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All About Albert

The Barnes Foundation and the brilliant, eccentric man behind it.

2:39 PM, Jul 24, 2011 • By EMILY SCHULTHEIS
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Philanthropy magazine features Albert Barnes on the cover of its summer issue, the latest in a growing number of newspapers and magazines to run feature stories about Barnes and his museum in Pennsylvania. James Panero, writing in Philanthropy:

Albert Coombs Barnes was a brilliant man. As a student, Barnes emerged from one of Philadelphia’s toughest neighborhoods, eventually earning a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and studying chemistry in Germany. As an entrepreneur, he made a fortune through the mass production of anti-blindness medicine. As a businessman, he timed the sale of his business perfectly, selling at the peak of a surging market. As an art enthusiast, he amassed one of the world’s finest collections of post-Impressionist and early modern paintings. As a philanthropist, he created a school—not a museum—where some of the world’s finest works of modern and post-Impressionist painting were studied in strict accordance with Barnes’ self-designed pedagogical principles.

All in all, the same brilliance that created a legacy for Albert Barnes would ultimately undo his legacy. Since the time of Barnes’ death in an automobile accident in 1951, the Barnes Foundation has been a case study in how an institution, created by a brilliant mind with clear intentions, can become irrevocably damaged through overly restrictive operating guidelines, unanticipated leadership problems, and the competing missions of other organizations and institutions. Much attention has been paid to the forces at work against the foundation, but in fact the seeds of destruction were sown by the hands of Barnes himself. As history has proven, decisions he made in life imperiled the perpetuity of his collection after death.

Barnes made every effort to preserve the vision of his creation after his death. For the past 60 years, what we have seen at the Barnes is what Barnes put there himself. At this moment, however, Barnes’ art collection is being removed forever from the walls he built for it. Barnes knew he was creating something unique in the annals of American art. He was also right that outside forces would emerge to alter his project after his death. What he never anticipated was that the very defenses he put in place to preserve his collection would eventually contribute to its undoing.

It's a fascinating story, and well worth reading. Lance Esplund is quoted in Panero's piece. Check out Esplund's cover story from our pages, which covers the beginning of the Barnes Foundation saga, here.

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