Art of the Steal
Located in Lower Merion Township, a suburb of Philadelphia, the Barnes Foundation is one America’s great (if lesser known) collections of visual art. It was founded in 1922 by Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951), a progressive albeit eccentric collector who raised himself from working-class origins through medical training and through his development and marketing of the antiseptic drug Argyrol. Housed in a distinctive building by French-American Beaux-Arts architect Paul Cret, the eclectic collection of fine and decorative artworks is best known for its Post-Impressionist and early Modernist paintings. It has formidable holdings by the likes of Jean-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Matisse once called it “the only sane place to see art in America” while the philosopher John Dewey dedicated his classic 1934 book Art as Experience to Barnes – his student and close friend. Wary of the spectacle and commercialism that he saw as defining art museums, Barnes conceived of his building and collection primarily as a school. He stipulated in his indenture for the Collection that it be kept intact inside the original building.
It is this wish – as well as the great artistic and historical integrity of the collection and its housing – that has been violated by its current and recent trustees in their plans to move the Collection to a new home in downtown Philadelphia’s Museum District. Legally authorized in 2004, the move is currently well underway. Construction for the new building began in the fall of 2009 and should be completed this next winter. The original Barnes is to close down this July and is to reopen at the new location next year. The move has the support of many local players in politics and business, many of them seemingly more concerned with their own interests than with the integrity of the Barnes. The move have not gone uncontested: The Friends of The Barnes Foundation, a “citizens’ group,” continues to engage in legal challenges. Many in the art world have spoken out as well, among them the prominent local architect Robert Venturi – who renovated the building back in the 90’s.
This Sunday, at 2pm, Cornell’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art will be offering a public screening of “The Art of the Steal,” director Don Argott’s acclaimed 2009 documentary about the controversy. As indicated by the title, the film is an unashamedly biased polemic against the move. In the words of LA Times art critic Christopher Knight (one of its many interviewees) it “is a riveting — and tragic — documentary film chronicling the gratuitous ruin of a school outside Philadelphia that houses an incomparable art collection. It's a classic story of destroying the village in order to save it.”
Following the showing, there will be a panel discussion featuring Cornell English professor Jeremy Braddock, grad student and preservationist Nathaniel Guest and Barnes curator Martha Lucy. It promises to complicate the perspective offered by what some have claimed is an overly one-sided film. Lucy will also be giving a lecture the following Monday with the tantalizing title “Why We Love to Hate Renoir.” It will be held at 5pm at the Ruth Woolsey Findley History of Art Gallery at Goldwin Smith Hall and will be followed by a reception. Both events are free and open to the public.