New home sought for famed art

Barnes: Its owner demanded that it never be moved, but its caretakers worry about its survival.

September 29, 2002|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LOWER MERION, Pa. - As an art world controversy, this one has everything: money, race, class warfare, power politics, zoning feuds and an iconoclastic populist-millionaire collector who is still causing trouble from the grave.

Not to mention the artwork - a world-renowned collection that includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 60 Matisses and 44 Picassos housed in the late collector's French villa in suburban Philadelphia. Displayed in an offbeat arrangement that groups Renoir masterpieces with metal hinges, the paintings and other objects were assembled for the purpose of teaching art appreciation to the working class. The collector left orders that they never be moved.

But now, the foundation that controls the 9,000-piece collection of the late Albert C. Barnes wants to do exactly that - transport the art from its swanky Main Line neighborhood to downtown Philadelphia where the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, the planned Alexander Calder museum, the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and the Moore College of Art form the heart of the elite establishment that Barnes disdained.

The nonprofit Barnes Foundation says it could go bankrupt by next year if the artwork, valued at up to $25 billion, stays in its current quarters - where neighborhood legal battles, zoning restrictions and other rules imposed by the court have drained the $10 million endowment, limited admission and kept donors away.

"We're operating on fumes," said foundation President Bernard C. Watson.

On Tuesday, the foundation petitioned Montgomery County Orphans' Court, which oversees charitable trusts, to move the collection and alter its governing rules to increase the number of trustees from five to 15.

If the court approves, three foundations, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Lenfest and Annenberg foundations will give the Barnes $3.1 million in operating funds for at least the next two years, and help it raise $100 million to build a grand new museum and another $50 million for an endowment.

The move would be a prize for Philadelphia's tourism interests and arts community, creating a one-mile cluster of some of the world's finest museums. While New York and Paris have more art, Philadelphia's museums would be within walking distance of one another.

"I don't think there's any place else in America, and maybe the world, that could trump it," said Rebecca W. Rimel, president and chief executive officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

But the foundation faces a hefty legal challenge. In his will and other legal papers, Barnes - who died in a car crash in 1951 - left detailed instructions about how he wanted his paintings handled, including keeping them in "exactly the places they are."

The villa, adjoining gallery and horticulture school on residential Latches Lane form an institution that Barnes always insisted was not a museum but a school, designed to teach ordinary people how to look at and appreciate art.

How the artist sees

Traditional schools taught art history by focusing on the artists and their lives, but Barnes wanted students to learn how an artist sees the world, in terms of "light, line, color and space."

In the galleries, blankets, chests, ironsmith's hinges, pottery, and children's art from disparate lands and eras are arranged alongside works by French impressionists and their successors (identified by the artist's name but not date). In Barnes' mind, this bridged the divide between so-called fine art and the functional and decorative art made by unknown common people.

"Dr. Barnes saw art as a way to enhance perception, build better problem-solving skills and build a better democracy," said Kimberly Camp, the foundation's executive director. "Who knows, you might walk down the street and see your community in a whole new light."

The eccentric Barnes was always an enigma - a benevolent, cantankerous genius who befriended and consulted people who worked for him, even gave them houses and land, but hollered at neighbors when they ventured on his property. He typically slept two hours a night and was known to carry at least two books as he walked around his villa and gallery.

Born in 1872, the son of a postman, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School at age 20 and went on to earn a fortune by patenting an antiseptic called Argyrol.

He soon began collecting art from all over the world and hanging it in his mansion without identifying markers, arranged in ways that pointed out similarities in light, line or palette. Besides the French masterworks, he amassed what was then the world's largest collection of African art.

He detested the elite, calling the vaunted Philadelphia Museum of Art "a house of artistic and intellectual prostitution." He set up a school exclusively for the working class, which repeatedly rejected author James Michener when he applied as a Swarthmore undergraduate, only admitting him when he applied posing as a steel worker.

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