absolutely hate how Dr Barnes' collection has been outright stolen; however, I will travel to Philly to see it because the collection is probably better than any Impressionist collection that I have seen in the museums of Europe.

  4. If the location of the Barnes collection in Merion is supposed to be a statement on the ignorance of Philadelphia's cultural elite, then by all means it should stay there - as long as its endowment can fund it. Unfortunately Barnes left the foundation with no viable investment plan, weak leadership, and no links to any arts institutions that could help. So its money has run out. The $150 million is coming from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and major foundations - the kind of people Barnes despised. And they are supposed to fund the Barnes to stay put so Barnes can insult them from beyond the tomb? Barnes' will is broken, as much due to his own spite and arrogance as anything else. Let the people who are putting up the money decide what to do with the pieces.