Wednesday: Popular American Culture and Politics

I was in #Philadelphia this weekend on a cultural excursion.  I visited the new Barnes Foundation Museum, a controversial subject in the art world.  Scattered along the Ben Franklin Parkway, you’ll find the Philadelphia Museum of Art facing City Hall, flanked by the Franklin Institute for Scientific Research and the Free Library of Philadelphia.  The flags of all the nations of the world line the roadway.  This urban design was penned by Ben Franklin himself, in an effort to make a visual connection among politics, culture, learning, history, and art.

And now the new Barnes Museum takes its place there as well.  Designed by Todd Williams and Billie Tsien, a husband and wife architecture team from Manhattan, the building itself is a gorgeous modern construction of stone, wood, and glass, utilizing light, space, and simple lines to make an airy and open, but warm and inviting space.  It is ideal for the art after dark gatherings that the city museums are known for.

But the Barnes brings scandal with it.

The Barnes collection was originally housed in the suburbs, in the estate of Mr. Albert Barnes.  This self-made man came into his fortune by developing a drug called Argyrol that prevented newborns from contracting gonorrhea from their mothers during birth, which often resulted in infant blindness.  (For the record: every newborn’s eyes are still treated today, immediately after birth, although now we use anti-bacterial medicines, and not the silver protein that Barnes patented.)  The point here is that Barnes grew up simply and was grounded in pragmatism. He had a love for science, dogs, and horses, and a distinct dislike for the elitism of the upper crust.  He taught himself about art, and began collecting impressionist works in a time when impressionism was still a coup.  His collection spans all different types of artwork, and every provenencial century and geography imaginable, from ancient Egyptian jewelry to medieval iron works to 16th Century furniture to 181 Renoirs (entirely too many plump, pink women, in my opinion) to the most delightful Picassos, Matisses, Seurats, and Modiglianis.  And then, in the fashion of Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston and Henry Clay Frick in New York City, he grouped them however he liked.  Touring the museum, one imagines that Barnes is the ideal muse for the modern interior decorator, because he managed to create unexpected and yet intuitive connections between otherwise disparate pieces.  An African tribal mask beside an elongated Modigliani, or a graceful pastel Degas beneath an imaginative Miro.

But his disdain for elitism continued even as his collection grew.  He hated when people of privilege asked to see his collection.  One story even goes that when a United States Senator arrived in front of Barnes’ mansion and sent the black chauffeur up to request a viewing, Barnes gave the chauffeur a tour and made the Senator sit in the car.  

So the scandal comes in the move.  Barnes clearly stipulated in his will that his collection was not to be moved, not to be touched, not to be changed.  But then why is this estimable artwork 20 miles from where he left it?  Critics will say his will and last wishes were broken and betrayed.  Insiders will tell you that the Barnes Foundation could not perpetuate itself after severe visitation restrictions were put in place by the Merion township in which it once stood; after all, if you limit visitation to Tuesday through Friday, 10:00am to 4:00pm, and no more than 50 visitors in the building at a time, you’re going to end up hard-pressed to pay the electric bill.  

Even as you tour this magnificent building, contemplating provocative pieces in new ways and exploring the phenomenon of human artistic expression, there are dirtier questions that spring to mind.  Would Barnes be pleased that his collection was moved in direct contradiction to his will (and his will), knowing that the old ways couldn’t be sustained and the art wouldn’t long be seen by the very people he was trying to reach and educate?  Would he be happy that his collection is now much more accessible to the inner-city denizens that, in all likelihood, trace a genetic line back to the chauffeurs of his day?  Would he be angry that the elitist art world used elitist money to fight for the right to allow the museum to be open to the elite and the common man, alike?  

There are many questions that stay with you as you leave the Barnes museum.  First: “What would Mr. Barnes be thinking about the semi-commercialization of his art collection?”  And second?  Probably: “Why so many goddam naked Renoirs?”

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