Although it remains virtually unknown to the people who can nowadays be counted upon to turn up in record numbers wherever a museum mounts a major exhibition of Impressionist or Postirnpressionist painting, the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, is one of the major collections of modern painting in the United States, and it is especially rich in the works of artists now so popular with the museumgoing public—Renoir, Cézanne, and Matisse, above all. There are indeed more pictures by Renoir and Cezanne in the Barnes collection than in the collection of any other American museum, and there are certain individual works—Seurat’s Les Poseuses (1888) and Matisse’s Le Bonheur de Vivre (1905-6)—that are almost without rival. There are also a good many American paintings from the modern period.
That these and the other remarkable holdings of the Barnes Foundation have remained all but unknown to the general public is the direct result of the program instituted by the founder of this great collection, Albert C. Barnes, who died in 1951. Dr. Barnes, a medical doctor who made a fortune marketing the antiseptic Argyrol, was a great collector and a serious thinker about art, and he had some very definite ideas about how it should be shown—and to whom. He founded a school at the Barnes Foundation, and this school has played a greater role in the life of art in this country than our art historians have yet caught up with. He also wrote a series of books—on Cézanne, on Renoir, and on Matisse, among others—that upheld the essentially formalist view of art in which he passionately believed.
Dr . Barnes never made it easy for outsiders to have ready access to his collection even after it was established as a gallery and a school, but a lawsuit after his death resulted in a somewhat more relaxed admission policy, and the public is now admitted in limited numbers. The money provided by Dr. Barnes for the upkeep of the gallery and its collection has proved to be inadequate, however, and now the trustees of the Barnes Foundation have gone to court in the hope of overcoming the collector’s prohibition against the selling of pictures from his collection. According to the statement issued by the president of the Barnes Foundation —Richard H. Glanton—on March 29, “The Board has made no decision regarding the sale of paintings, but is simply asking for the option to sell, if that is the only means of raising the funds needed to adequately conserve the Foundation’s holdings.” In other words, we are faced with that now familiar prospect: pictures will be “deaccessioned,” and the integrity of the collection will be compromised in the interest of “conserving” it.
There can be no question but that the Barnes Foundation is a needy case. Its collection has not enjoyed the kind of professional care that its quality calls for, and the building itself is in urgent need of rehabilitation. New policies about loans to other museums, which Dr. Barnes also prohibited, should be seriously considered, and in many other respects the gallery should be reorganized on a more professional basis. Yet it is a sign of the moral condition that has overtaken the entire museum profession that it can offer no solution to the Barnes’s problems but the prospect of diminishing the scope of the collection through the deaccessioning process.
American art museums more exalted than the Barnes, or at least more famous, have set a terrible precedent in this respect. It has now become so habitual for American museums to sell masterworks out of their collections for financial purposes that the profession itself has been stripped of its moral authority to mount any arguments against this deplorable practice. With the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art, just to mention a few outstanding cases, all selling pictures—and pictures of outstanding quality —to meet short-term goals, it is a hard task indeed to argue with the even more urgent needs of the Barnes Foundation.
Yet with the Barnes case we are given an opportunity to mount a campaign against this terrible policy, and can only hope the uproar will be sufficient to inspire alternative solutions to the Barnes’s real problems. A great collection is something more, after all, than an agglomeration of objects. It is also the history of the institution—including, it must be said, the history of its mistakes. There are certainly some inferior pictures in the Barnes collection—among them, some of the Renoirs—but these mistakes are unlikely to be the objects nominated for sale. In the deaccessioning business, you go for the big kill. But the kind of killing the Barnes would hope to make from such sales would also inflict violence upon the institution itself. It would be a ghastly irony indeed if in the name of providing greater public access to the Barnes collection, the collection itself was to be stripped of some of its artistic treasures. The time has come to call a halt to this assault on a public trust.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 9, on page 1
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