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No Museum Left Behind

The relocation of the Barnes Foundation to downtown Philadelphia is fueled by ignorance and avarice, not altruism.

May 31, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 35 • By LANCE ESPLUND
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Barnes wanted people to appreciate how artists think; how artists are inspired; how art furthers art. He strove to emphasize a work’s sublime, as opposed to its mimetic, values. In his writings, he compared learning to see to learning a foreign language and stressed that through the act of developing our senses, our perceptions are heightened and our lives made richer. “Vision and intelligence,” Barnes wrote, “are co-implicative, neither is possible without the other, and all growth involves their interaction.”

This general principle furnishes us with the clue to esthetic education. We perceive only what we have learned to look for, both in life and in art .  .  . to appreciate [a] painting .  .  . we must reconstruct [the artist’s] experience, so far as we are able, in ourselves. .  .  . To see as the artist sees is an accomplishment to which there is no short cut, which cannot be acquired by any magic formula or trick; it requires not only the best energies of which we are capable, but a methodical direction of those energies, based upon scientific understanding of the meaning of art and its relation to human nature. The artist illuminates the objective world for us, exactly as does the scientist, different as the terms are in which he envisages it; art is as little a plaything, a matter of caprice or uncontrolled subjectivity as is physics or chemistry. 

To this end Barnes created an environment where aesthetic values override all others, where viewers are encouraged to make visual connections: to discover that a Matisse or Picasso nude could have walked directly off of a Greek vase. That van Gogh’s immanent frontality—his volumetric figures held within flat planes of yellow—is no different from that of a Byzantine madonna held within planes of flat gold leaf. That, moreover, van Gogh’s nervous, swirling line and compartmentalized spaces are equally related to early Netherlandish painting, Japanese prints, and Impressionism. That art, like human nature, is not linear but cyclical. 

Barnes wanted to empower people to experience art—and, by extension, life—at its most profound levels. In 1930, when Matisse first visited the foundation, he wrote in his notebook that it was “the only sane” place to view art in America. That same year, he remarked in an interview:

One of the most striking things in America is the Barnes collection, which is exhibited in a spirit very beneficial for the formation of American artists. .  .  . This collection presents the paintings in complete frankness, which is not frequent in America. The Barnes Foundation will doubtless manage to destroy the artificial and disreputable presentation of the other collections, where the pictures are hard to see—displayed hypocritically in the mysterious light of a temple or cathedral. According to the current American aesthetic, this presentation seeks to introduce a certain supposedly favorable mystery between the spectator and the work, but it is in the end only a great misunderstanding.

But Matisse was overly optimistic. The Barnes Foundation never influenced other museums and remained a completely unique institution immune from the postwar homogenization of the American museum establishment. Over the years, though, it became a target of that establishment which coveted the art that Barnes had acquired long before it became fashionable. Now after years of litigation, Albert Barnes’s intentions have been subverted and his will broken. And the Barnes Foundation is scheduled to be moved. Galleries have already been closed. Ground broken. Pictures crated. The thousands of artworks are all being uprooted from their home in Merion, Pennsylvania, a leafy suburb 20 minutes from downtown Philadelphia, and transplanted to the mall on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway next to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Advocates claim the relocation is being done in the name of progress, conservation, civic responsibility, and convenience. It all sounds benign enough if you fail to consider that the Barnes Foundation, unlike almost every other museum in the world, is a rooted organism. Yes, the artworks will arrive in Philadelphia, but the museum—the experience of its art—will be irreversibly maimed. And with its move there will be considerable collateral damage extending to the broader areas of museum stewardship, museum donors, and the public trust. Besides violating the legal will and stated intentions of the foundation’s sole benefactor—who stipulated that no work in his collection ever be loaned, deaccessioned, or moved from the building he had designed for it; that no object ever stray, not even an inch, from the precise spot in which he had personally placed it—the move is an unforgivable act that disregards the true purpose of museums.

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