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.
“We tried several ways to make it work in Merion, and the board concluded that it wasn’t workable,” Stewart said, adding that the new financial sponsors, headed by the three major donors, required the move as part of the deal. “When a foundation gives money, they’re always looking for a value in that,” he said.
Many Merion residents used to complain about the 1,300 visitors who made the weekly pilgrimage to visit the estate and arboretum but now bemoan the upcoming move. So Barnes Foundation officials offered them “one last time to see the collection,” in Stewart’s words. Not a freewheeling block party, but a ticket-only affair where 450 guests came in three stages to gaze at van Gogh’s arresting “The Postman,” countless bosomy women painted by Renoir, and the assorted knickknacks and metalwork — hinges, crosses and other items — hung in symmetrical compositions across the building’s walls.
Much of the Community Day program was designed to deliver an upbeat message: Yes, the art is moving, but it’s all for the best. That’s why arts educator Hopkins was telling the children sitting in front of him that the figures in Barnes’s paintings — including a mural that Henri Matisse created for the central gallery — were eager to leave.
“Each one had a huge smile,” he recounted, scribbling images on an enormous white stretch of paper. “And the dancers were so excited, because they had been in the same position for so long. ‘Oh no, we have been in the same position for so long we had forgotten how to dance.’ ”
The children seemed to buy the argument, although they were not overly impressed with Hopkins’s drawing skills. “I can draw better than him,” one boy cracked, prompting laughter.
Several yards away, Joe Quaid, a neighbor from a nearby town who had just listened to Gillman’s presentation, was philosophical about the move. “For years there’s been talk of how the Barnes was underfunded,” he said. “It seems to me the only solution is to move to the parkway.”
Others were less forgiving. No other community in the country boasts such an eccentric collection, where tavern scenes abut triptychs, and cooking utensils as well as African art are interspersed with Modiglianis and Picassos.
“To move this is almost criminal,” said Ellen Weiss, who has lived in town for 35 years. “The man had a vision. It was a quirky vision. But it was his vision. And it was overruled.”
Richard Toaff, who lives across the street from the foundation in a house Barnes once owned, perhaps exemplified the ambivalence neighbors have always felt about Barnes’s somewhat obscure artistic mecca. He, too, considers the relocation “criminal.” But he never liked the crowds who visited.
“They turned this into a museum on a private street, and crime was going up. Life became impossible,” Toaff said. “So we had to fight to limit the entry. We love this place.”
And that helps explain, in the end, why Barnes’s vision could not be sustained in the 21st century. The collection was too good, perhaps, to be squirreled away in a town with a couple of excellent delis and limited parking space. Faced with that, Barnes’s trust of indenture didn’t stand a chance.
As Weiss observed, “The hand beyond the grave only goes so far.”