Posterity Denied: The Hijacking of the Barnes Foundation

The "only sane place" to view art in America, according to Henri Matisse, is set to close its doors for good this Sunday.  The Albert Barnes Foundation, a profoundly simple museum set on the outskirts of Philadelphia, will have its 800-painting collection, valued at an astonishing twenty-five billion dollars, moved to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in a new addition cheduled to open in the Spring of 2012.  At first glance, this seems all well and good.  The public will now have access to a one-of-a-kind collection of impressionist and modernist masteries -- just as Mr. Barnes would want, right?

Unfortunately, the facts surrounding the upending of the Barnes collection tell a very different story.  The State of Pennsylvania, through political pressure and judicial maneuvering, used the overreaching arm of the state to dismantle and destroy a man's legacy and life's work. 

Albert Barnes, after amassing a fortune from the antiseptic Argyrol, committed his life to art.  In 1912, guided by close friends and artists, as well as his own keen eye, Barnes began to put together his collection.  In 1922, Barnes established his foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania wherein his collection would find a home meticulously arranged to the last detail.  As one walks through the halls of the Barnes, the founder's passion is as vivid as the masterpieces layering the walls.  From the landscape of the surrounding grounds to the small pieces of furniture accenting the carefully organized walls of the gallery, Barnes' commitment to detail is readily apparent.  The walls, where Renoirs, Cézannes, and Matisses hang next to each other, provide a dialogue between the artists' styles and visions.  It is hard to argue that Barnes' mission, to inspire and cultivate students' passion for art, could find a better home.

Barnes, though, was no Scrooge hoarding his masterpieces from the masses while he alone luxuriated in them (when he wasn't bathing in gold coins).  Rather, he was the highest form of teacher.  Inspired by men like William James and John Dewey, Barnes believed in the necessity of an interactive education -- that students must engage with the material, instead of simply acquiring fact and theory.  Barnes dedicated his fortune to this very goal and established the foundation as an educational facility. 

Barnes was also cognizant of the future, establishing a trust to protect the foundation and his vision in perpetuity.  The educational mission of the foundation was clear in the trust's provisions -- limited public access and orders that none of the art should be tampered with.  The Barnes Foundation, unlike a normal museum, was an organic construct that became the physical manifestation of a man's life ambition.  Barnes made certain stipulations of the foundation clear from the start -- the art should not be moved (be it lent out or sold) and the galleries would have strictly limited public use (two days a week).

Nevertheless, after Barnes' untimely death in 1951 due to a car accident, the foundation immediately fell into the crosshairs of outsiders.  From 1952 onward a long legal history ensued, as various lawsuits chipped away, bit by bit, at the trust's bylaws and regulations.  As the trustees named by Barnes passed away and were replaced, the foundation's new leaders pursued agendas of their own.  Ultimately, in 2004, a state judge ruled that the foundation could move, blatantly against the letter of the trust itself and Barnes' explicit wishes. 

Through all of the legal battles -- riddled with questionable motives, decisions, and events -- the larger intent and endgame were clear.  Governor Ed Rendell said it best: moving the Barnes was a "no-brainer" for Pennsylvania.  Rendell saw this as such a slam-dunk that Pennsylvania allocated money for the new Barnes building while the matter was still in state litigation!  The prestige and tourism dollars were low-hanging, yet plentiful fruit from which government can extract revenue.  Moreover, utilizing a more than eager culture of lawyers, the state's opportunism was easily translated into legal rationalizations. 

The controversy surrounding the Barnes Foundation is one example in what has been a dangerous trend of state expansion.  Judges, empowered by vague mandate of "public good," have been allowed to forever blur the protections of the private sphere -- contracts and property are far from protected entities.  From Kelo to the Barnes Foundation, government has been allowed, under a guise of benevolence, to place a utilitarian calculation of "greater good" above personal liberties, contracts and rights.

Judges have frequently exchanged the role of regulator for accomplice, presenting "legislative intent" or "evolving standards" as empty vessels for larger aims of social improvement.  Edmund Burke's warning rings true here: "Bad law is the worst sort of tyranny."

The story of the Barnes Foundation is one of legal, cultural, and moral diminution.  Not only has the world lost the unique experience of the Barnes itself, but it has also seen the destruction of Albert Barnes' lineage, for his legacy was not children (he had none) but the gift of the foundation to which he had given his life.  Pennsylvania, though, simply saw revenue -- a horrifying testament to self-serving rationalization and the power of the state. 

If interested in seeing the new Barnes exhibit, one can visit in 2012 the new building adjacent to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or as Barnes liked to call it: "[the] house of artistic and intellectual prostitution." 

Harry Graver is a sophomore at Yale University.

The "only sane place" to view art in America, according to Henri Matisse, is set to close its doors for good this Sunday.  The Albert Barnes Foundation, a profoundly simple museum set on the outskirts of Philadelphia, will have its 800-painting collection, valued at an astonishing twenty-five billion dollars, moved to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in a new addition cheduled to open in the Spring of 2012.  At first glance, this seems all well and good.  The public will now have access to a one-of-a-kind collection of impressionist and modernist masteries -- just as Mr. Barnes would want, right?

Unfortunately, the facts surrounding the upending of the Barnes collection tell a very different story.  The State of Pennsylvania, through political pressure and judicial maneuvering, used the overreaching arm of the state to dismantle and destroy a man's legacy and life's work. 

Albert Barnes, after amassing a fortune from the antiseptic Argyrol, committed his life to art.  In 1912, guided by close friends and artists, as well as his own keen eye, Barnes began to put together his collection.  In 1922, Barnes established his foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania wherein his collection would find a home meticulously arranged to the last detail.  As one walks through the halls of the Barnes, the founder's passion is as vivid as the masterpieces layering the walls.  From the landscape of the surrounding grounds to the small pieces of furniture accenting the carefully organized walls of the gallery, Barnes' commitment to detail is readily apparent.  The walls, where Renoirs, Cézannes, and Matisses hang next to each other, provide a dialogue between the artists' styles and visions.  It is hard to argue that Barnes' mission, to inspire and cultivate students' passion for art, could find a better home.

Barnes, though, was no Scrooge hoarding his masterpieces from the masses while he alone luxuriated in them (when he wasn't bathing in gold coins).  Rather, he was the highest form of teacher.  Inspired by men like William James and John Dewey, Barnes believed in the necessity of an interactive education -- that students must engage with the material, instead of simply acquiring fact and theory.  Barnes dedicated his fortune to this very goal and established the foundation as an educational facility. 

Barnes was also cognizant of the future, establishing a trust to protect the foundation and his vision in perpetuity.  The educational mission of the foundation was clear in the trust's provisions -- limited public access and orders that none of the art should be tampered with.  The Barnes Foundation, unlike a normal museum, was an organic construct that became the physical manifestation of a man's life ambition.  Barnes made certain stipulations of the foundation clear from the start -- the art should not be moved (be it lent out or sold) and the galleries would have strictly limited public use (two days a week).

Nevertheless, after Barnes' untimely death in 1951 due to a car accident, the foundation immediately fell into the crosshairs of outsiders.  From 1952 onward a long legal history ensued, as various lawsuits chipped away, bit by bit, at the trust's bylaws and regulations.  As the trustees named by Barnes passed away and were replaced, the foundation's new leaders pursued agendas of their own.  Ultimately, in 2004, a state judge ruled that the foundation could move, blatantly against the letter of the trust itself and Barnes' explicit wishes. 

Through all of the legal battles -- riddled with questionable motives, decisions, and events -- the larger intent and endgame were clear.  Governor Ed Rendell said it best: moving the Barnes was a "no-brainer" for Pennsylvania.  Rendell saw this as such a slam-dunk that Pennsylvania allocated money for the new Barnes building while the matter was still in state litigation!  The prestige and tourism dollars were low-hanging, yet plentiful fruit from which government can extract revenue.  Moreover, utilizing a more than eager culture of lawyers, the state's opportunism was easily translated into legal rationalizations. 

The controversy surrounding the Barnes Foundation is one example in what has been a dangerous trend of state expansion.  Judges, empowered by vague mandate of "public good," have been allowed to forever blur the protections of the private sphere -- contracts and property are far from protected entities.  From Kelo to the Barnes Foundation, government has been allowed, under a guise of benevolence, to place a utilitarian calculation of "greater good" above personal liberties, contracts and rights.

Judges have frequently exchanged the role of regulator for accomplice, presenting "legislative intent" or "evolving standards" as empty vessels for larger aims of social improvement.  Edmund Burke's warning rings true here: "Bad law is the worst sort of tyranny."

The story of the Barnes Foundation is one of legal, cultural, and moral diminution.  Not only has the world lost the unique experience of the Barnes itself, but it has also seen the destruction of Albert Barnes' lineage, for his legacy was not children (he had none) but the gift of the foundation to which he had given his life.  Pennsylvania, though, simply saw revenue -- a horrifying testament to self-serving rationalization and the power of the state. 

If interested in seeing the new Barnes exhibit, one can visit in 2012 the new building adjacent to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or as Barnes liked to call it: "[the] house of artistic and intellectual prostitution." 

Harry Graver is a sophomore at Yale University.

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