Philly’s Philistines

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC is considered one of the world’s finest research and museum complexes. It was founded from a bequest by British scientist James Smithson, who donated his substantial fortunes to a country he had never visited, since he felt he was never accepted by English society as a result of his illegitimate parentage.

An American who would have sympathised with the plight of Smithson is Albert Barnes. Son of a butcher, the young Barnes rose by the stint of his own effort to become a physician, although he soon discovered a passion for chemistry. Having partnered with a German scientist who developed Argyrol, a silver nucleinate solution to prevent gonorrheal blindness in the pre-antibiotics era, Barnes became a millionaire when he successfully marketed the product to hospitals for use on newborn infants. With serendipitous foresight, he then sold his stake in the company mere months before the stock market crash of 1929.

Even while stewarding his company, Barnes had begun investing his plentiful profits and spare time into educating himself in philosophy and the arts, and buying priceless paintings at bargain prices from Europeans devastated by the first world war.  His interests lay in post-Impressionist and pre-Modern art, and by 1922 he had created the Barnes Foundation to house his private collection and serve as an exclusive learning centre. He exhibited some of this art at the request of the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts the following year, but was universally condemned by the media for his taste. Barnes attributed this criticism to his lack of social pedigree, and this incident became the source of his increasingly eccentric and misanthropic nature.

Over the years, Barnes collected 181 works by Renoir, 69 by C├ęzanne and 59 pieces of art by Matisse, as well as significant numbers of paintings by Picasso, van Gogh and Modigliani (whom he is credited with discovering) among others, an assortment valued at twenty-five billion dollars today. The paintings were lined up next to and above one another in twenty-three galleries in a converted arboretum in Lower Marion, a suburb of Philadelphia. The haphazard arrangement of his galleries may appear idiosyncratic by the sanitised standards of art museums, but it reflected Barnes’ subjective identification of underlying themes that unified the jumble of paintings across different eras and genres. His famous distrust and disdain for celebrities and socialites led him to personally screen all visitors and only admit minds that he felt were uncontaminated by conventional rules of art.

The Barnes Foundation, which was left with an endowment of over nine million dollars, was entrusted with delivering lectures on the appreciation of art that improved upon the techniques in use by traditional schools. In his final will and testament, Barnes forbade the art in his collection from being sold or loaned to other museums— in fact, even the arrangement of the paintings was not to be changed!

Ten years after his death in 1951, in response to negative publicity initiated by the Philadelphia Inquirer over the foundation’s tax status, the galleries were finally opened to the public on a limited basis. As the Foundation’s income stagnated because of imprudent investments, museums in Philadelphia and unscrupulous members of the board (the majority of whom were required to be nominated from impoverished Lincoln University as a final affront to the more famous universities and museums in the area) began to lobby the government to fund a relocation of the collection in exchange for material benefit and personal prestige to themselves. A recent documentary, “The Art of the Steal”, captures the behind-the-scenes chicanery by a nexus of politicians and private organisations that resulted in a court ruling in favor of moving the collection to Philadelphia by 2012.

While this decision runs contrary to the express wishes of Albert Barnes, the controversy raises an academic conundrum over the purpose of art, private and public. Barnes may have been too restrictive in his admission of art enthusiasts (rejected applicants include T S Eliot, Le Corbusier and Walter Chrysler Jr.); however, he did stand as a bulwark against the commercialisation of art museums, where a gift shop is often granted as much importance as the actual gallery. While art has certainly become more accessible due to the tireless efforts of public art museums and various educational programmes, for a vast number of attendees the thrill appears to lie in the number of masterworks they are able to photograph.

This dichotomy would have been an interesting subject for English philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was hired by Barnes as a lecturer during World War II—  a time when the destitute pacifist’s political views made him virtually unemployable in the United States. Russell’s talks on philosophy at the Barnes Foundation formed the basis of his celebrated Nobel Prize winning work, “A History of Western Philosophy”, whose royalties kept him in relative prosperity for the rest of his life.

AFTERTHOUGHT

And then you get an artist says he doesn't want to paint at all,
He takes an empty canvas and sticks it on the wall;
The birds of a feather, all the phonies and all of the fakes,
While the dealers they get together and decide who gets the breaks.

Dire Straits, In the Gallery