Can sex save the Barnes?
Campaign to keep doctor’s art in Merion receives a tonic
By David D’Arcy. Museums, Issue 224, May 2011
Published online: 17 May 2011
PHILADELPHIA. If the company that is recreating the “miracle” medicine that earned a fortune for Albert C. Barnes have their way, the cantankerous chemist’s art collection might stay in its suburban home in Merion rather than move to a new home being built nearby in central Philadelphia.
Argyrol Pharmaceuticals promises that an injection of cash from its future revenues—10% of profits—could be a cure for the Barnes Foundation’s financial difficulties, which first prompted the relocation.
Argyrol, an antiseptic, “can treat sexually transmitted diseases”, according to Christine McKinney, who owns the trademark to Argyrol’s essential molecule. In a startling claim, the company marketing the drug says that it attacks genital herpes and HIV, besides treating eye infections and acne, foreseeing a potential global market. Trademarked in 1902, Argyrol was widely used to treat infections, particularly gonorrhoea, in the last century.
In 1925 Barnes built the Paul Cret-designed Merion gallery to house his collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings and artefacts. Barnes sold the Argyrol trademark to the pharmaceutical firm Zonite in 1929, using the profits to bankroll his acquisitions.
McKinney’s partner, Dusty Berke, said that the $150m building under construction to rehouse the Barnes collection could be “repurposed”. A spokesman at the Barnes Foundation said that McKinney and Berke had told them of their offer.
The company’s proposal to share its profits has been greeted cooly by Nicholas Tinari, a former Barnes student who opposes the collection’s move from Merion. “It seems like a marketing tactic, more than anything to do with saving the collection from being torn apart and moved to Philadelphia,” he said.
This is not the first time that sex threatens to shape the Barnes collection’s destiny. The doctor’s protégée, Violette de Mazia, is believed to have succeeded Barnes as the head of the foundation because she was his lover as well as his deputy. And Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario promoted its 1994 exhibition of paintings lent by the Barnes Foundation, many of them nudes, with bus advertisements saying: “Come see our bare naked ladies.”
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