Woe is the Barnes Collection

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“The Joy of Life” Henri Matisse ca. The Barnes Foundation

In a little under two weeks, one of the greatest travesties facing the art world will have matured to its final event. Valued at over $25 billion dollars the private art collection of Albert C. Barnes, turned learning institute, turned tourist spectacle will me moved from its home in Lower Merion, PA, to Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, PA.

The collection, according to www.visitphilly.com, will feature “181 Renoirs, 69 Cézans, 59 Matisses, along with works by Manet, Degas, Seurat, Prendergrast, Picasso…” and other heavy weights of the impressionist and post-impressionist art movements. On May 19th, 2012, the collection will debut in Philadelphia and will be open to the public six days a week from then on.

The exhibit moving from its original home in Lower Merion, becoming more accessible to “fans” of fine art, is great news for tourism and economy for the city of Philadelphia. However, therein lies the problem; the display was never meant to be moved from the Barnes Institute. In fact, Albert C. Barnes (after whom the collection is named) had the Philadelphia museum in mind when he wrote into his will his art is never to be loaned out, or for that matter moved. Ever.

Moving the collection is not only be disturbing because it violates the dying wishes of its original owner, but also because grafting the works from their shell in the institute would mean undoing a large portion of what makes the collection art. Moving the collection and “reproducing” its display violates a major part of its aesthetic property. It is worth noting the original home and display arrangement of the collection is a large part of the draw to the works themselves.

In his Illuminations, Aesthetic Philosopher Walter Benjamin captured an idea highly relevant to why reproducing the Barnes display in Philadelphia is unnerving to many. Benjamin wrote:

“The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity…” “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.”

To this point, moving and recreating the Barnes display undoes the authenticity of one of Americas most important (and unsung) monuments.

The 2009 documentary film The Art of The Steal tells the story of the collection, providing interviews and historical documents from those people directly involved in handling the art. The film chronicles Barnes’ journey to fortune in in the early 1900s creating medicines for Venereal Disease (VD) and how his appreciation for the arts lead to his amassing the impressive collection to the unfortunate conspiracy to remove it from the institute he founded in 1922.

Of the quotes in the film, there are none more powerful as words spoken by artist Henri Matisse when he said, “The Barnes Institute is the only sane place to see art in America.” 

The story of the Barnes collection is worth checking out for many reasons, especially because it challenges us to think critically about art appreciation and the harm done when it becomes secondary to politics.

Learn more about the Barnes foundation here and here.

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