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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Great Art Framed by Turmoil

A collection that rivals those of the Getty and other top museums sits near Philadelphia, all but obscured by legal and financial problems.


MERION, Pa. — Inside the Barnes Foundation, a French Renaissance chateau set in a fenced arboretum on Philadelphia's western shoulder, hangs one of the world's most spectacular art collections.

Masterpieces are displayed literally from floor to ceiling: Cezanne's "Bathers" and "The Card Players," Seurat's "Models," Van Gogh's signed "Postman." The gallery is so crammed with priceless works that Matisse's "Joy of Life" is confined to a stairwell.

The Musee d'Orsay in Paris owns 94 works by Renoir. The Barnes has 181. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has 39 by Cezanne. The Barnes owns 69.

"A-plus, superb, glorious, as good as exists in the world," Barry Munitz, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, says of the collection's masterpieces.

For all its artistic treasures, however, the Barnes remains a troubled and dysfunctional institution on its 80th anniversary, weighted down by years of confrontations over art, education and race. "Our mission has been overshadowed by turmoil," a Barnes publication acknowledges, with some understatement.

The foundation is suffocating under a crush of lawsuits and is desperate for money. It has a poisonous relationship with its neighbors, who videotape visitors and count people arriving inside buses.

The Barnes is hemmed in by court decisions and zoning rules that dictate its admission (a mere $5), hours, parking, attendance and art arrangement. It cannot move its paintings from the wall positions they have held since 1951. It cannot lend or sell them.

Much of the Barnes' glory, and some of its misery, can be traced to the iconoclastic beliefs of its founder, Dr. Albert C. Barnes. A self-made millionaire with a shrewd eye for art, Barnes is considered a brilliant visionary and champion of social justice by many and a paranoid and vindictive pedagogue by a few. (Thomas Hart Benton called him "friendly, kindly, hospitable, and, at the same time, a ruthless, underhanded son of a bitch.")

The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings Barnes bought in France in the 1910s and 1920s were shipped directly to Merion but not to be hung in a museum. Barnes used them as instructional tools in gallery classes that taught his theories about art, aesthetics, light, line, color and space.

The paintings were hung next to African sculpture, Navajo jewelry and Pennsylvania German blanket chests so that students could appreciate the similarities among different works of art. Because he focused on the art and not the artist, Barnes did not attach the names of paintings or other identifying information. Even now, the Barnes says it is not a museum; it's a school for art. Its trustees are named not by curators or art experts but by a small university in rural Pennsylvania.

The son of a Philadelphia letter carrier, Barnes made a fortune patenting an eye antiseptic. An amateur painter, he attended high school with painter William Glackens, who later educated Barnes about art--and how to buy it. To some, Barnes was said to be astute but overbearing. He offended Gertrude Stein by asking how much she had paid for Picasso's portrait of her. Barnes "did literally wave his checkbook in the air," Stein once said.

Barnes died in a car crash in 1951 at age 78. His will and indenture, along with the foundation's bylaws, are still being interpreted, debated and dissected 80 years after he chartered the Barnes "to promote the advancement of education and appreciation of the fine arts."

The foundation was paralyzed for half a century after his death, with admission severely restricted and the gallery in disrepair. The collection has never been fully inventoried. Until the 1990s, there were no color photos of the paintings and no illustrated catalog.

Kimberly Camp, who announced "We are broke!" shortly after taking over as executive director in 1998, is struggling to raise money to keep the foundation alive and still true to Barnes' vision of art as a vehicle for racial and social justice. She calls it the "first purposely multicultural collection" in the nation. "Barnes believed in the power of aesthetics and art to enhance the perceptions of everyday people and build critical problem-solving skills," Camp said. And those perceptions "would help build a better democracy and help eliminate segregation and discrimination," she said. Race is never far from the surface at the foundation.

Barnes, who was white, railed against the overt racism of his time; he attended black churches and held gospel concerts at the foundation. He battled white-run cultural institutions and left control of the Barnes to Lincoln University, a historically African American school.

In his foundation's bylaws, Barnes stipulated that "the plain people, that is, men and women who gain their livelihood by daily toil in shops, factories, schools, stores and similar places, shall have free access to the art gallery." He wrote of "the rare artistic and mental endowments of the Negro."

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