Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Barnes Storming

Merian, PA's Barnes Foundation, with its unique collection of art and interior design elements is not long for this world, at least in its current form. As anyone who has taken a Wills & Estates class in the last 10 years knows, the trust setting up the Foundation was amended by the courts to allow Philadelphia to take charge of the art collection: In Violation of His Wishes

On Dec. 13, 2004, a Montgomery County judge gave permission for the Barnes Foundation, with its unparallelled collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Early Modern paintings by Renoir, C├ęzanne, Matisse and others, to relocate its gallery from suburban Merion, Pa., to downtown Philadelphia.

The decision overturned key provisions of the 1922 trust indenture establishing the foundation, which was created primarily as an educational institution rather than a museum. In the indenture, Albert C. Barnes stipulated that no changes could be made to his collection or the unique—some say idiosyncratic—installation, which mixes nonchronological arrangements of paintings with furniture and decorative-arts objects to illustrate Barnes's theories of art.

The judgment also marked the culmination of a complex battle pitting current and former students and art-world supporters against Philadelphia's philanthropic and political establishment, each side with its own view of how to perpetuate Barnes's vision and put the financially beleaguered institution on a sound footing. And it capped more than a decade of brawling—in the courts, the streets and the media—over the foundation's purpose and priorities.

Not to blame the victim, but Barnes could have spared his trust a lot of problems if he had granted the public better access to his collection in the first place. Instead, he wanted the collection to be a resource for his students. The trust's original terms were famously rigid in that the art had to be displayed in a very particular way, alongside very particular design elements. That was fine. But the trust was also rigid in limiting access to the collection, eventually leading to the financial troubles that left the Foundation vulnerable. There was an expensive and divisive fight over letting the collection go on a tour to raise money for the beleaguered Foundation, the sort of thing that would be a no-brainer for more conventional museums. It also doesn't help that Barnes was a better collector than he was a teacher (the raison d'etre of the Foundation). It is striking how few artists of any great ability came out of his school, or have risen to the defense of the Foundation.
But, make no mistake, this has been a property seizure by the City of Philadelphia, enabled by the courts. Rather than a unique, idiosyncratic collection in a quiet suburban setting, the Barnes Collection will now be just another "downtown museum experience." The art won't change, of course, and it wouldn't take too much effort to retain Barnes' layout. But, a piece of Old America is being lost because the state can't seem to abide the fact that there might be a tourist site established by a private trust according to the vision of a curmudgeon like Barnes.

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