Battle of the Barnes
The art community fights for the storied Montgomery County gallery to stay put
by Jill Yris

They say you never know what you have until it’s gone. And it wasn’t until the last six years that the international art community turned its eyes on a quiet gallery in Merion and discovered a collection of some of the finest pieces of Post-Impressionist and Modern art, worth more than $25 billion.

They discovered a collection on the verge of a tumultuous and passionate battle over whether it should be housed in its quiet location in Merion established by the quirky collector himself or moved into a brand-new facility on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, just a block from a tourist hotspot in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Much has been said about the Barnes Foundation’s move. Books, documentaries, and countless op-ed pieces in Los Angeles Times, ARTnews and Newsweek all have covered the explosive topic.

Some have said the collection has been hijacked, stolen, that the move is a heist, a coup d’état—even the greatest scandal to rock the modern art world.

Art enthusiasts in the area continue to battle to keep the collection in place, despite a court order allowing the foundation to move to the city with the expectation that a more prominent location and improved access will ease the foundation’s current operating deficit. The Friends of the Barnes Foundation, a citizen group opposing the foundation’s move, argues that the funds spent relocating the collection would better serve the art community and Montgomery County’s history if used to improve the current location and operating procedures.

So as we enter the final year of the collection’s life in the suburbs—the foundation plans to remain open in Merion until June 2011 and then reopen in Philadelphia in spring 2012—we take a look at its tumultuous history and why its eccentric founder wanted so badly to keep the world-renowned collection in the suburbs.

The History

Dr. Albert C. Barnes, born 1872 in Kensington, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Medical College, and then as a chemist, went on to co-discover an antiseptic called Argyrol.

Out of increasing wealth and sheer boredom, he turned to studying and collecting art. Over a period of 40 years, he carefully and prodigiously amassed art and artifacts from around the world, including French Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early modern paintings: more than 100 Renoirs, dozens or Cézannes, Matisses, and Picassos, multiple Soutines, Degas and van Goghs and a handful of Seurats, Manets and Monets. It’s estimated that the collection is worth $25 billion to $35 billion.

The Barnes Foundation, set on 12 acres in Merion with galleries, an art library and an arboretum, was established in 1922 to educate art students and enhance their appreciation skills.

Dr. Barnes was often misunderstood, his disposition frequently characterized as churlish and cranky with an equal passion for a good-old-fashioned argument. Additionally, he was, to all appearances, compulsively driven to helping the “ordinary man” to the point of establishing entrance rules to his gallery based on that very premise. For instance, after several rejected attempts, acclaimed author James A. Michener was granted entrance only when disguised as a steel worker.

Dr. Barnes’ reasons were downright personal: In his early collecting years, art institutions and critics panned his selections, and he was similarly shunned by his Main Line peers. He reciprocated, in kind, to both. In his will, Barnes insisted that his collection never be sold, moved or borrowed—that no other institution may exhibit his collection, and that the number of visitors to the gallery be limited.

Barnes died unexpectedly in 1951, and the following years exemplified a maze of financial mismanagements and restrictions, legal entanglements, board-member difficulties and tax-exempt status confrontations. Essentially what was left was a staggeringly valuable collection of Post-Impressionist art, including several masterpieces, plus a depleted purse and a legacy of very hurt feelings.

The Opposition

The group most vocal about the foundation’s proposed move is the local art community. Drexel University Professor of History and Politics Dr. Robert Zaller, who also participated in a documentary detailing the issue, titled The Art of the Steal, calls the move “the biggest theft of art since WWII.”

Zaller, also a member of the Friends of the Barnes Foundation steering committee, says, “Dr. Barnes meant his collection to be a means of empowerment for ordinary citizens, by teaching them to truly see and decipher the world around them,” Zaller says.

“In that sense, it is as important a part of the heritage of Montgomery County as Valley Forge.”

The Friends of the Barnes Foundation continues to look for ways to prove the gallery would be viable and important in its current location, as well as to prove that the move is a result of corruption and greed. Most recently, the group commissioned a study into a $500,000 grant to the foundation made by the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA). The unusual grant came almost two years before a local court made the controversial ruling allowing the move, and after the Friends’ report was released last month, the DRPA issued several reforms including a resolution to stop spending toll money on development projects unrelated to transportation.

There is no word on whether the findings will have any effect on the foundation’s planned move, but the Friends feel it further demonstrates their argument that the move was strictly a political strategy, not cultural.

“Tom Freudenheim of the Smithsonian and I have estimated that a Parkway Barnes will earn less than half its annual upkeep,” Zaller says, pointing to estimates that preserving the collection in Merion would be a fifth of the cost. “In fact, we see moving the Barnes as a cynical ploy to deliver the collection into the waiting arms of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has coveted it for decades.”

‘A Sustainable Future’

The Barnes is often referred to as a “jewel box” collection where the collector’s personality is intrinsic to the compilation and atmosphere, hence intensely personal—much different from a typical museum experience.

Walking through the Barnes galleries with their quaint honor system of stay-behind-the-black-floor-tape lines, one’s eye takes in the studies of contrasts. Quick, subtle sketches mingle with Mali 19th-century sculptures, while Degas’ dancers twirl betwixt Seurat’s masterworks of chromoluminarism dots.

“The more you look, the more you see,” says Andrew Stewart, a Barnes spokesperson, referring to the carefully and deliberately choreographed ensembles unified by themes (light, line, color and form) and one artist influenced by another (Picasso’s glass with peach, Matisse’s glass with lemon).

Similar collections are the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and the Frick Collection, housed in Pittsburgh and New York City. Henry Clay Frick’s great-granddaughter, family historian and author Martha Frick Symington Sanger, writes extensively on her family’s artwork and is keeping a close eye on the Barnes dilemma. She believes the intimate setting of a house museum lends more to the experience than one might think.

“Their collections are not just about the paintings on the walls,” Sanger says. “The house itself plays a vital, embracing role. In moving the collection to a new building, that intimacy will be lost forever.”

Sanger is relieved to learn that all of Barnes’ artwork, including a Matisse mural, will be transferred to the new facility in Philadelphia—the galleries, wall styles and art configurations replicated exactly. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway location will also have a conservation area, classrooms, indoor garden, auditorium, cafeteria, customizable exhibit space and a state-of-the-art lighting system. Additionally, the new location would preserve the extensive rare-art library materials and provide greater accessibility to the public.

According to Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter, “The Barnes on the Parkway will be an asset for both our residents and the region, bringing extraordinary cultural riches within easier reach.”

Stewart is also encouraged by the move. “I think it’s the right thing for the Barnes to have a sustainable future,” he says, noting that the horticulture programs remaining in Merion will continue to operate and could flourish under the new arrangement.

Although the court order and dismissed appeal by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would indicate that the move to Philadelphia is inevitable, the two sides of the battle—and voices joining in from across the worldwide art community—may continue to fight for what they believe is the right decision for the future of the Barnes. For now, meaning at least a few more months, Montgomery County remains the home of an astonishingly important collection that it hardly knew it had until it was taken away.

Learn more about the Barnes Foundation at 

Jill Yris is a professional writer based in Doylestown. (