3 min read
The Barnes Foundation is closed.

The space that Albert C. Barnes dreamed up, planned, designed, financed, built, decorated, propagated, nurtured, endowed, cherished, defended, and most certainly loved, shuttered.

Perhaps the finest collections of nineteenth and twentieth-century French painting in the world never again to be seen as its curator intended. Never again to be seen in its odd, arresting, pleasing, and wonderfully distinctive space that can never be replicated. Not by us. Not now.

What is it about us that we could not tolerate the Barnes Foundation as it was and as it was intended to be by its founder, Albert C. Barnes?

There were claims of faulty finances and the once leaky roof, the stubborn indenture with its idiosyncratic provisions, cries of mismanagement and old scores to be settled. Year in and year out came another complaint. Yet whatever their veracity, each somehow tolled a hollow ring, echoing a greater emptiness as their numbers grew.

I never visited the Barnes Foundation, even when I lived just miles away. Yet even now a continent removed, it is not lost on me that when the Barnes emptied its galleries one last time something great was lost and that in letting Barnes’s legacy slip through our collective fingers, we have diminished ourselves as a people and as a civilization.

We rightfully lament the annihilation of the Buddhas of Bamiyan or the plundering of indigenous artifacts from their native lands as acts against culture. How are we so blind to the cultural vandalism in Lower Merion?

There are those for whom the sprawling new complex that will warehouse Mr. Barnes’s collection on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway will be seen as a great step forward. They will view it as progress. What with its environmentally friendly design, 80-plus parking spaces, snack shack, reception space, and trinket store, patrons can be in and out of the Barnes before lunch and at the Blackjack table in Atlantic City by early afternoon.

The Barnes Foundation, of course, ceases to exist in any meaningful sense once the paintings are removed from the building and property that Mr. Barnes crafted for them. His collection is consequential as he intended it only in that space.

As acclaimed Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi put it: “The current building in Merion was designed specifically for the Barnes collection . . . . The building and site design are an integral part of the collection, and vice versa.  Separating them vastly diminishes the value and purpose of both.”

We also are diminished by treating without care Mr. Barnes’s legacy. What does it say of American jurisprudence that it could not muster a defense of Mr. Barnes’s bequest, that the law could not do what we all expect it ought to do for us: protect the terms of our wills and estates as we have determined them after we are gone? Of what value are our contracts if they should be dispensed with when we are not around to protect them? Where is the trust in trusteeship? What is wrong with us that we could not find it within our collective selves to do what we would expect others do with our legacies?

Edmund Burke famously wrote that society is a contract between the living, the dead, and those who are yet to be born. The conflagrations over the Barnes Foundation and the shuddering of its doors last Saturday illustrate a profound inability to think outside of the present, to think principally of ourselves, to ignore our past while thumbing our nose at posterity. Destroying Mr. Barnes’s legacy is an extraordinary act of generational selfishness masking as public interest. It is a gross violation of the intergenerational contract that connects society across time and that makes life meaningful. In this act of cultural vandalism, we have diminished ourselves across generations. We should be ashamed.

Note: On July 3, 2011, the Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion located outside of Philadelphia closed its doors. The foundation was chartered in 1922 and is generally considered America's greatest collection of early 20th-century modern painting. Barnes expressly prohibited the removal of his collection from its home in Lower Merion.  In Spring of 2012, Mr. Barnes's collection will be relocated to downtown Philadelphia. The controversy surrounding the Barnes Foundation is recorded in the film The Art of the Steal.

6 thoughts on “Cultural vandalism in Lower Merion”

  1. I hope that this wonderful commentary can be printed far and wide. Mr. Cain has beautifully articulated the frustrated sadness that I feel, as an artist but,even more, as a grandparent.
    As Peter Schjeldahl said years ago in the New Yorker…if there were others like it , the loss of the Barnes would not be so tragic. But one minus one is zero.
    Thank you for writing this article .
    Barbara B. Rosin

  2. Sandra G. Bressler says:

    Mr. Cain elevates the discussion and hits the nail on the head with his analysis. Moving the art would not only be the evisceration of an extraordinary cultural institution renowned throughout the world. It would also be the trashing of a bequest to the public, with far reaching societal implications.

    The doors may have closed in Merion but this is not over yet. Political and financial machinations are behind the move. The facts of the Barnes matter have not yet been presented in court. Judge Stanley Ott has the opportunity to re-open the case on August 1. Let us hope there will be justice for the Barnes Foundation and that it will be preserved in its historic home.

  3. Jeff Cain says:

    Ms. Enright — Agreed. No excuse sufficient not to have visited the Barnes when I had the opportunity. Still, I was always quite conscious that the Barnes Foundation was not an art museum per se, where patrons are herded through in volume with headsets telling them what to see. It was, foremost, a place for artists to learn better their craft, to see things with new eyes. That was the great gift of the Barnes Foundation, it seems to me, to reveal something new and meaningful in works that others once simply passed over. Barnes was always one step ahead of his contemporaries. Until now.

  4. Evelyn Yaari says:

    Look to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office for the fault lines in the Barnes case. Obligated to act as parens patriae for charities, the Attorney General instead maintained throughout the role of advocate for the Barnes Movers. Even more than advocate, then-Attorney General threatened the only other party with legal standing to intervene – Lincoln University – with the power of the Attorney General’s office “to change the complexion of the Board. Here’s a link to a brief synopsis of the dirty deeds: http://www.savethebarnes.org/2011/06/so-thats-how-to-steal-barnes-art.html

  5. Dale Slomoff says:

    Thank you Mr. Cain for your eloquent expression
    of feelings that I so deeply share.

  6. nancy enright says:

    While I totally agree with Mr. Cain’s thesis, one cannot help but lament the fact that he never visited the Barnes…not even once! Had I been living so close, there would not be enough fingers and toes to count the times I would have experienced Dr. Barnes’ vision.

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