A viewing of the film The Art of the Steal about the relocation of the Barnes Collection from the suburb of lower Marion to Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia pre-ceeded my recent trip there. I was looking forward to seeing progress on several art-related developments including the Barnes on the Parkway and the installation of a giant paintbrush by Claes Oldenburg outside the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA).
It’s clear that Philadelphia is a city for the arts. If you’ve never been, you’re missing a lot. In addition to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and PAFA there’s the Rodin Museum, which in some ways is just a side-note to a city littered with sculpture.
It’s also my favorite U.S. city in terms of its architecture. Yes, I enjoy the variety of styles that mix some of the earliest residential architecture with modern skyscrapers and everything in-between. Boston is a possible rival, but doesn’t have the grid and dramatic parkways Philadelphia has. New York clearly surpasses Philadelphia in terms of skyscraper architecture, but the livable city there somehow seems lost in the caverns. Then there’s San Francisco, which is its own marvel. Yet, most of what’s appreciated there-the wooden Victorians- could be built in a weekend.
Philadelphia City Hall is a sculptural masterpiece itself and the city and its art radiates outward from there. A few short blocks away is PAFA, a treasure of a building designed by Frank Furness. Just outside this museum is where the Oldenburg sculpture is being erected. Unfortunately there’s no sign of it yet, outside of the construction and a hole dug for the footers.
Then there’s the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. At the end sits the grand Philadelphia Museum of Art, and in its wings the Perelman Annex, the Rodin Museum and soon the Barnes on the Parkway.
The Art of the Steal tells the story of Barnes and his art collection, making it clear that his intention was for the art to remain inside the building in Lower Marion, and to be used for educational purposes. Aspects of this are not unheard of. Henry Clay Frick’s collection is not to leave his home in Manhattan. In fact, D. Colin B. Bailey, Chief Curator of the Frick Collection was interviewed for the documentary.
The insight into Barnes the man was the most interesting part of the production. He was clearly a master at collecting. The work by Renoir, Mattise and Cezanne he collected was not accepted at the time by the conservative Philadelphia establishment. He bought the paintings before the museums were competing for them. His art collection was rejected and criticized in the media, primarily by Walter Annenburg’s Philadelphia Inquirer and he didn’t want the downtown interests to have it.
Both Annenburg and Barnes, and many of the other players at the time, including the artists themselves are no longer with us. It’s clear the move to the center city violates Barnes intent as expressed in his will.
Still, I can’t help but join what I expect is most of Philadelphia, and some in Lower Marion too, to be happy to see the new Barnes rising on the Parkway. In terms of the intent, I think there are several things we need to consider.
The first is Barnes did not create the art, he collected it. The only sure way to control what happens to a collection upon our death is to destroy it. The second way is to sell it. We’re lucky Barnes did neither. Yet, is there an indefinite right of a collector to control artwork because they were able to collect it? It’s a good question. On one hand, I can’t help but thinking the experience in say Monticello wouldn’t be enhanced by having Thomas Jefferson’s artwork on the walls. On the other hand you couldn’t deny the right of ownership to whomever has that work in their possession. Barnes did not sell his artwork, or leave it to heirs, he left it to a foundation-and foundations are controlled by people, and people can be subject to manipulation and will have interests at heart and hand that aren’t always aligned with the intent of the deceased. Sometimes that interest is in the public’s. Since there’s no way to live forever, there’s no way to avoid this.
Perhaps Barnes himself was not interested in more people having access to the artwork he collected, but it seems clear more people will have access to it in Center City than in Lower Marion. It will enhance the city and even make the Barnes name more prominent there than that of even Walter Annenburg. Leaving it in Lower Marion doesn’t seem fair to the artists or the art-viewing public, especially given that the artwork, while it has gone on tour, is not supposed to leave the building.
It was Jefferson who said the earth is for the living. To me there’s a lot more living going on in Philadelphia and the new home will be a good one.