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Monday, 09 August 2010


It is so funny that you write about him. I just visited his collection two weeks back and mentioned him on my blog Lenshare.com Great piece.

Interestingly, Wikipedia doesn't even mention the film, and does not present the move of the collection in anything like the light you do. I haven't checked for an edit war, though :-).

Is there a written version of that side of the story online? I don't see myself watching a film for it; too slow.

Try the Times review:



I haven't seen the film but I have seen the collection... several years ago in Toronto, Canada. Under the terms of the will it should not have been in Toronto either but unfortunately the trust was not sufficiently endowed to maintain the collection and it wasn't getting enough donations to supplement it so they had to set up a traveling exhibit in a desperate attempt to raise enough funds to keep the collection together. I remember the stink at the time with threats of lawsuits over violation of the will.

Without knowing the full story between then and now I would hazard a guess that the recent recession pushed a tenuous trust fund over the brink and it became impossible to continue under the terms of the will. At least the collection is still in Philadelphia.

The exact same swindle is currently taking place in Los Angeles. The scoundrel in this case is not the city but the Autry Museum, run by the singing cowboy Gene Autry's widow and her board of directors. The Autry, located in the Griffith Park area opposite the city zoo, never had much credibility. It is mostly old cowboy movie detritus, a pop culture collection of what people used to believe depicted the history of the old West. In an older section of town stands the beautiful Southwest Museum built by Charles Lummis, an early 20th century character who devoted himself to the welfare of Native Americans and the real history of the West. In 2003, Autry made a deal to merge the museums with the understanding that the Southwest Museum, the first museum established in Los Angeles, would continue. Guess what happened? The Autry has closed and emptied the elegant old building. They just announced plans to store all of its contents in a Burbank warehouse (outside Los Angeles jurisdiction). Bits of the collection will be shown at the Autry. They have no plans to reopen the Southwest Museum. Now only the Attorney General of California can protect the Southwest Museum by enforcing the merger agreement, and he's busy running for governor. Autry can sell everything off starting in 2013. More here http://friendsofthesouthwestmuseum.com/

So city of Philadelphia is burning or defacing Mr Barnes's collection like Taliban, Hitler and Napoleon did? That is indeed huge news.

The United States as a nation is extraordinarily hostile to art.


Hitler and Napoleon stole art. Hitler gave up on his dreams of world conquest, victory in the war, and even Berlin before he gave up his dreams for his vast museum of stolen art--he held on to that almost until the moment of his death. Most of it was recovered, although not all of it was successfully restored to its rightful owners. And the Louvre still holds vast amounts of Napoleon's plunder.

As far as the Bamyan statues, do you imagine that the Barnes Foundation consisted only of the valuable paintings it contained? Would you dismantle Fallingwater and reconstruct it Las Vegas? The entire building and grounds, the shape of the rooms, the arrangements of all the contents, even the manner in which it was intended to be used were all integral to the collection.

The film makes the case that the alleged "shortage of funds" was just the red herring used to facilitate the theft. In fact the city of Philadelphia had already allocated $107 million for the new museum even *BEFORE* the Trustees voted to move it. The funds were there all along. It's just that the PTB didn't want to use them in the manner the original owner intended. They wanted a tourist attraction. They got it.


I don't know any of the details of this case nor, unfortunately, do I have the time to read about it today. But the American sense that you should be able to dictate what happens to your estate in perpetuity (note that this is a popular sentiment, not a legal fact - legally your ability to dictate certain things is limited by a rule of law that is so obscure and preposterous that I won't even bother attempting to explain it here) is unusual in some ways, and really quite misguided. Again, I don't know anything about the facts of the Barnes case, so it may well be that injustice was done here. But just because someone owned property and wanted it to be handled a certain way after his/her death really is not a good reason in and of itself to observe those wishes. This springs from a variety of American paranoias, mistrust of the state, championing individuality, desire for control and self-determination and not-quite-so-subtle worship of the rich.

In and of themselves, these all sound like good things, right? Mistrust of government? Individuality? Self-determination? Private property? Who could object? But remember that we are talking about someone who is dead. These are not necessarily the wishes of his or her heirs, they are the wishes of someone who is dead and gone. And, to state the obvious, the wishes of someone who was likely quite wealthy (how many lower and middle class people do you know who create trusts to oversee their estate when they die?). My point is not, "They're stupid and rich, so we should trample their rights", it is that you are talking about someone who is likely to control a disproportionate share of societal resources. Allowing a living person to control a large chunk of wealth is one thing. Allowing a dead person to control significant resources is something else altogether.

While it is easy to latch onto seemingly positive desires, it is exceedingly rare that the terms specified in a dead person's will represent the best societal use of their property. Even if they were originally INTENDED to benefit society as a whole, after 50 or 60 years the circumstances will be completely different from what the dearly departed could have possibly anticipated. This is why prestigious universities sometimes turn down offers of enormous gifts that come with strings attached. Even a gift of $50-100 million may prove to be problematic if it means that the university is unable to adapt as circumstances change.

Imagine if Barnes had built a giant vault and dictated that all of the art be put in the vault and nobody should ever be able to view it. Imagine further that he paid for the vault and funded its upkeep, etc. Still think his wishes should be respected? What if he wanted all of the paintings burned? Regardless of whether you believe in the afterlife or not, what happens to his paintings after he dies is of exactly ZERO consequence to him. It is only of concern to those among the living (again, not necessarily his heirs, who may have had very different plans for the art if it were up to them) who fear their own mortality and their related powerlessness after death.* Implicit in the outrage about these cases is a sense of, "Good heavens! I don't want anyone doing anything against my wishes after I'm dead! I want people to respect and obey me even after I'm long gone, because somehow that means I'm not gone and forgotten, and I will somehow still matter, even after I'm dead."

No, you're dead. Don't try to limit the freedom of the living, don't try to tie up societal resources to feed your ego. If you want to leave all of your property to your heirs, and you can convince them that what you want is best, then so be it. But at least that way the power to decide remains among the living, who can adapt to a changing world.

*Otherwise, what you are really saying is: "I disagree with HOW you are disobeying the dead person's wishes." You don't actually care that the dead person's instructions are being ignored as a matter of personal integrity, you care that they are being ignored in a way that you disagree with. Would you object if Barnes' paintings were moved to a similar, but larger, quieter building that was universally acclaimed as being more beautiful, complementing the art better and that had the benefit of superior climate controls for preserving the works? Even if the works were arranged identically?

I think you should familiarize before deciding.


Okay, having read Wikipedia and the Times review of the movie (thanks for that pointer, Mike), I can't find the justification for viewing this as the people who "run Philadelphia" "stealing" the collection. As I read it, the collection remains in the hands of the foundation that Barnes created, and the change in location was initiated by the foundation due to financial difficulties in the original location.

You need to see the film. It's quite fascinating how it all worked, and how it evolved. My take is that Barnes had a vision for his collection that constituted a way of interacting with, and experiencing, art. He did make some demands of people, but I think it's valid that not all art has to belong to the tourist board and be "accessible" to the largest number of school groups. It's quite clear to me that the paintings that are now valuable were just one component of a larger "artwork" that Barnes himself created. It was a stance towards art, a carefully crafted experience.

There's nothing wrong with house museums. I was a frequent visitor to the Phillips in D.C. There are several famous ones in other parts of the world.

The culture vultures just wanted what this museum had, because it is valuable and prestigious, so they contrived to take it. That's all. It's not the end of the world. Nothing is forever. But I find it vile and disreputable all the same.


So, Mike, it was better for the small, underfunded foundation to keep the art -- while being subsidized by the taxpayers through its non-profit status -- and not allow the public to see it?

The Barnes story is rather more complicated than the simple version you have written here, which makes it appear that the art has somehow been destroyed or looted by the rich.

The public *was* allowed to see it. In fact, I'm going to go see it myself, before it's moved.


Just read the NYTimes review you suggested. I saw nothing in there to change my view. The Times review clearly pointed out that the movie was biased (if interesting) and that it didn't really bother to delve into the deeper issue. To quote the review, "What remains unanswered, finally, is the larger question of whether deep pockets ensure custodial rights forever."

Regardless, my point was not about the Barnes collection. It was a broader point, and one that I stand by.

Finally, making any sort of analogies to Hitler in this case is both hysterical and unwarranted. This is another favorite American rhetorical tool: someone is doing something you don't like? Draw some sort of parallel to Hitler (or communists or, more recently, terrorists). A sure-fire trick to bolster any argument, no matter how weak.

Well, we're not going to argue this any further in my comments section, but the analogy is perfectly apropos. I'm not saying the people who coopted the Barnes paintings are like Hitler IN ALL WAYS. I'm saying they're like Hitler in that they absconded with art that didn't belong to them. You can parse that distinction, I'm sure. Hitler took artwork by force, because he had power--that it was military force rather than the power of money and influence is a difference, yes, but in kind rather than in intent and effect. He dreamed of using the stolen art to populate his own grand museum with treasure. Napoleon did the same, except that he succeeded--the museum is still there. The movement of the world's art and treasures throughout history is a fascinating and intricate tale.

Barnes created a museum that was perfectly viable as an alternative way to experience and view the art that HE OWNED. The museum was perfectly viable if the people who ran it had wanted it to be--the "lack of funds" was a red herring. But gradually his enemies were able to take over the Board of his foundation and subvert his vision, and hence his ideals. What happened was that people with more money and more power who disapproved of Barnes and his vision of how art should be used came along and took the art for their own museum. It's not like it's never happened before.

The movie is not biased, it is partisan. It takes one side and makes the case for that side. Its view is the correct view in my opinion--and this blog generally reflects my opinions, as you've probably noticed. :-)


P.S. Just because Reductio ad Hitlerum is generally true doesn't mean nobody ever behaves like Hitler. [g]

Although it's true the public was allowed to see the Barnes collection, access times and numbers were strictly limited. It seems the neighbors in the wealthy neighborhood where the collection is currently housed wanted to avoid too much commotion from the hoi polloi. Given the pending move, I suggest you make reservations well in advance.

Aside from that, I think one has to be careful to avoid using emotionally loaded words such as "scoundrels" and "stole." Before you know it, you can find yourself ignoring inconvenient facts that contradict your point of view.

We loot our own people of their health benefits, education and employment opportunities, and we've long looted other countries of their own valuable natural resources (as General Smedley Butler attested to). Looting the art of those already dead doesn't even register.

Predatory capitalism knows no allegiance, no law, no morals.

Mike said, "The United States as a nation is extraordinarily hostile to art." And I must add that our culture rearranges the past to suit the venal needs of whoever is in power at the moment. Reverence for history--what actually happened to real people--keeps art where it belongs and to whom it belongs.

I've been to the Barnes several times over many years. A pain in the butt to do so, but one of the greatest art experiences ever.

I'll have to see the film and determine how they handled this complex issue, particularly how Lincoln University is portrayed. The deteriorating conditions at the collection were apparent last time I was there, so it's not as if all was well.

Barnes must roll over in his grave over this (never quite liked this saying but can't think of another), given his disdain for the Philadelphia art community. Nonetheless, I will go see the works again wherever they are displayed. Unlike my boycott of BP gas stations, these wonderful paintings can only be seen in one place and, unfortunately, seeing them trumps any moral outrage.

As an aside, another little known art treasure is the collection from the Cone sisters at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The sisters were friends with Matisse, Picasso, Gertrude and Leo Stein, among others, and amassed a fabulous collection of French art, including over 500 works (paintings, sculptures, drawings, etc.) by Matisse alone, possibly the greatest single collection by the artist.

I encourage anyone near my home town to visit the collection at the museum, which includes a 3D virtual tour of the Cone sisters' Baltimore house, as well as some original furnishings, where the Cone sisters lived and displayed many of their paintings. I can only imagine visiting their home!

A similar situation in Chicago, with the Terra Museum's holdings now at the Art Institute, where very few of his very "personal" collection are on view. Before he built his museum, he had been in negotiation with The Art Institute, and decided to build his own museum, so that his art would be on view, not in storage. It's in storage, now, mostly.

Two quick things I forgot to mention...

One can obtain a copy of the video at the local public library, which I intend to do at mine soon.

And, another video worth seeing is a 1993 one titled 'Citizen Barnes, An American Dream'...http://www.amazon.com/Citizen-Barnes-American-Dream-Museum/dp/B000ML9N9Q

"The United States as a nation is extraordinarily hostile to art."

That's because of the disproportionate influence of Fundamentalists. Remember, during Bush's 8 years, he managed to hinder research in general, not just embryonic.

Next, I live here. Barnes was ahead of his time. He went out of his way to promote black artists, who were mostly ignored and disparaged.

I realize the emotions and visceral reactions are expected. The fact is the collection is far from the city, and not that many people, especially tourists, drive to Upper Merion.

By putting the collection on the Ben Franklin Parkway, near the other major museums, they may be able to live off ticket sales, which they currently do not, and the endowment is in danger of depletion.

It's a far different world from when Barnes died. If we don't adapt, we will die out. And it's not looting; it's getting a new home, and a better venue. Upper Merion may have lost, but the vox populi have gained.

That's my take, anyway.

25 Billion? With a B? I hate to quote your brother, but that sounds like a number that came out of a monkey's butt...
Seriously though, the continuing theft of our liberty by local, state, and federal government is no laughing matter. I hope my grand kids can still take photographs of their own without Big Brother's interference.

Doesn't matter if you vote left or right, Blue or red. Governments steal. Monstrous entities that need more and more of the peoples money and possessions. Actually they think it's all belongs to them. Remind me never to visit Philly. On second thought I've driven by on I95 and don't understand why anyone would go there in the first place. :0

I visited The Barnes several years ago and was treated like a cockroach who squeezed itself under their front door.
I would be very pleased to see the whole lot of the magnificant collection moved to a real public museum, where it could be viewed by ordinary citizens.

There are two sides to many stories and in this case probably many more. I can remember when you had to lie to see it if you had a formal art education, sort of the opposite of what it took to see the Getty collection. It always felt like somehow he decided to single out anyone like himself for abuse from the grave.

I don't think that just because you own something you can do anything you want with it, especially if you aren't going to live forever, I mean the Taliban owned the Buddhas of Bamyan right?

And then there is the whole race thing...

I always wondered what the fox news brand of conservatives would make of the whole thing with sacred property rights being used to further an agenda against the property owning neighbors.

The whole thing is Kafkaesque. Yes there is a joke there, and if you* don't know what it is, look up what happened in respect to Franz Kafka's will and his property.

*disclaimer: If you know what I think or mean, or what side I am on, you are not paying attention. The "you" mentioned above is not our host Michael C. Johnston, but the rhetorical you.

I, too, came late to the Barnes story. Last winter while I was in Philadelphia my cab passed the new museum's construction site. I innocently asked my traveling companion, a former Philadelphian and museum curator (unrelated to Barnes), what was being built. Whoosh! I got quite an intense, information-rich 5 minute briefing. I later saw the film and actually heard from some folks who have been directly involved in the Barnes Collection project.

This is no place to debate the matter. But there really are two sides to this story. I realize that the popular angry-man conspiracy theory point of view, toward which the film leans acutely, is cinematically easy to grasp. But it ain't necessarily in full-disclosure. A brief March Philly Inquirer story points toward several aspects of the film, and the popular beliefs, that aren't really Kosher.

I'm not close enough or, frankly, interested enough to take strong sides on this issue. But whenever great wealth is in transit there are always wails of injustice. This story has more than most. I will, however, speculate that whatever sense of outrage may surround this new museum will dissipate quickly. Philly needs all of the high-minded popular attractions it can get. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is a glorious, vital institution with a long heritage. Adding a nearby 93,000 sq.ft. Barnes Foundation Museum in 2012 will only make the attraction better. Art that goes unseen is pointless.

Separately, regarding your visit to an art-rich home, I know the feeling very well. One recent experience that stands out for me was visiting the NY apartment of a prominent photography and contemporary art collector. The apartment's setting overlooked Central Park and, even with bare walls, would have been quite a treat. But before I even reached the main living area my view was filled with photography and art works that I had only seen in museums or books. My host must have anticipated my reaction because she promptly and graciously served me a relaxant.

I hope the makers of "The Art of the Steal" can cover the story of Autry and the Soutwest Museum. See Martha's comment above for details.

According to the movie, the Philadelphia Inquirer is at the heart of the cabal. It was owned by Walter Annenberg, Barnes' mortal enemy and one of the major figures seeking to circumvent Barnes' will and glom on to his paintings. The Inquirer (again, according to the movie) was used extensively over the years to "sell" the anti-Barnes side's narrative to the public. FWIW.

Again, this was a movie review, so the thing to do would be to see the movie.


Strange I just added the documentary to my netflix list yesterday. I have only been to the Barnes 4-5 times, the last 6-7 years ago during a professional meeting back at my old stompimg grounds but I still adored the art. Dragged my wife there to see what I knew from med school. My recollection is that the placement was more 'nontraditional' than exquisite but ymmv. It fit his pedagogical theme. "The way Barnes hung his collection--hugger-mugger, higgledy-piggledy, floor-to-ceiling, paintings interspersed with furniture and old hardware in a series of mostly small rooms--is what makes the Barnes unique." from comment #15. Sometimes my neck hurt to really gaze at a piece. Since I went there many years ago as a poverty stricken med student it was quite a trip to get out there from my hovel in West Philly. The final walk in the rich 'burbs was a sort of preparation for the art.
I have followed the storm for years very distantly. I think there are some more voices to the story. Certainly Mr Lewis mentions one. None of us have the inside info regarding the question of what I understood to be 2 major contentions of the 'movers'. First, the money to maintain the art in situ was drying up. Second the foundation maintains a Non profit status while maintaining a very limited availability. Although open for debate and perhaps too self serving some argued that non profit status was not appropriate for this elitist collection reserved for elitists. (not my argument)

Certainly if the first was true, without a sugar daddy or liquidating some of the art (thereby negating Dr Barnes' original purpose of a coherent whole) Then it has to move. I cannot say.
For an interesting potpourri of both sides read the NYT comments.
Nature Lover

$25 billion (about $31m per painting) is far from improbable.

Just how long it would take the art market to accommodate the sale of so many paintings is an interesting question - but to acquire 8000 paintings by Renoir, Matisse, Manet, Monet, Cezanne, van Gogh et al, in less than a decade (if indeed it were possible) might well cost twice that amount.

A fascinating story.

Here in Australia, we have an ongoing dispute over the "Stolen Generation", with a locally famous film "Rabbit Proof Fence" telling the tale of one such child. Basically, the premise is that the Australian Government deliberately removed Aboriginal children from their parents, with the intent of stamping out the Abriginal race and culture. The problem is that although the claim is widely believed (and accepted by one of our two major political parties), it is based on distant and often second-hand memory, and directly refuted by other memory and by essentially all the available written evidence. The alternative take on it is that these children were actually rescued from lives of appalling abuse and potential death. The lady who is the subject of the film has herself said "That's not my story". End result; a compelling, disturbing tale of a murky episode from our past that just happens not to be true.
Whether ther's a parallel here I'm not able to judge, but "I'm just sayin'".

Mike, Your "According to the movie" scares me. It suggests that you take the movie as being pure truth, not simply a point of view. Faced with passion, I am a skeptic. Perhaps it comes from a career involving investigation and the resulting observation that it is rare for either side of a dispute to have a corner on the truth. The "story" in the Inquirer was by the Chairman of the Barnes Foundation. Have you read it? You say the Inquirer has been used to sell the anti-Barnes side of the narrative. Are you suggesting that the chairman of the Barnes Foundation is anti-Barnes?


As a Philadelphia resident I have been treated to more than my fair share of articles in the Inquirer about this controversy. I haven't seen the movie and don't intend to, but I will tell you that for the past few years the Inquirer has reported both sides of the story, not just one.

As for the controversy itself, it will fizzle quickly when the new Barnes opens, but my neighbors with their "The Barnes belongs in Merion" yard signs will never let up, ever, ever. They have their issue.

Serenity now!

Mike et al,
Philadelphian here. The movie itself, as Ken pointed out above, is an extraordinarily one-sided affair, financed by a disgruntled ex-student of the Barnes Foundation. A few points:

1. The Foundation was never intended to be a museum, but rather a school for students to learn his own idiosyncratic art appreciation. It was first opened to the public in the 1970s, a few decades after Barnes died, and then only on Sundays and only by invitation. It was only post-Glanton that the collection was opened to the (limited) extent that it is now, and if Barnes had his druthers, only Barnes students would see that collection.

2. Barnes' will is irrelevant to the collection, as the Foundation was set out in a Trust to be governed by trustees. That trust explicitly allowed for moving the collection to Philadelphia or its surroundings in the case of fiscal necessity. Would it have been necessary if not for Glanton? Maybe, but it certainly is necessary now.

3. The article Ken linked to above is not written by an Inquirer staff member, but rather Bernard Watson, Chairman of the Barnes' Board of Trustees. The same board set out by Barnes in his Trust to govern the Foundation.

4. The $107 million "set aside by the city" is patently untrue, but rather was part of a state wishlist, a small fraction of which ever had any hope of funding (as pointed out by Bernard Watson in the Inquirer letter Ken linked above).

I've seen the movie, and I was agape the whole time by the brash disingenuity of it all. The argument about "Philadelphia institutions" or "culture vultures" is completely undermined by the fact that the collection is nothing short of a UNESCO-level treasure and should be viewed by as many people as possible. And not necessarily in Barnes' crackpot (though interesting) arrangements.

Those defending the Barnes don't realize that. Its neighbors in Merion want the Barnes to remain in situ but to remove the nuisance of visitors. In essence, for it to be the neighborhood's private art collection. And as for its former students, I think this is telling. Lenny Feinberg, funder of the movie, is quoted as this in a Philadelphia Weekly article:

'"You've got some of the greatest minds of the last 100 years on those walls," Feinberg says. "Picasso, Renoir, Matisse, Cézanne, Soutine: They're names that used to mean something. When they were on those walls, you could get the depth of what they were telling you, if you made the effort, if you put the time in. Now all they're going to be is names that divorced parents can tell their little kids to look at on the weekends they have them."'

Is that a man who wants people to love art? Or who wants to restrict it to the "chosen few?"

Well, one must keep in mind that the trustee's didn't do all that well with the bequest, so the Barnes is broke.

So, either it moves in toto, or it gets sold is pieces.

Interesting -- I generally agree with your characterization (Grand Theft) but also believe that: the film was crap; that the collection was in imminent danger; think that $25 billion, rather than a monkey-butt number, may be low; think that the Barnes behaved with astonishing arrogance toward people who love art; think that the Barnes board somehow managed to screw up both an adequate endowment and great opportunities to preserve the collection in its original quarters, through what amounts to criminal negligence; and that the whole event demonstrates the power of rich people to do what they want.

I'm also somewhat astonished by the assertion that America is hostile to art, when everything I know about art history would suggest the opposite. If we're so hostile, why are some of the greatest collections of 17th century Dutch and 19th and 20th century European art in American museums? Why is one of the world's best collections of Asian art in Minneapolis? Why is A Sunday on La Grande Jatte in Chicago, and Luncheon of the Boating Party in Washington? All supported by taxpayer money (except maybe the Philips), and attended annually, as any number of sources would point out, by more museum-goers than attendees of all the professional sporting events put together...

Do we hang out heads in shame when our photographers are compared to Europeans?

Stop me now, I may become hysterical...

"Are you suggesting that the chairman of the Barnes Foundation is anti-Barnes?"

Er, well, yes...

...according to the movie.



Just viewed the free DVD from my local library. As if I needed another reason to hate politicians and lawyers (except TOP followers, of course), and just greedy people in general.

I'd still like to understand more about Lincoln University's role. Except for portraying the University as a pawn in ending negotiations, I'm not sure enough emphasis was placed on their fiduciary responsibilities to manage the collection in Merion over time. Clearly there were some villains (Glanton, Watson), but what about other University leaders? I'm sure I'm missing a lot here.

After seeing the film, I looked at the Barnes Foundation web site and found this...http://www.barnesfoundation.org/barnesfaq.html
I guess this is not surprising given the movie's portrayal of the expanded Board.


You know that I'm a conservative. Yes, I'll admit that around here even though that might make me suspect, but my sister and I have argued about the Barnes Foundation situation for a number of years.

As a conservative, I argued that his legacy should be honored as he wished it. PERIOD. My sister, who is the liberal in the family countered with logic and articles on just how bad Lincoln University mismanaged (allegedly) the bequest.

So, after much gut-wrenching letting go of some my most deeply held beliefs, I feel that the worst one can say about those who want to move the Barnes downtown is that they, in the words of an adviser of the current resident of the White House was essentially "don't waste a crisis" Had Lincoln U and the board of the Barnes been a better steward of the bequest, it would be in Upper Merion for quite some time.

As I said, better to move it than sell it off...

That said, I'll have to see if I can see it one more time in the current location.

The Barnes is a terrific, if nutty, place. I think the context of the board's decision to move it to Philadelphia can be seen in the light of, or by contrast to, of Alfred Barnes' own decision to bar many people -- sections of society, really -- from his collection, mostly for vain reasons.

As with Hugh, I remember being cautioned before my first visit to not betray my academic origins, lest I in turn be denied access.

The collection is stellar and unnervingly beautiful, even as staged. Barnes had the rather inflexible idea that each individual artwork he purchased being subordinate to a "whole" of his arranging -- the famous, allegedly-instructional "wall-pictures." Sometimes this works, sometimes this feels profoundly affected, but mostly the art is so overpowering it busts out of the straightjacket intended for it.

If the debate is ... man may do as he pleases with his property, then yes, we have here a cauldron of intrigue, with the art being a great way for one man in Philadelphia to snub his nose at the establishment types who would never have him. But if the debate is about access to great art ... well, this grand stuff was always imprisoned in Merion, being sometimes mere window dressing for a sham school and its petty intrigues.

I love the Barnes collection with a passion, and am captivated in particular by its Matisses, including a terrific mural done in situ. But the crime here is that this stuff isn't more accessible, more relevant, and more than a rich man's baubles.

If you're going, Mike, plan your visit carefully. The Barnes isn't really known for being flexible regarding its guests.

The moral of the story isn't that government and lawyers are evil.

The moral is that large private foundations like the Pew trust, now a charity have a lot of influence simply because they have a lot of money to give and many museums and artists rely on that money.

That's what is particularly depressing about this movie. Random people who we cannot vote with our wallets like a corporation, vote people out like a government entity, they have a large part in the direction of what is art in this country.

Private art collections are wonderful for those privileged to experience them. Not so much for those on the outside.

I don't know anything about the Barnes collection but this kind of thing can be done properly. About the time that the Barnes collection was left to Philadelphia an eclectic collection was left to the city of Glasgow by a Mr Burrell. He stipulated that the collection could only be exhibited outside the city as he was concerned about the effects of pollution on the art. The collection remained in storage until the 1980's when the city had located a site and saved enough to build a suitable gallery. I haven't visited the gallery for a number of years but it restored my faith in modern architecture. So these things can be done but those paintings, sculptures and carvings spent a long time in crates. I hope the museum does some justice to his ideals in the end. Gavin

What do you mean when you say he wanted "public access to be restricted"? To me that says he wanted it to stay for other wealthy people like himself to be able to view it, but the peasants remain locked out. If that was the case, I won't shed any tears for his estate being "robbed" of art and presented to the public, which is how art should be used.

Sorry,but I call BS with the Buddhas of Bamyan comparison. Those statues were destroyed. The Barnes collection was relocated. Even if that relocation destroyed the intention of the collection, the art still exists, and there is always the possibility of moving it back or somehow recreating the original intention. Nobody can restore the Buddhas of Bamvan. They are gone for good. There's no way you can compare the destruction of a 1000+ year old world heritage site with the relocation of a 100 year old private collection.

And BTW, David Dyer-Bennet, the film is mentioned on Wikipedia:

...and the "controversy" is mentioned on Wikipedia's Barnes Foundation page:


It's interesting that you mention Fallingwater. Wright was well known for demanding full control over his projects down to not only the furnishings to be used but the exact placement of those furnishings. He had a bad reputation for showing up at the doors of the homes he had designed and insisting his clients return his furniture to the positions he had intended. Few would argue that Wright was an artist. The take-away for me here is that art is seldom just that which we can easily consider and Fallingwater is not a structure, dwelling or shelter but rather an environment which Wright considered to be his work which he would allow to be occupied by strangers. It's more than just a house by a creek.

Placing aside money for a minute, regarding the Barnes collection, what of the desires of the artists? Did Barnes live up to his responsibilities to them by locking their work away from the public? Would any artist perfer his/her work be viewed on a wall over a sofa and enjoyed by a few rather than in a gallery to be enjoyed by the masses?

No collection of art ever moved me the way the Barnes collection did. My experience was much greater than just the sum of the pieces on display. There is art in how the collection is arranged and displayed.

I've not read the stories or watched the movie yet, but I am saddened that the Barnes collection won't be available to others in the future as it was to me.

Hey, I understand there's a great movie about Obama's birth certificate....

"What do you mean when you say he wanted 'public access to be restricted'? To me that says he wanted it to stay for other wealthy people like himself to be able to view it, but the peasants remain locked out."

Actually the exact opposite. Barnes grew up a poor kid and was entirely self-made, and had a chip on his shoulder about the entitled rich. He was known to do things like turn down requests from leading academics yet put out the welcome mat for working people and the disadvantaged. He strongly disliked the idea of art as a marker of status and wealth, baubles for socialites. According to several testimonials right here in our comments, it's still politic to downplay academic standing and social connections when making reservations at the Barnes Foundation.


Sounds like the line from that old Woody Guthrie song about Pretty Boy Floyd:

"As I wander through this world,
I meet lots of funny men.
Some rob you with a gun,
Others with a fountain pen..."

John Camp: "I'm also somewhat astonished by the assertion that America is hostile to art, when everything I know about art history would suggest the opposite. ..."

I, too, disagree strongly with that suggestion. I agree that I'm perhaps a bit closer to the art museum scene than the average bear, so my view might be obscured. But visit the Art Institute of Chicago on nearly any day, but particularly during summer days with long hours, and you'll see the place absolutely stuffed. And not just the transient shows (such as the MoMA HCB show currently on display). But nearly every gallery throughout the vast museum. The Modern Wing, the classical galleries, the lectures, the Thorne Rooms, etc. Even as the recession continued to erode the economy the Art Institute of Chicago's attendance jumped 32% in 2009 (to 1,846,889 visitors). Yes, the opening of the new Modern Wing in 2009 was a big draw but that only reinforces the thesis; art's cool.

The nearby Museum of Contemporary Art is not quite as bustling but it's far from empty.

Ditto for MoMA; it's normally packed. Visit the museum on a weekend or a summer day. You won't be lonely. I last visited it on a day when it was closed to the general public...and it was still very, very busy!

No, America seems fascinated by art. Yes, there will always be a sub-culture that's angrily resentful of anything they can't immediately grasp, and of anyone who appears to be achieving fame and fortune via such media. But my casual observation is that the increased education exposure that we've seen during the past generations has had the collateral effect of shrinking that crowd. The 1990's and early 2000's saw one of the largest expansion of American art museum space in history.

Folks today may still "know what they like" in art but they're generally far more open-minded about studying what they don't. Attendance at a big 2007 Jasper Johns "Gray" show, and remarkable sales of its catalog, would seem to be exhibit A in that argument.

No, I agree with John; America is actually a great lover of art. Perhaps even more so than Europe.

I could make a strong case contra John and Ken, but not here, not now.

But I never said America was hostile to museums.


Ed, I read the W article on the Barnes foundation, and said so in my previous message. I didn't look them up on the film, maybe that had more info (but I was already reading the Times review Mike recommended).

I remember reading in Philadelphia Magazine many years ago that the HVAC system in the current Barnes museum in Upper Merion wasn't up to protection of the art and visits had to be restricted because of this. The new museum is supposed to be an almost exact replica of the current Barnes museuam with additional space for conservation, education etc. I do want to go see the Barnes in its current configuration.

The film is quite powerful but COME ON - it's an incredibly one-sided documentary. Where are the voices of all the people who are on the ground, working at the Barnes every day, day in and day out? You cannot take down a city for one very opinionated film producer's work.

Mike said:

"I could make a strong case contra John and Ken [that America loves art,] but not here, not now. But I never said America was hostile to museums."

I would be interested in hearing your case.

America is seen by some people as hostile to art because America is the premier middle-class, i.e. "bourgeois, " nation in the world. The avant-garde after c.1848 or so, and even more loudly as modernism arrived, defined themselves as anti-bourgeois. And because the artists were anti-bourgeois, the bourgeois "must" be anti-art...despite all the evidence to the contrary. (Picasso didn't get rich selling his paintings to the poor.) In fact, all the new art styles were rapidly adopted by the bourgeois almost everywhere. The "anti" position was a pose, and was always a pose; the leading artists always sought success, and when they got it, rapidly adapted bourgeois effects: chateaux in the country, apartments in Paris, painting trips to Tripoli, etc.

You could perhaps make a case that America is hostile to (some kinds of) intellectualism or even some kinds of artists, but not to art itself.

I don't know the other arts (music, drama, etc.) well enough to make an argument, but it seems to me that the US has been the foundry of at least three or four kinds of new music that has gone world-wide (jazz, blues, country, rock, unless you count all those as four branches of one kind) and what other country has done that, in what is a relatively short history? We've also invented and taken to its highest level an entirely new art form -- film. Where else have they invented an entirely new artform in, say, the last 2,000 years?

I'll wait with bated breath for the "contra."



Dr Barnes' intent was admirable, but the foundation he created is no longer able to pay it's expenses. The Barnes foundation is underfunded and can no longer fulfill it's mission and protect the artworks. The works have to go somewhere.

So it's cheaper to build a whole new museum in a different location, than to support the museum that already exists?


Why would the city fund one person´s ideal at tax payer expense, rather than put it into a meant-for-public consumption format like an existing museum?

If you have to step in and fund it to keep it around, I think it's fair to put it in a format that can be enjoyed by the most.

Why is his post mortem vision so important that it should be maintained even if he didn't leave enough money around to do so?

So it's cheaper to build a whole new museum in a different location, than to support the museum that already exists?

The "museum that already exists" is not a museum at all; it's a quirky little art school in an early 20th century mansion-type building battling disintegrating plumbing, crummy environmental management, and all the other hazards of such buildings.

"Cheaper" was not the goal. "Cheaper" would have been to wrest control of the collection and sell it in multi-billion dollar commercial auctions, thus -releasing- all this trapped treasure.

No, the goals were to better preserve this collection of art and to facilitate better public access to appreciate the collection.

My post is a movie review. Watch the movie first if you want to discuss it. In the meantime, I'll be happy to discuss "Avatar" with you, as I haven't seen that....


My take on the Barnes situation is that 'theft' is hyperbole - the Barnes collection isn't being sold off to private collectors never to be seen again, if anything a greater number of people will have easy access to great art. I count that as a net positive myself.

Questions of the man's wishes are, to me, irrelevant. Collectors are not creators - whatever debt we owe now is to the public and to the art. And as Barnes is long dead, he no longer gets a say.

"And as Barnes is long dead, he no longer gets a say."

Good thing you're not on the Supreme Court.


I hardly recognize my hometown in some of these comments: preserving the integrity of the collection... enjoyment for the masses versus the petty self-interest of the privileged few. Puh-leeze. I'd like to know where the money-trail from ticket sales and merchandizing leads, not to mention the pretentious hobnobbing and cushy sinecures.

I agree that the issue is complex, but I find the arguments in favor of the move specious. For starters: Democratization of art (although this should be "the commodification of art"): Have you been to a large museum lately, especially a major retrospective? These affairs are fit for cattle, not art lovers. To add insult to injury, most people do not really pay much attention: hey, that one looks like uncle Larry, wait, take a picture of me in front of it making a funny face.... Just because more bodies move in front of a work doesn't mean that more people are experiencing it. Not to mention, by this logic private collections are intrisically unethical and small provinces should be required to cough up their more important works to the large metropolitan centers.

Furthermore, need it be said that reifying a group of (already famous) dead artists is hardly democratic - and is probably itself elitist? Do we really need another museum to spin the same tired yarn about the old masters? With all of this talk of caring for the living over the dead, aren't there living artists that could use the wall space?

To make room for the Barnes the city demolished the delinquent youth "prison" which I'm sure was not a small fringe benefit, as the all- too- real reminder was sequestered off onto some other section of the city, replaced with inoffensive, edifiying Art with a capital A.

My post is a movie review. Watch the movie first if you want to discuss it. In the meantime, I'll be happy to discuss "Avatar" with you, as I haven't seen that....

You should have more respect for your readers. Your post was obviously NOT meant purely as a movie review, and the discussion reflects that. I really don't understand why you've taken such an aggressive stance on this issue.

No disrespect intended. But the movie makes a better case for its own premises than I can be expected to make in synopsis of it.

Even if you don't agree with the film's (and my) take, I have a friend who has spent many years working closely with foundations and rich charities, and he told me he thinks the movie is a good look at "their way of thinking, their interactions and business practices."


Unforunately, The Art of the Steal leaves the viewer with the impression that today, public access to the Barnes is very restricted. The fact is, anyone can go, but you have to reserve, just like you have to get timed tickets to major exhibitions or quality restaurants for that matter. They could have about the same number of people a year (180,000) in Merion as they project for the Parkway -- without spending $400 million for a replica that looks more like a prison than the prison that used to be there.

The other thing is that The Barnes is much more than the amazing art collection. It truly is a piece of history and is already eligible for National Historic Landmark status, not for the art collection alone, but because of the revolutionary ideas about art appreciation and democracy that Barnes and Dewey used to make it. The gallery building has tremendous importance, too. It was not a mansion for Dr. Barnes at all. It was designed by Dr. Barnes in collaboration with Paul Philippe Cret, Philadelphia's most important architect from the 20th century. And the building was carefully renovated just a few years ago by Philadelphia's current architecture giants Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. It's in beautiful shape. The thing is, taking the art collection from its historic setting on a 12-acre arboretum planted in the 1880s and moving it to a 4-acre site on one of the City's business boulevards is not only stupid. It also deprives everyone of one of the truly great art experiences forever. Politics and influence met ignorance and greed in this. There has been no transparency, no public debate, and even more misunderstanding about what the Barnes is. It's an unhealthy situation. Friends of the Barnes Foundation are still committed to finding a way to keep The Barnes intact.

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