After years of wrangling, the Barnes Foundation, a multi-billion dollar art collection and educational center founded in 1922, is on the cusp of relocating to Philadelphia.
Now nestled in the Main Line suburb of Merion, the foundation has long sought a move the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to increase its visibility as a cultural attraction and, more importantly, to end a financial crisis caused by visitation limits. The museum is currently restricted by Merion Township to opening for only three days a week and admitting at most 400 visitors per day.
A New Home?
After the combined efforts from numerous philanthropic groups to raise money for the move, state and city sanctions and other legalities, the relocation is slowly going forward. Of course nothing is ever so simple in Philadelphia. A group of angry neighbors have waited until this last minute to sue to keep the museum put.
Calling themselves the Friends of Barnes, a group of Merion residents and others concerned with the uprooting
of the museum have filed a lawsuit to halt the process. Indeed, the loss of such a cultural treasure is something worth protesting. What’s unusual is that many of the same friendly Merion neighbors lobbied for the visitation limits and other restrictions that nearly bankrupted the organization in the first place.
The museum was long a divisive issue for the township, prompting several lawsuits and fiery exchanges of the years since it’s founding in 1922. Most recently and relevantly, the museum started a major advertising campaign to attract new visitors from around the world, and indeed they came. Unfortunately, noisy tour buses and museum-destined tourists interrupted the quaint garden parties and badminton games of Merion. I guess nothing takes the glory out of a weekly yacht polishing quite like the din of an idling bus.
The township enacted visitation limits to keep the disturbing visitors to a minimum, and everyone was happy. With the notable exception of the Barnes Foundation that was being slowly driven into bankruptcy by the onerous restrictions now placed on its head.
Naturally, the board of directors at the Barnes Foundation decided that a move was, regrettably, the only way to mitigate this crisis and end the decades of backbiting with the township.
Andrew Stewart, of the Barnes Foundation, said that Alfred Barnes’ philosophy was that art and culture should be accessible to everyone regardless of their class, sex or race, an unusual notion in the more oppressive times of the early 20th century. It is that spirit today that drives the museum
out of cloistered Merion and into the melting pot of Philadelphia.
“One of the major forces behind the move is accessibility,” Stewart said.
The current location of the Barnes and its forced regulation of visitors segregates the museum from exactly the people Alfred Barnes tried to reach out to. Merion has long been a secluded enclave for the wealthy to build estates in isolation. This desire of the rich has for too long shaped the destiny of the Foundation. It is time to leave.
Ryan Briggs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org