By Nicholas M. Tinari Jr.
The opening of the Barnes Foundation gallery in Philadelphia raises two emotions for me. The first is anger at the gross betrayal of Albert Barnes' remarkable gift, and the second is sadness — for something truly unique is gone, not only an art collection in the perfect setting, but an original idea.
Barnes established the foundation in 1922 with an Indenture of Trust to ensure its primary function of systematic education through direct interaction with the art collection. His wishes could not have been clearer.
When foundation president Richard Glanton attempted in 1991 to eliminate many trust terms Barnes established, he did so with the backing of some of this region's most wealthy and politically powerful allies. No one associated with this gambit cared about the original mission. Billionaire Walter Annenberg, Glanton's ardent supporter, called the educational program "a hill of beans," while advocating the sale of major paintings and the construction of a new Barnes much like the Parkway museum.
Glanton weakened the trust, but the full evisceration of the foundation and its mission fell to others. At the 1995 reopening of the Merion galleries after a world tour, billionaire Ray Perelman told then-Mayor Ed Rendell that "this stuff is too good for Merion. We're going to bring it to Philadelphia."
That remark, reported in The Inquirer years later, exposed the Parkway project for what it really was, a pure takeover of the collection by rich elites and their politician friends. The move was not, as the oft-repeated lie supposes, a "rescue." The foundation needed no rescue in 1995. At that point, Glanton had raised surplus funds from the tour, increased admission prices fivefold, published a profitable art catalog, and added, with court approval, an additional day per week of public visitation.
In 1995, none of the pretexts later invoked for moving the collection to Philadelphia existed. Not a single tour bus had rattled the residential neighborhood, nor had zoning hearings hobbled Glanton's expansion plans. There was no indication whatsoever that anything would prevent success in Merion.
As if sensing this, Rendell later claimed that the Merion galleries were "just too small. You can get 10 times as many visitors if you move it to Philadelphia." Yes the Merion galleries were intimate, but the new galleries supposedly reproduce them.
The new regime jettisoned Barnes' vision of a democratic and educational institution "in the true meaning of those words." Now Rendell boasts of attracting "high-end couples" to the galleries, while the school is shuffled to the sidelines.
The collaboration between Dr. Barnes and the philosopher John Dewey produced a unique educational program. The central idea was that art is not a phase of life apart from the everyday world to which one turns for leisure or in the name of culture. This was why Barnes banned "society functions."
That rule is now gone, as the managers shill to host everything from weddings to political fundraisers. Dewey's "Art as Experience" is still studied in universities, yet the institution which exemplified that work is now Barnes in name only.
The public Barnes cared about has lost the most. One Friday in May 1990, before all of the hype and headphones, 600 people visited Merion at a dollar apiece. Then, you could sit in front of a painting and begin to understand what an artist intended. You could experience the paintings' arrangement and learn what the relationships taught. As Barnes wrote in 1925, "Experience ... must be a reality, not an empty mere happening." Whether as a student or a gallery visitor, Merion was the place you could experience more than a mere happening.
We are left with an empty Merion gallery, a celebrated flagship and a mission focused on ticket sales and marketing above all else to keep afloat. If you dare brave the crowds, try not to miss that somewhere in the reproduced assemblage is the ghost of something much greater than the hype and the gift-shop cash register.