Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Musings on The Barnes

A few months ago (in October of 2009) I wrote about the Barnes move and included two videos of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien describing the new building on the Parkway. The new movie, The Art of the Steal, which I have now seen, motivates me to share some thoughts on the issue.

One important point of clarification. This was a "done deal" by the time I came to town, and by the time Mayor Nutter took office, so I cannot speak with any knowledge about things that took place before my arrival. What I can share are my reactions to the movie, and my involvement in this debate for the past 18 months.

First, as has been widely reported, the movie is distinctly one-sided. Because it was clear that the filmmakers and producer had a point of view that opposed the move, all the leading players on the other side of the issue - with the exception of Governor Rendell - refused to participate. Nobody viewing the movie should be under the illusion that they are getting a balanced representation of the issues and facts.

A few points to note, responding to some of the points made in the film and related articles and blogs:

  • If Dr. Barnes's commitment was to education and the use of the collection to educate people about art - especially the underserved - isn't there a great value to being located in a facility that is much more easily accessible to exactly those people the institution was intended to serve?  The current Merion location is in a wealthy community and difficult to access by public transportation. I don't think it is a coincidence that I don't believe a single teacher or student interviewed in the film is a person of color - ironic given Barnes' relationship to Lincoln, a historically Black college. and the prominence of Julian Bond and Richard Glanton as interview subjects in the movie.
  • If Dr. Barnes was committed to the artworks being exhibited in  precise orientation to one another, in rooms of specific dimensions, that desire is fulfilled by the new building which maintains the exact same arrangement of art in rooms of the same dimension, with windows and doors in exactly the same locations, and even with view through the windows onto a bucolic landscape being replicated. The prohibition on lending work or removing it other than for conservation, will also be maintained.
  • Because the intimate dimensions of the rooms will be preserved, there will still need to be limitations on the volume of visitors that can be accommodated per hour, but because the new building will be open many more hours than the Merion site, and because the new temporary exhibition spaces will spread people out through a larger complex, many more people will be able to access the Barnes collection than are now able to.
  • The new building will create gallery space for temporary exhibitions, which the current building lacks. As Barnes was an avid collector of what was THEN contemporary art, who knows what work he would have continued to collect had he not died so suddenly?  How might the work on display changed had he lived another twenty years? Temporary exhibition space will allow for fascinating curatorial exploration of the Barnes collection, mounting of exhibits that might illuminate the context of the man, the art and the times, exhibition of contemporary art that might put help us view the collection in light of artists who are the "Cezannes of today" as the PMA's Cezanne and beyond show did so brilliantly.
  • The current building and gardens will be maintained as part of the The Barnes Foundation and will be accessible as a horticultural and study center.
  • There is also information disseminated that seems to imply the City is investing significant funding into the new building. In fact the City is putting no capital money into the project, and has made no commitments to providing operating funding. Once it is operating in the City, the Barnes can apply to the Philadelphia Cultural Fund like any other cultural group. All the City did was make the land available. Trying to place a value on the land were it sold for commercial development is inappropriate, as given the prominence of this site on the Parkway the site would ONLY have been utilized for public benefit.
  • Yes, the Barnes may need to increase the fundraising needed to program and operate the new facility, and one could argue this does add an additional stress on the funding environment in the arts sector in the City. On the other hand, I do believe a rising tide raises all ships, and the excitement of the new Barnes on the Parkway, I believe will attract more donors to the marketplace, and encourage them to increase their philanthropy rather than dividing up a static pie more thinly.
Would a solution to the problem of limited access at the existing site be the creation of a visitor orientation center on the Parkway that could shuttle visitors to the Merion Barnes and back? Perhaps, if this had been suggested many, many years ago, when plans for the move were first put into place, and such a solution could have garnered support form the funders of the move. But the time is long past for this debate. Ground is broken, the building and landscape is fully designed - which I for one believe is stunning, construction is well underway, and the building is going to open.

Isn't it time to come together and figure out how the legacy of this quirky, ecccentric, brilliant collector, Dr, Albert Barnes, can best be honored and celebrated in the context of the Barnes on the Parkway?


  1. Thank you for an excellent post.

  2. WHo pays your salary? No one reading this should be under the illusion they were getting an objective commentary.

  3. I appear in the movie, as one of those opposed to the move. I offer these points:

    • “… the movie is distinctly one-sided…” Yes, it is. The title indicates that. It makes no pretense of being otherwise why is this point is made? It seems to be an implied criticism. That said, the other side IS represented Gov. Rendell, former PA Atty. General Mike Fisher and the local head of the tourism bureau. Each gets to say exactly why they did what they did, and this makes the point of the movie even stronger. I contend that more voices of the movers would have done much the same, and so I too regret their absence. The case for the move is terribly weak and this is why the movers have always refused, long before this movie, to participate in any forum where their opposition has a voice.

    • “..more easily accessible..” The Barnes in Merion is NOT difficult to access by public transportation. There are at least two bus lines within a few blocks and one train station within a half-mile.

    • Not one “…single teacher or student..” in the movie is a person of color. The Barnes Foundation, like any white run organization is not free of the effects of racsim and it has showed in its student body, even though, as pointed out in the film, Albert Barnes was decades ahead of his time in treating African-Americans with equal respect in his factory and his foundation. Horace Pippin was a student at the Barnes and his paintings hang there, as one example. His entrusting the future of his foundation to Lincoln is another. Even so, there have been and are significant numbers of students of color at the Barnes. The current Director of Education is African-American.

    • In Philadelphia the “…the artworks being exhibited in precise orientation…” that Barnes intended. Despite what Mr. Steuer reads in the papers, this will not be the case in the new location. Many aspects of the interior of the galleries in Merion are not going to be appear or be replicated in Philadelphia. He may not understand why that matters, but it does.

    • “… many more people will be able to acess the Barnes collection..” Again, Mr. Steuer believe what he reads in the papers. There is a complete absence of evidence that more people will see it in Philadelphia. The Barnes Foundation’s projections of attendance are just estimates, and of their own making in order to “balance” the books. The Foundation does not come close to selling all its tickets (available each year) now. They routinely offer them at ½ price. Why will people come to see it in Philly year after year, when the main attraction is not going to change and it’s only five miles closer to City Hall? I predict that they won’t.

    • What could the curators of the Pew/Annenberg/Lenfest Museum (aka the Parkway Barnes) possibly collect (with NO fund for purchases) that the Philadelhia Museum of Art–three blocks away–does not??

    • The property in Merions will be an endless drain on the short resources of the Foundation and I confidently predict the school of horticulture will be closed or merged, and the sold to the adjacent St. Joseph’s University, within 5-10 years of the move.

    • If one counts the few millions it is costing the City to temporarily house the juveniles previously detained on the Parkway facility, and counts the many millions that the City could have gotten by using that property for sensible commerical development that would have enhanced the street feel of the Parkway, then, well, it IS costing the City many, many millions to lease the land for $10 year to a non-profit that is going to be a perpetual drain on philathropic resources, thus empoverishing the local arts and culture community.

    Jay Raymond

  4. Regarding "anonymous's comment, where in life does one get
    an objective commentary. What a naive statement! The so called
    documentary was severely biased and Mr. Steuer's Art Blog was
    in my estimation a properly crafted response considering where
    we are today. Irwin

  5. Just a note...the film's director, Don Argott, is a local arts graduate -- from The Art Institute of Philadelphia.

  6. Came here through your LinkedIn account. My two cents? I never understood the profession of curator until I tried to make my way through the Barnes Collection. Everything seemed disconnected; nothing flowed. I could not relate to each work in and of itself *nor* could I relate the works to each other.

    That being said, I walked out of the Barnes with one insight that I had not received from many meanderings through the Met or the PMA: Renoir was a hack. ;)

  7. And how do the planners of the new "education" program at the faux Barnes propose to teach those like Gillian about where the art is in Renoir's painting??? She seems to want her art fast and easy to consume and digest. This is not possible with the Barnes material, ESPECIALLY given that aesthetics have been so long out of vogue in both art schools and colleges.

    Further, few visitors of the casual variety come to the Barnes Foundation prepared to do the work of seeing what's really in a work or in an ensemble of works. Many,however,are quite willing pass snap judgment about the Barnes material, deeming themselves experts when in truth they are not.

    Make no mistake about this. Moving the Barnes will kill the Barnes, as it was meant to be.

    30 years from now, when aesthetics has its renaissance, and the light cap on the no longer new building has gone all scummy , will Philadelphians have any sense of what they have so wantonly destroyed?