photo by Jared Castaldi for Main Line Today
At the Friends of the Barnes Foundation Forum held in June 2006, historian Robert Zaller delivered a charge against Pew Charitable Trusts, the Annenberg and Lenfest Foundations, and others involved in the plan to move the Barnes art collection to Philadelphia. His message rolled over the fully packed auditorium like thunder:
“It is the greatest act of cultural vandalism since World War II…it is our duty to stop it.”
The place was electrified. Otherwise reserved citizens leapt to their feet and roared back with shouts of approval and applause. You had to be there! Actually, you really did have to be there because the newspaper didn’t report on the Forum. It might have been an unprecedented event about the region’s most controversial arts and culture story, but an editor of the Inquirer excused the lack of cverage with “Gee, we can’t cover everything?” But that’s another story.
You can see an excerpt of the event on YouTube.
But what about Robert Zaller’s bold charge? For most people, the image of Pew and Company carting works from the Barnes collection is not in the same mental framework as Nazi soldiers hauling away European art treasures. But for others, the image fits.
illustration by Allan Hunter
But most of us do not understand the Barnes Foundation like Robert Zaller does. He knows the Barnes on what you could call “a cellular level.” Others may be more knowledgeable about the art appreciation and horticulture courses, but he has studied its bones, its essential ideas and philosophy as a reflection of American democracy. And he is not alone in his accusation of vandalism. University of Virginia Professor of History and Chairman emeritus of the NAACP Julian Bond echoes Robert Zaller, referring to The Philly-stines as “these vandals” in the documentary The Art of the Steal.
Now you can read Robert Zaller’s ideas in an essay in the Fall issue of the literary journal Boulevard. The writing is brilliant. Find yourself a copy of the journal at some Barnes & Nobles or Avril 50 (on Sansom near 34th) in Philadelphia and dig in. Fair warning, though. With the understanding you’ll gain from the essay, the idea of dismantling what Albert Barnes and John Dewey established will likely be as gut wrenching as ever – but more so. You might feel like spending the afternoon at the boxing gym.
The name of the essay is “Who Speaks for Matisse?: American Philanthropy and the Barnes Foundation.” You’ll read about the Barnes Foundation, American democratic ideals and the Progressive movement:
“In a time when many people felt that fine art was a thing for snobs and swells, (Albert) Barnes and (John) Dewey argued, courageously…that it was most of all for those whom Barnes called the ‘toilers,’ their possession and birthright, and the very school of their democracy.”
You’ll read about the Foundation’s art collection as a tool for education and empowerment of everyday citizens, protected (so Albert Barnes thought) from those who might want to exploits its treasures for commercial purposes:
“If the value of a commodity lies…in its capacity to be bought, sold, or otherwise marketed, then the monetary value of the Albert Barnes collection was fixed at zero.” (emphasis added)
The program Barnes and Dewey developed was to engage people and have them learn to appreciate art by what is in front of their eyes, instead of resting on knowledge of art history or a canned audiophone script. It was a simple, honest plan, meant to empower through education. It is, as Robert Zaller wrote,
“a quintessentially American ideal. It could have sprung from no other soil but ours, and represented no other faith and aspiration but ours.”
But the Indenture of Trust that was supposed to secure the Foundation as a lasting compact between Albert Barnes and Pennsylvania has so far not prevented political, foundation, and commercial interests from getting their claws into it. (The lawsuit brought by the Friends to re-open hearings is currently under review by Montgomery County Orphan’s Court Judge Ott.)
But here’s the question: are the American ideals Barnes and Dewey wanted the Foundation to fulfill woven into the fabric of the unique Merion experience or can they moved to a replica of it on the Parkway? We asked Robert Zaller and he explained that the Barnes' vision --its ideals -- and its physical embodiment --the Merion complex -- are one specific thing, an indivisible whole, period. In short, the Barnes cannot be itself anywhere else. In his essay, he wrote that that place is to be “regarded – and protected – as hallowed ground” much as Monticello and Gettysburg. Respect for cultural heritage is supposed to be another important American ideal, right?
And another question: Would those ideals be plowed under at a Barnes museum on the Parkway? Yes. The process has already begun.
It’s easy to see it. For one thing, the motivation for The Move is commerce. The goal of the decades-long plans of The Philly-stines was to turn the Barnes art collection into an engine for generating tourism dollars for the City of Philadelphia and a feeding trough for the Power Brokers. (If you have any doubt, see who’s on the Barnes “Corporate Leadership Council”.)
The Parkway Barnes is not about “more people can see it” but about “more people will spend a lot of money to see it.” It’s not about education or a unique art experience, but having a goose that lays golden eggs -- or so the Philly-stines imagine.
Problem is, with the massive building on the Parkway and huge salaries of the executives, the price of admission will have to be one of the highest in the country, estimated between $20 and $25 per person. Not affordable to people of modest means and obviously, the Progressive ideal of access for working people goes right out the window. This is especially infuriating because even a tiny fraction of the money being sucked into the Parkway Barnes could provide low cost or even free admission to the Merion galleries. Before Derek Gillman, the budget in Merion was only about $4.5 million --chump change for even a small group of socially-responsible philanthropists.
But even hefty admission prices make a minor contribution to the operating budgets of museums, so job number one for the Director and Development staff is pulling in donations. They will try to pimp out the Barnes art collection in the huge and expensive new building, then promote corporate giving via Sponsorships and “The Circles.” Barnes funding staff and expensive ads gush about “privilege” and “exclusive access” for donors who pony up enough cash to be admitted to the “Director’s Circle” (starting at $10,000) or better yet, the “Chairman’s Circle” ($25,000 and up). The copy describing “Sponsorships” shows how this type of fundraising is in another universe from the progressive ideals Albert Barnes wanted to foster.
“Sponsoring a Barnes exhibition, program, or special initiative serves as an effective platform to reach your company’s target audience and to achieve strategic marketing and public relations results.”
Or, the message on the Corporate Council page:
“The Corporate Council and Circle members at the Patron level and higher enjoy exclusive entertaining privileges at both the Philadelphia and Merion campuses.”
That is exactly the kind of thing Albert Barnes absolutely hated with a passion! And if Merion were managed well and supported by a Board committed to the Barnes ideals, the Philly-stine approach to raising funds would not have a place at the table.
But what are true Philly-stines to do? With a super-sized party house to run on the Parkway, the money’s got to come from somewhere. So the cultural vandals of Merion become culture pimps on the Parkway, hawking Barnes’ art collection as out-of-this-world eye candy, in the process sucking the soul out of the experience Barnes and Dewey envisioned.
The vandals would have people believe that this is what Albert Barnes would want. Nothing could be further from the truth.