MERION, Pa. — June 5 was “Community Day” at the Barnes Foundation, one of the quirkiest and most important collections of impressionist and postimpressionist art in the world. For an institution that has inspired admiration and resentment, formal galas as well as lawsuits and street protests, it was a remarkably civil send-off.
In one room, there was arts educator Jeff Hopkins scribbling drawings as he playfully translated what was going on to a few dozen children, how the foundation’s paintings were going to have to pick up and move themselves to Philadelphia’s Museum Mile. In another room, adults nibbled on a cheese and fruit assortment and drank iced tea, talking quietly about the artwork.
And inside the Beaux-Arts building housing the collection, Barnes Foundation President Derek Gillman explained that his group would continue to hold classes there and would invest money to maintain the estate.
“We are not leaving Merion,” he explained, standing in the sunlit central hall. Only the art collection was leaving.
That collection, of course, is what the fighting has been about. Albert C. Barnes established his foundation in 1922 “to promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts.” A doctor and pharmacologist who was raised working-class and who made his fortune by developing an antiseptic compound for treating gonorrhea, Barnes spent the next three decades acquiring paintings and art objects for his foundation, arranging the works in “wall ensembles” and conveying his vision of art education to a group of disciples.
In shaping their legacy, some art patrons, such as Washington’s Duncan Phillips, made provisions for their collections to expand over time and be widely accessible to the public. (Phillips called the Phillips Collection “an intimate museum combined with an experiment station.”) But Barnes, who disdained the Philadelphia art establishment, took a different tack. He arranged his collection with precision and sheltered it in a leafy suburb outside the city, set strict limits on how many people could visit at one time — supplemented, in time, by restrictions urged by the surrounding community — and mandated in a trust of indenture to be honored in perpetuity that the paintings and sculptures never be lent or even rearranged. Having no children, Barnes essentially left the foundation to local Lincoln University, a small and underfunded institution.
This is all about to change.
After a decade-long political and legal fight, the foundation will shutter its exhibition rooms July 3 so it can transport about 1,000 paintings and 4,500 objects in Barnes’s multibillion-dollar collection; the works will reemerge a year later in a new building. The three charitable organizations that epitomize the Philadelphia establishment — the Pew Charitable Trusts along with the Lenfest and Annenberg foundations — raised the money to make the move to Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The fight over the decision to move — involving some local residents and officials who mounted an unsuccessful challenge — was chronicled in the dark and compelling 2010 documentary “The Art of the Steal.” But foundation spokesman Andrew Stewart dismissed the idea that his organization conspired for years with Pennsylvania’s politicians and a handful of influential donors to relocate the collection.