A tale of institutional morality

The Barnes Collection is not being saved, it is being stolen

The biggest heist in history is afoot, some $20bn to $30bn worth. On 13 November, ground was broken in Philadelphia on a fake reconstruction of the Barnes Foundation.

The late Dr Albert Barnes, a physician, inventor and one of the greatest art collectors in American history, created the Barnes Foundation in the 1920s to serve as a study collection for art appreciation and stipulated that the collection remain in the building he had designed for it in Merion, Pennsylvania.

Barnes’s will has been violated. The former custodian of the foundation, Lincoln University, has been bribed out of its inherited responsibility with state funding. The greatest collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and modern paintings in the world—including 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 18 Rousseaus and 11 by Degas, 7 Van Goghs, 6 Seurats, 4 Manets and 4 by Monet—is about to be kidnapped from Merion and abducted to the Philadelphia Mall in the interest of tourism.

This heist has been meticulously, even brilliantly orchestrated by Barnes’s enemies—the Philadelphia establishment, led by Governor Rendell and the city’s vested foundations and citizens. Certainly they think what they’re doing is best for their city. They’re wrong. It is wrong to break a will. It is wrong to violate the testament of a man who devoted his life to making what he considered an important statement. But it is also a mistake. The public is the victim.

In the fine 1920s neo-classical building that was designed for it, the Barnes Collection is greater even than the great parts of which it is composed. To eradicate this unique document of American cultural patronage, this evidence of our national prescience in collecting, is an irreversible mistake. One could wonder whether the only reason not to homogenise the Frick Collection into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Gardner Museum into the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Phillips Collection into the National Gallery of Art, is that they have endowments large enough to keep predators at bay. They too are idiosyncratic, small museums, and the public is their beneficiary, as it is of the Barnes in its present building.

The arguments for this foolish project are specious. The present Barnes building could easily be made more accessible. Hours could be extended. Shuttle-buses could run continuously from the Philadelphia Museum, a short 4.6 miles away. Impingement on the Merion community is nonsense. The residents of Merion want the Barnes to stay. Their congressman, Jim Gerlach, opposes the move. As for an enlarged audience, the publicity will create an initial surge; it will then subside. There will be no new tourism dollars pouring into the city.

These are tough times. Unemployment worsens: people are out of jobs and are losing their homes. There are no funds for healthcare, education, infrastructure. Yet this $200m folly charges on, like Ahab chasing the White Whale. A small part, perhaps $25m, of the vague financing plans, which include $107m earmarked from the state capital budget for the new building, could easily provide an endowment for the Barnes in its historic location. Insufficient effort has been made to tap private sources for the old Barnes. Insufficient effort has been made to sell the redundant real estate of Barnes’s valuable farm, its 19th-century American pottery collection or unrestricted paintings in the offices, which have been appraised at more than $30m. Despite its claims that the Barnes had run through its money and had to be “saved”, the establishment did not really want to “save” it, only steal it.

The writer is a Manhattan-based dealer who was dismissed from the Barnes Foundation’s art advisory committee in 1991 after protesting at the chairman’s plan, which was later abandoned, to sell works from the collection to bolster its endowment.

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30 Apr 10
15:12 CET


The Barnes move is a done-deal. Stick a fork in it.

1 Apr 10
14:41 CET


Those who wish to help the Barnes Foundation stay where it is in Merion can see This is NOT a done deal!

29 Mar 10
20:12 CET


What can I do to save the Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania?

28 Jan 10
1:45 CET


Have we all so quickly forgotten the Rose Museum? Those that love the Barnes collection should be grateful that despite its financial woes, it will still exist. Frankly I am surprised that this much effort and money is being used to uphold the wishes of Dr. Barnes and keep the collection in tact. The quirkiness of the collection is its redeeming factor. Not only is it troublesome to get an appointment,and difficult to find, but much of the work itself is difficult to view with the Salon style (floor to ceiling) hanging with inadequate lighting. I understand respecting the dying wishes of an important collector, but sometimes, for the sake of art, it is for the greater good to break those wishes. And by the way, spending millions on recreating the original layout is not exactly breaking his wishes.

20 Jan 10
22:22 CET


One does not have to get on to rt 76 to go from the city to the Barnes. A simple reservation just like one makes at restaurants is all that is needed to see the collection in Merion. Lower Merion does not makes the rules for the number of people who attend the collection.

14 Jan 10
15:11 CET


I don't know if you've lived in Philadelphia or driven on 76 in the last ten years, or I don't think you'd have suggested running a shuttle from the PMA to Lower Merion. It's 4.5 miles as the crow flies, but more like 6.5 along frequently snarled-up roads (even when you'd think there wouldn't be traffic) as the car drives. Right now, the Barnes is cut off from casual visitors who haven't already been told "Oh, yeah, the Barnes is awesome, but be warned that you need to jump through these hoops before you go over." It's especially annoying knowing that the rules were set up to discourage people from seeing the collection, because I guess Lower Merion wanted the museum but as few troublesome visitors as possible. Saying, "Well, if people can't think to make a reservation and rent a car or figure out how to get there on the suburban trains, they obviously don't appreciate or deserve this art in the way I do," is fine if you're not on the verge of bankruptcy from lack of visitors.

11 Jan 10
18:55 CET


Further to my previous comments, I will quote Dr. George Fisher in regards to the drug that made Barnes rich: “Argyrol was a mildly effective silver-containing antiseptic with the unfortunate tendency to turn its users permanently slate-gray. The advent of antibiotics has since made Argyrol almost sound like quackery . . .” I would like to stress the preference of the impressionists to hang their works well-spaced in a single tier. This enabled their optical effects to be properly appreciated — which is not the case when paintings are tightly stacked in the Salon tradition. Photos of the Shchukin palace reveal modernist canvases double-stacked in ghastly juxtaposition with ornate chandeliers and moldings. Perhaps Barnes was emulating the latter when he tacked ironwork on the walls around his pictures. Both the Shchukin and the Barnes hangs fail to do justice to their art, and I consider any desire to perpetuate this style of decor simply perverse.

11 Jan 10
16:5 CET


There is an organization working hard to STOP this insanity and to keep the Barnes in its present location. Your help, ideas, donations etc. would be welcome. See the FRIENDS OF THE BARNES at :

8 Jan 10
19:38 CET


The neighbors of the old site set up very restrictive rules to limit the number of visitors. The new site will enable at least 100 times more visitors per year. Great art (I consider the Barnes collection the best in the world) should be accessible to the public, so the move will achieve this goal.

8 Jan 10
18:42 CET


Quack? Barnes, a scientist/art collector, invents the antiseptic Argyrol at a time when antibiotics are decades away. What about that makes him a quack? Surely you can make your point without resorting to a libelous lie. Barnes was no quack. He may have been an eccentric, far ahead of his time in a stodgy society that misunderstood his taste in art, but where would we be without pioneer art collectors who preserve what we later learn to treasure? The Cone Sisters, Gertrude Stein, Dominique de Menil, Duncan Phillips, Charles Freer, Thomas Gilcrease to name a few. All baffled their contemporaries when they built their collections. Barnes was a visionary and the way he displayed his art reminds me of many collections I've seen in Europe. Think of poor hapless Sergei Shchukin, his Matisses frame edge to frame edge - in photos the effect takes my breath away. What a shame they were confiscated. Like Barnes, he collected unpopular art. Thank goodness they did.

8 Jan 10
1:55 CET


I applaud the decision to move the Barnes Collection to Philadelphia's museum district from Merion, where it is currently housed in what can only be deemed a travesty of a museum. Yellowing drawings are exhibited on a permanent basis, masterpieces are stacked too high to be appreciated, and the collection's greatest treasure, Matisse's "La Joie de vivre", languishes in a stairwell, unlabelled. The halls in Merion are full of eyesores: third-rate Renoirs and crude Pennsylvania Dutch ornaments which detract from the stunning paintings that hang interspersed amongst detritus. This is all according to the crackpot dictates of quack medicine tycoon, Albert Barnes, who possessed neither the consistency of taste nor the discerning connoisseurship displayed by contemporaries such as H.C. Frick. So I say, it's time to liberate Barnes' great works, which surely deserve better than to be fixed for centuries to a wildly eccentric decorative scheme.

7 Jan 10
22:2 CET


I was there in 1991, it took a bit of foot work to find it and to be there at the alloted time, but what an amazing place! Back then there was a debate about selling a work to pay for repairs to the roof. I recall the eccentricities of the hang, the pyramid format of the paintings surrounded by the hinges and locking devices, the pieces of furniture and carvings that inform and feature in the paintings being exhibited with them, the African masks next to Picasso's Cubist portraits. In the years since I don't think a month goes by where the Barnes Foundation doesn't come up in conversation. Just the other day at the NGA in Canberra it came up when looking at some small Seurats. Anyway, what a shame future generations will not get to experience the original presentation of one person's vision and work as it was meant to be seen by the benefactor. A disgusting use of whatever power is being exercised. I find the whole thing a shameful abuse of the bequest. Hopeless homogenisation!

7 Jan 10
21:28 CET


It is remarkable that so much passion has been devoted to the Barnes case and so little to that of the Turner Bequest, subject to a similar heist, but without the excuse that lack of money necessitated it. The current Turner and the Masters exhibition demonstrates how misguided it was to switch his gallery from the National Gallery, as he wished, to the Tate.

7 Jan 10
19:53 CET


It's a baseless and speculative gamble to assume more tourist (money) will be generated by the Barnes Collection's move. I, for one, drove from New York on more then one occasion specifically to visit the Barnes Collection--due to it's unique salon style arrangement in the rooms and the history of the building in tandem with the artwork. I will not ruin my memories by granting a visit to the Barnes Collection's new glass and steel encasement. Every time I travel to London I go to the John Soane's house (museum) on Lincoln's Inn Fields. It's one eccentric collector's parting wishes that still hasn't been broken due to Soane's careful wording and clever arrangement of the bequest. I go there because it's like stepping back in time and reliving a moment in history. The Barnes invoked the same feeling. Let's hope the paintings don't suffer from detachment the same way I will.

7 Jan 10
19:2 CET


Two friends and I flew to Philadelphia to visit the Barnes the same day ground was broken for the "New Barnes." There can't be a "New Barnes." The "real" Barnes is truly unique and cannot be reproduced in a new sterile setting. Those responsible for this betrayal should be ashamed.

7 Jan 10
18:57 CET


so shocked...India needs to hear of museums as examples in the rest of the world not as the disasters of which herewith is being yet again written.. How could this happen? Dr.Barnes created this Museum to enable beings who dared not enter the hallowed grounds to open their vistas and minds and hearts...

7 Jan 10
18:32 CET


The removal of the Barnes Collection from its present site represents a form of cannibalization that appears to represent the future of the art world in the USA. Watch out!! --- financially impoverished museums across the country. Your most valuable bits can be bought and sold to reassemble in some new, often sterile form in Philadelphia or Crystal Bridges. The loss of that original context is forever. And too often the commercial viability of what is created is no greater than what you destroyed. Look at the Washington (DC) Historical Society when they sold their original home, the Heurich Mansion, and moved to the former Carnegie Library building. No one ever foresaw or even hinted how quickly that solution would go belly-up leaving us all the poorer for the effort. Can the planners behind the move of the Barnes guarantee that it will succeed? Can anyone be certain that a new building filled with a faux Barnes setting will be both an aesthetic as well as a financial success?

7 Jan 10
17:21 CET


I saw the upcoming documentary "The Art of the Steal" which wonderfully illustrates the sad and unbelievable story of exactly what happened to the Barnes Collection. The fact that this could happen in this day and age is terrifying. After seeing the film I went to see the collection as it was meant to be seen and it was beyond amazing. The thrill and adventure of seeing this collection as Dr. Barnes intended it to be seen will be lost with this new move. I think Matisse said it best when he visited the Barnes Collection in the 1930's, "'s the only sane place in America to see art."

7 Jan 10
17:5 CET


It's a crime to move the Barnes collection. I've visited the collection twice and had no problem whatsoever arranging it. Anyone who says otherwise is just plain lazy. It was an extraordinary experience to visit the collection as Barnes intended it as opposed to seeing the paintings while they were out on tour in both Ft. Worth and in Washington. Both locations made for a very sterile experience to see the paintings out of context. I saw the ugly signs along the street in Merion as I walked to the museum and could not comprehend how anyone could feel anything but pride to have such incredible art right there in the neighborhood. Poor Barnes. Still misunderstood, but with better taste than any of his Merion neighbors. I wonder what will happen to the Arboretum on the grounds there. And what about Cret's lovely building with the Lipchitz decorations and Matisse mural. It is a rare privilege to see how collectors lived with their art. It is a crime to destroy the opportunity.

7 Jan 10
16:43 CET


bill, serious financial problems, if any could have been solved by giving the museum to stay where it is rather than moving. we still do not know what damage to the art will happen during the move.

7 Jan 10
16:16 CET


Perhaps if the Gardner had been protected by the BMA the Vermeer (and the Rembrandts) would still be there. Also, while it's been a long time since I lived in Phila, I do know that the "short 4.6 miles away" bus ride could easily be 30 minutes each way (or more). All told, the piece is a panegyric in favor of elitism and exclusion.

7 Jan 10
16:12 CET


Outrage! Stop the move.

7 Jan 10
15:33 CET


I'm thrilled that the collection is being made more accessible. I'm looking forward to visiting Philadelphia specifically to go to the Barnes' new home. I'm looking forward to seeing the art as arranged by Dr. Barnes (isn't tnat part of the deal?) I investigated visiting the Barnes in Merion and found that a visit would be chancy at best. I think it is a shame that the works could not remain in situ, and have been made more accessible before this, but it seems the residents of Merion weren't so keen on better accessibility until the move was in the works. I'm curious why the article doesn't mention the serious financial problems that made this move necessary?

7 Jan 10
15:33 CET


The motivation for this travesty goes far beyond trying to help tourism, create glamour, and other feasibly acceptable ends. This is a sordid debacle fraught with corruption and politics, and these are most likely the only source of momentum now present. It has been mandatory to label every urban project in Philadelphia as needful for rejuvenation of this or that district, yet the Parkway is a gem of a urban landscape that doesnt need additional traffic nor allure, under any standard. The breaking of Mr. Barnes' trust is strong warning that another basic right - to defend property - is incessantly being chipped away at by the Courts. Please contribute to Save the Barnes, and forward this and all articles to friends and associates.

6 Jan 10
21:35 CET


I agree that the Philadelphia politicians and foundation leaders do not understand what they are doing. They think they are helping. They do not know much about art. They make lazy assumptions. They think this will revitalize the Parkway and it actually won't after the initial circus like frenzy subsides. They care about the parties that accompany openings. They do not know or do they care to understand that the Barnes setting was key to viewing the paintings in order to learn something different about the works than is possible in a regular museum setting. I always learned something new from every visit. . It isn't about the individual works. No one needs to see one more Renoir or one more Cezanne on an ordinary museum wall to better understand these artists. As has been stated before, the Barnes experience was more than its parts. We can hope that maybe someday it will be returned. Meanwhile, the Facebook Page offers a way to alert people world wide, so thank you.

6 Jan 10
20:49 CET


Visiting the Barnes is (was) an amazing aesthetic experience - a collage of supremely disparate parts, a work of art that you entered into and assimilated piece by piece. It is a cultural crime to pillage the interior and destroy the scheme created by the donor.The Barnes is like nowhere else, and its loss will be lamented by those who were lucky enough to see it in its full reality, rather than the already tired, expurgated, soul-less version being foisted upon the public. Those of us who love the eighteenth century lament the destruction and the despoliation of old French interiors, with their boiseries, furniture, decorations and paintings dispersed with their true meaning and gestalt lost forever. What they are doing here is creating a sterile, unnecessary partial facsimile, an Art Disneyland, a few miles away from where the the real thing used to be. Future generations will lament this vandalism as well. The last paragraph's concrete, practical solutions were painful to read.

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