With last week’s announcement that the Barnes Foundation would be expanding its board, Philadelphia is coming one step closer to having another world class museum.
Currently located in a Lower Merion mansion, the Barnes Foundation possesses an extensive collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and modernist art. Cezannes, Van Goghs and Picassos all line the halls of the museum, founded by self-made millionaire and philanthropist Henry Barnes in the early 20th century.
Barnes’ will stipulated the museum never to be rearranged or moved; a stipulation that is now causing the Barnes Foundation significant financial harm and robbing the city of Philadelphia of what could be one of its crown jewels.
Barnes was originally founded to both promote his theories on aesthetics and the arts and to create a museum accessible to anyone. However, over time the Barnes museum has become hidden. Its Main Line location has led to a dwindling stream of visitors, mostly suburbanites from the Philadelphia area, and a consequent loss of revenue for the foundation.
An attempt to relocate the Barnes Foundation several years ago moved prompted vicious split within its board of directors and unearthed accusations of racism and classism. Barnes, a noted financial supporter of black causes, bequested four of five seats to the majority-black Lincoln University. He would be turning in his grave at these accusations.
For its own reasons, Lincoln University has opposed a move of the collection from Lower Merion to the Ben Franklin Parkway. But the Barnes Foundation has been hemorrhaging money for years as a result of its remote location, a trend that resulted in a wildly popular 1993 tour of some of the museum’s more popular works. Thus was in violation of Barnes’ will.
With the Barnes Foundation’s board of directors expanding from five to 15 members, permitting clearer majority decisions, the only thing standing in their way from moving to Philadelphia is permission from the Montgomery County Orphans’ Court, another beneficiary of Barnes’ philanthropy.
Simply put, the Barnes Foundation could be a crown jewel in Philadelphia’s cultural community on a par with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Franklin Institute and Kimmel Center. Letting these paintings slowly fade into obscurity in Lower Merion is a betrayal both our region and of Mr. Barnes’ dream of bringing art to the masses.
A world-class city deserves another world class museum, which is why Philadelphia needs to do everything possible to attract the Barnes Foundation to the Ben Franklin Parkway.