Inappropriate sharing, incomprehensible ramblings, uncalled-for hostility: yup, it's a blog.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


[This post intentionally without artwork]

Ok. The Barnes Collection.

In a nutshell, Dr. Albert Barnes, of Philly, had two passions: modern art and pissing off the elite. He spent years collecting the best works of Picasso and Renior and Cassat and Matisse and Cezanne and Monet and anyone else you can name. Then he took his magnificent collection, installed it into an enormous building, created The Barnes Foundation, and decreed that only art students would be allowed to view the paintings.

Someone--an accountant, probably--pointed out that if the Foundation was to maintain its tax-exempt status as a public service, the public would have to be let in at least occasionally; grudgingly, Barnes agreed to allow the doors of his Foundation opened one or two days a week for public perusal--but only with a public he'd agreed to allow in.

Julian Bond explains Barnes' selection process (paraphrasing): "The mayor of New York would write to Barnes, asking permission to see the collection. Barnes would write a tart response declining the request then sign his dog's name to the letter. However, a plumber from New York might make the same request, and Barnes would give him a date and a time and walk him through the Foundation himself."

It's the "sign his dog's name to the letter" part which amuses me most.

So it went for several decades.

Matisse, by the way, declared the Barnes Foundation the only sane place in America to view Art. But Matisse was widely believed to be insane, so... you know. There's that.

Barnes signed a will meant to preserve, for all time, the premise of his Foundation/School. He died in 1951, in a car wreck. And his will was preserved for a while. Preserved, I might add, despite the Philadelphia Museum of Art (I know--I couldn't believe they had one either!) spending all of those decades before and after Barnes' demise trying to get their grubby mitts on the collection.

Seriously, the elite of Philly thought it positively criminal that their city should house the finest collection of modern art in the world, and only students and New York plumbers could look at it; Walter Annenberg, of the Annenberg Annenbergs (oh yeah, and of the Philadelphia Inquirer) made it his life-long quest to wrest the art away from the Foundation and nail it to the walls of the Philadelphia Museum. Using his paper, Annenberg hounded Barnes until Barnes' death, then hounded the Foundation.

Skip to 1992. Politics had finally broken the Foundation. All the good the Foundation was set up to do became subverted, and politicians and high-society nitwits were in control of the Board of Directors. They declared--some suggest incorrectly--that the building housing the collection was in dangerous disrepair, putting the priceless collection at risk.

Here's where I come in, or rather where the Barnes collection came into my life.

Never heard of it before. A young lad of 17. Moderate interest in art, no real education in it, and in Washington, DC., with a group of friends. We ended up at the National Gallery of Art, I believe, where the Barnes Tour happened to be plunked down out of its element and arranged in such a way Albert Barnes would've died if he weren't already toes-up (Barnes had arranged his collection to his own unique aesthetic, and hated the idea of conventional displaying of art.).

The art on the walls of the museum there in DC had not been seen by the general public in decades. More people viewed the paintings--chomping on their gum, fiddling with their cameras, knocking their demon-spawned kids on the back of the head and hissing at them to for chrissakes pipe down and get some goddamn culture--in a single day than had probably seen them since Barnes' acquisition.

To be clear, Dr. Albert Barnes did not want to keep his art away from the great unwashed masses of tourists. It's just... : He didn't have an art installation. You know? He created an Art installation. Everything in the Foundation, from the furniture to the chandeliers the floor the color of paint on the walls was intended to compliment how his art collection was presented.

You must go to Egypt to see the pyramids; you must go to the Sistine Chapel to see the ceiling; and you should go to the Barnes Foundation to see the Barnes Collection. The art he collected was both his collection and his biography. His vision.

So. There I was in Washington, DC, looking at a disassembled work of art made up of some of the most beautiful pieces of art of the past century.

It isn't as if I had never been to a museum before. But passing through the Barnes Collection proved to be one of those transforming events one remembers after memory fades. I wish I could say something like, "I remember the scent of moderately-priced perfume wafting off of the slight young woman standing beside me as we both stared in awe at this painting" or, "I recall the exact way a cloud cleared the sun and the quality of light in the room shifted almost imperceptibly as I approached that painting." But I can't. All I remember are the paintings themselves. I'm not even sure who the friends were that went with me.

Anyway, against his will and testament and vision, Barnes' magnificent collection is being moved from the Foundation to new digs near the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philly. Nothing remains of the actual intent behind the collection (the board insists the new museum will display the art exactly as it was displayed in the old building, but if it's not where it once was, in the rooms it was originally placed, I doubt they're going to such extremes as to recreate the presentation).

I never went to the Foundation. In 2012, however, I'll probably go see the new place. Then maybe I'll head down to Arizona to see how beautiful and perfect the old London Bridge seems now that it's been broken down piece by piece, moved to the desert, and reassembled miles away from where it stood for so many years. Then perhaps I'll swing up to Vegas, where I'm sure the old CBGB's will be back together again, in a casino miles from the Bowery. Heck, I might even try to find the Amber Room.


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Jennifer said...

Marc? This is you, yes? I had an extra few minutes to linger online yesterday and checked in to read back just a bit and wow! Good stuff! Not that I'm so surprised, but I am happy to find a good thing to read from someone I know. Hello and thank you!

p.s. This is Jennifer B from drama long ago. I saw Mrs. Hughes in Flo on a visit a while back. Remember her?

Anonymous said...

A very lovely expression of your angst and, might I say, a tribute to Dr. Barnes. What happened with his collection was NOTHING short of criminal. All I can say is...I hope he haunts the rich, affluent, perverse, criminals that did this. It makes me want to believe in ghosts, and preferably in very angry dangerous ones.

MM said...

Jennifer: Yup, it's me. How's it going?

Anonymous: Yes, it was criminal. Simply criminal--no way to justify what happened.

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