Barnes Collection Again at Risk

Montgomery County Judge Stanley Ott wrote in his decision Thursday to delay any decision regarding the move of the Barnes collection to a new location in Philadelphia, pending further evidence. Read more in the news links below.

One can argue that there are moral rights as well as legal ones, but how far can they be taken, and what circumstances attenuate or cancel those rights? The jury is still definitely out in the case of the Albert C. Barnes who founded the Barnes Foundation in 1922 to house his unparalleled collection of Post Impressionist and early modern works by such world-class masters as Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Modigliani and Van Gogh. Along with works from other periods including the Renaissance Dr. Barnes created a collection with the objective of establishing a hands-on teaching experience for the appreciation and the instruction of art. Simply speaking his mission was to create an educational facility, not a public museum.

Over the past dozen or so years, a crisis brought about by poor management and political quibbling has been threatening to destroy his life work which received the praise of such educational leaders as the philosopher John Dewey and the artist Matisse who painted the 30 foot mural la Danse, specifically for the Foundation’s main gallery. Barnes mandated in an Indenture of Trust that the collection always be used primarily for teaching. The same document also forbids the sale, loan or movement of the artwork. Today, the Foundation is open to the public three days per week, and may admit up to 62,000 visitors per year—a number consistent with the Foundation’s scale and its intimate gallery spaces.

The new threat to the institution has been raised by its current trustees, who are asking a court to wipe out all of the terms of the indenture and allow the collection to be moved to Philadelphia. With the now-familiar excuse that there is not enough money to operate the Foundation, the trustees have accepted a plan by several large charities to install the collection in a museum building. The plan was immediately embraced by the local media as it is supposed to bring tourists, money and prestige to the region.

The institutions supporting the litigation to undue Barnes’ will and move the collection—The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Lenfest Foundation and The Annenberg Foundation—could easily support the Barnes Foundation to remain in its original home, but the promise of tourism appears to have overshadowed all other concerns.

Behind the issues of the rights of the donor are questions of the availability of art as well as material considerations. If there is a wonderful altarpiece in a remote hill town church in Tuscany, should it be moved to a central museum, where more people can see it? Should Frank Lloyd’s Robbie house be physically moved to make it more readily accessible to the large masses of would be viewers? Or, should the original idea that gave rise to such a brilliant endeavour be respected, allowing a wonderful painting, or an important building, or a unique collection be left in its setting and not permit purely material considerations to guide our decisions.

You can help by writing the Pennsylvania Attorney General, Mike Fisher, and asking that he perform a serious, transparent and independent investigation into the Foundation’s finances. Point out the value of maintaining unique cultural institutions that do not subordinate serious study and a contemplative atmosphere to the almighty dollar, and insist that less drastic alternatives be thoroughly exhausted before he considers approving the transfer of the Barnes collection out of its life-long home. Insist as well that under no circumstances should he approve the Foundation’s request to eliminate the prohibition in Barnes’ will against sale or loan of artwork. Given that the trustees are proposing a new $150 million structure, and that recent history shows how quickly the Barnes management was willing to trade the artwork for cash, the elimination of the ban on sale or loan could have disastrous consequences. Finally, insist that he preserve the terms of the Indenture that requires the Foundation’s collection to be used principally in its art classes. With 62,000 visitors per year, the collection is hardly inaccessible to the general public who is willing to make an effort to see it.

Send an email to the Attorny General (see below) or write:

Attorney General, Mike Fisher, Strawberry Square 16th Floor, Harrisburg, PA 17120

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