Few would argue with the artistic vision of Albert C. Barnes, the self-made millionaire from a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia who parlayed his interest in art into a collection now worth billions of dollars.
As Philanthropy Magazine pointed out in the cover story of its summer, 2011, issue, Barnes had a vision of his collection that would make it more of an educational resource than an entertainment destination.
“Barnes believed that the development of cognitive skills, rather than the memorization of facts, was the key to education,” wrote James Panero in the article. “To understand art, then, everything you need to know is right there in front of your eyes, if only you understood how to see it. In arranging his art on the wall, Barnes thus dispensed with labels, period rooms, chronological order, and the solemnity of your typical white-walled gallery. Instead, with his art hanging floor to ceiling, Barnes let the harmony of shapes and forms sing for itself. He wanted his collection to enliven the eye, not confound it with facts.”
Even as he designed the building in Merion, Pennsylvania, Barnes foresaw the trends in the art world. As Philanthropy Magazine notes:
“Even back in the 1920s, Barnes could see the future of most museums, and he was right. Art was becoming just another asset class, and many museum leaders would seek to monetize their assets in whatever way possible. Today the accepted practices of mainstream museums would horrify Barnes even more than they did in his day, with bequested art horse-traded for more popular pieces, cookie-cutter exhibits arranged by era on sterile, white walls, and name-brand artists” sold in the gift shops of blockbuster exhibitions.
The result was that for years after his death (in a 1951 car accident at the age of 79), the Barnes Foundation’s stunning collection continued to be open to the public in only the most limited manner. In the beginning it was by request (T.S. Eliot was turned down — “nuts,” Barnes wrote on his application). Eventually the building was open two days a week, and visitors were bused in from remote parking lots. More recently it was open every day, but visitors had to reserve a time slot.
And Barnes’s intention, stated clearly and forcefully before he died, was to keep it that way. But, as the story beginning on page 31 makes clear, it didn’t stay that way. And the Barnes and its vast holdings have been moved into the center city of Philadelphia. Where did Albert Barnes go wrong in his foundation and estate planning?
As Philanthropy Magazine points out, Barnes “placed considerable restrictions on the operations of the foundation. He limited the salaries of the foundation’s employees without mechanisms that could account for inflation. He restricted any changes to the collection or to the facility’s grounds. Perhaps most importantly, he restricted the investment of the foundation’s endowment, restrictions to which the Old Guard scrupulously adhered. During Barnes’ lifetime, the indenture granted that the endowment could be invested in ‘any good securities.’ After his death, however, the corpus could only be invested in federal, state, and municipal bonds. Over time this restriction severely eroded the endowment” while expenses increased “to safeguard the artwork against decay, theft, and litigation while still upholding the educational mission of the foundation.”
In the 1990s the foundation president convinced the court to allow the art collection to be sent on an international tour. Later a group of Philadelphia foundations offered the Barnes a $150 million bailout, but with a major condition — that the collection be removed from Merion to a new facility in Philadelphia. In 2004 a judge ruled the foundation could essentially rewrite most of its founder’s stated intentions. That set the stage for the new building.
How did it work out? As New York Times art critic Roberta Smith pointed out in a May 17 review, the new Barnes has succeeded, despite the reservations voiced by purists who wanted Barnes’s unique vision preserved in Merion. “Against all odds, the museum that opens to the public on Saturday is still very much the old Barnes, only better.
“His quirky institution is suddenly on the verge of becoming the prominent and influential national treasure that it has long deserved to be. It is also positioned to make an important contribution to the way we look at and think about art.”