How the Barnes Foundation is reinventing itself

Philadelphia-based private museum lays plans to show non-Western art, commission contemporary works and open up to scholars

by Julia Halperin  |  30 November 2015
How the Barnes Foundation is reinventing itself
A guide leads a tour at the Barnes Foundation. Ryan Donnell/© 2012 The Barnes Foundation
Three years after moving into its new home in downtown Philadelphia, the Barnes Foundation continues to reinvent itself. In the process, it has reignited a debate about Gilded Age private museums: can they remain relevant—and financially solvent—without abandoning the vision of their founders?

Over the next five years, the Barnes plans to launch its first formal exhibition programme, commission new work by contemporary artists, digitise its archive and open up its collection to scholars. It is also launching a campaign to add $100m to the endowment (currently $63.1m) by 2022.

The foundation, established by the stubborn, eccentric pharmaceutical executive Albert Barnes in 1922, has one of the world’s best Modernist collections. But its treasures have been overshadowed in recent years by the controversial decision to move the collection to the city centre from suburban Merion, overriding Barnes’s will and setting off a flurry of lawsuits and protests.

As the institution developed a new strategic plan over the past nine months, it had to reconsider its relationship to Barnes and his teachings. “Are you trapped like a fly in amber or are you just going to kick it away?” says Adrian Ellis, the director of AEA Consulting, who advised on the project. “We are not held hostage by these ideas but we do think that there is something of value in the motivating impulse behind them.”

The new Barnes is more open and less idiosyncratic than the Barnes of the past. During Barnes’s lifetime, anyone deemed part of the art establishment was denied entry, often with a letter signed by his dog. The first book of colour photographs of the collection was not published until 1993. Under the new plan, the institution will host an annual graduate symposium, produce a comprehensive scholarly publication on its collection of Cézannes and develop a scholar-in-residence programme.

The money mission

Three annual exhibitions, including a survey of the contemporary artist Nari Ward and a show about the role of the flâneur in the 19th century, aim to shed new light onto the collection. At least one show every other year will relate to non-Western art or design, two of Barnes’s lesser-known passions. “This collection has got incredible stories to tell of all dimensions—social, cultural—and they are, as yet, only very partially told,” Ellis says.

Some feel the new programme is yet another repudiation of Barnes’s vision. “They want to be a regular museum, which Barnes specifically was desperate not to have it be,” says Tom Freudenheim, the former director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

“It went from a place that was primarily focused on being a teaching institution, and now, the mission has to be to raise money,” says Nicholas Tinari, a former Barnes student. Since the move, the Barnes’s operating budget has risen considerably, from $8m in 2011 to $18m this year and a projected $24.8m in 2020. The museum expects to spend an additional $10.5m over the next five years on new initiatives.

Thom Collins, the director of the Barnes Foundation. © 2015 The Barnes Foundation
Thom Collins, the director of the Barnes Foundation. © 2015 The Barnes Foundation
The foundation’s director, Thom Collins, who was appointed in January, says: “There is nothing we are doing that disallows the possibility that you as a visitor or student can have exactly the experience offered during Barnes’s lifetime. At the same time, if you choose to avail yourself of special programmes, you can. We want Barnes’s legacy to be more visible and to grow the impact of the institution he created.”

The Barnes is not the only private museum that has come under fire for seemingly abandoning its roots in an attempt to grow. In June, the Frick Collection in New York backed off plans to raze its garden and build a towering expansion after the proposal was roundly criticised.

“Every single collection museum that I know of has been changed, more or less radically,” says Anne Higonnet, the author of A Museum of One’s Own: Private Collecting, Public Gift. The rate of change accelerated over the past decade, she says, as the popularity of these institutions began to rise.

Even small adjustments can evoke surprisingly strong reactions. Neil Rudenstine, a Barnes trustee, acknowledges that some “will not be happy” with the decision to expand the Barnes’s educational offerings beyond the “objective method” the founder developed. “We are willing to live with that tension,” he says.

“There is not a single trustee at the Gardner who wants to go back to being a private place where not very many people come and the ghost of Isabella wafts around,” says Anne Hawley, the director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which opened a $114m Renzo Piano-designed expansion in 2012.

Why do people care so much about the fate of these institutions? “They tap into our individualism,” Higonnet says. “We don’t want other people’s wills to be broken because we don’t want ours to be. It’s a question about life, death and free will.”

The Barnes Foundation: an institution in flux

1913: Albert Barnes, who amassed a fortune from developing the antiseptic drug Argyrol, pays $300 for a painting by Pablo Picasso. It joins his growing collection of Modernist works.

1923: The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts presents around 75 works from Barnes’s collection. Critics recoil; one describes the display as an “infectious scourge”.

1925: The Barnes Foundation opens its doors to students in Lower Merion, five miles from Philadelphia. Its mission is to “promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of fine arts”.

1951: Barnes dies in a car accident, aged 79.

1958: The Pennsylvania Attorney General sues the Barnes Foundation, arguing that it must open to the public in order to continue to operate as a public charity. The organisation agrees to open, by appointment, two and a half days per week. 

1988: The foundation’s president Violette de Mazia, one of the few remaining direct disciples of Barnes, retires.

1992: The court allows the Barnes Foundation to send 80 works on a world tour while the building undergoes restoration. The tour nets around $16m but outrages Barnes loyalists. Barnes’s will states that the collection cannot be loaned, moved or altered.

2002: Citing financial difficulties, the Barnes Foundation petitions a judge to allow the collection to move to central Philadelphia and to triple the number of seats on the board of trustees. Three charitable foundations promise to donate $150m toward the new building and the endowment if the move is approved.

2004: A judge rules that the foundation can move.

2011: The Friends of the Barnes, an activist group opposed to the move, petition the court to reopen the case. The judge declines.

2012: The Barnes Foundation reopens in downtown Philadelphia. The building, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, seeks to replicate the dimensions and configuration of the original galleries.

2015: The Barnes expects to receive 240,000 visitors this year, down from 300,000 during its first year in the new building but more than triple its audience in Merion.

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