The art collection of the Barnes Foundation (over 2500 works by artistic luminaries like Matisse, Picasso, and Renoir) is slated to move from the ‘burbs to Philadelphia in about a year. Should the art world continue to struggle against the move?

POSTO: Let them eat art.

The art world’s vehement resistance to a move is just another example of the moneyed elite trying to keep the fine arts inaccessible to the lower classes.

Renowned collector Albert C. Barnes was no schlub. As the inventor of the antiseptic Argyrol, the man pulled serious bank. Barnes' stipulation that his collection never move from his Merion mansion — on the ritzy Main Line, and far away from the city “riff–raff” — effectively limited admission to wealthy suburbanites and cosmopolitan city dwellers with means of transportation. Even for a student with enough cash to blow on daily takeout dinners from Pod, getting to the current location of the Barnes is a serious pain in the ass. With no direct public transportation (any route you can take requires a bit of a hike), possession of an automobile is practically a necessity to view the works.

The new building won’t just be accessible; it’s been designed to not only replicate the interior (the main point of contention for most Barnes–evangelists) but to meet the ultimate levels of environmental–friendliness. Husband–and–wife architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien planned cisterns belowground so that the surrounding gardens could be watered with recycled rain, and solar panels to power up to 10% of the building’s electrical expenditures.

Let’s also remember the reason why the Barnes had to move in the first place: bankruptcy. A city location won’t only increase access to the collection — it will increase revenue for the Foundation as well. Hundreds of carless students, residents, and tourists will now be paying $15 entrance fees for museum admission, which will allow the Foundation to conduct more of the kinds of K–12 educational programs it ran in the suburbs. In the privileged enclave of Merion, it’s obvious that these programs were available to a limited demographic; in Philadelphia, the educational services of the Barnes will open to children of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

With construction going smoothly, and the gallery slated for an August 2011 completion with an opening that winter, there’s no use for critics like the LA Times’ Christopher Knight, who vilified Williams and Tsien’s description of the building as “the architectural equivalent of a ‘Philly cheesesteak’” to keep bemoaning the issue. The architectural team’s metaphor was merely meant to articulate their desire to “represent the common man,” according to the interview with the Wall Street Journal. The disgust of Knight and his sympathizers (termed “Barnes originalists”) is little more than blatant elitism shrouded in the veil of some vague notion of artistic integrity.

While the “cheesesteak” plans were abandoned early in the process, the recent revelation has given the originalists new fuel for the fire, one that should have been extinguished long ago. It’s the 21st century and there’s no reason to perpetuate the snobbery that has permeated the art world in the past. The move of the Barnes might just be the best thing to happen to this city in years.

— Lucy McGuigan

CONTRAPPOSTO: Raised in Barnes

The comments made by art experts in the opening sequence of the Art of the Steal, a 2009 documentary that traces the vicious and contentious manhandling of the late Albert Barnes’ cultural estate, are comparable to a succession of eulogies. In defeated tones, everyone from major art critics to former Barnes Foundation trustees call the relocation of the Barnes the single “greatest act of cultural vandalism since World War II.” Detractors, including bloated bureaucrats and cultural neophytes, accusatorily finger “Barnes evangelists” as elitists, hellbent on reserving the privilege of visiting Barnes’ collection to those who can access the space. However, to distill the issue down to the singular argument that proximity to culture and beauty should be egalitarian is to overlook every screaming injustice inherent in the Foundation’s move.

Albert Barnes emerged as the enfant terrible of the Philadelphia Art scene in the 1920s. A nouveau riche doctor and inventor, Barnes was perennially averse to high society and institutional snobbery throughout his life, and dismissed everyone from WASPy nemesis Moses Annenberg to PMA trustees who wrote him off as an unrefined man with working class origins. However, none could deny his artistic genius; Barnes cultivated a progressive and highly original taste for modern art, years before any major museum saw their cultural or monetary value. At the time of his death, Barnes left control of his artistic holdings to Lincoln University under the condition that the collection never be moved or sold — today, the collection is valued at over $20 billion.

Barnes left behind enemies who recognized the untapped value of the collection. Over the past 30 years, players such as the Annenbergs themselves have degraded the original stipulations in Barnes' will through a series of shady legislations so scandalous that those involved seem more like cultural thugs than former governors or mayors. To relocate the building to the shadow of the PMA, an institution Barnes once dubbed a “house of intellectual and artistic prostitution,” is comparable to spitting on the grave of a dead man. It is imperative to uphold Barnes’ wishes as a preventative measure against travelling shows, high ticket prices and aggressive busing of tourgroups and this culture of exploitation.

To view the collection in its original, homey setting is as paramount to its aesthetic importance as the artistic merit of the works themselves. Without the sterile distraction of curator’s input and whitewashed gallery walls, viewers can gaze at medieval decorative pieces and Cezanne's side by side, choices which allow the viewer a privileged glimpse into the singular eccentricity of the collector. This quality will undoubtedly be lost in translation at the new building.

— Samantha Bloom


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