The Barnes' path from odd gem to center stage

The Barnes' path from odd gem to center stage

The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 11, 2015
Peter Binzen and Jennifer Cardoso

Not long ago, members of the Yale Class of 1948 held a mini-reunion in Philadelphia. The class secretary, in describing the visit, focused on the "magnificent Barnes" museum. He hailed "the structure of the building, the quality of the collection, and the manner in which it was displayed." "We really enjoyed ourselves, and the staff went out of its way to make us feel welcome," he wrote.

Since the relocation of the Barnes from Lower Merion Township to Philadelphia in May 2012, it has grown accustomed to such encomia. There is no other museum in the world quite like the Barnes.

And yet just 15 years ago, in 2000, the Barnes Foundation announced it was broke. Its physical plant had deteriorated, and its endowment had slipped precipitously. Its remarkable comeback can be attributed in large part to three nonprofits - the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Annenberg Foundation, and the Lenfest Foundation - which offered to help raise $150 million on the condition that the foundation move to downtown Philadelphia. That is what happened.

The Barnes' collection of post-impressionist and modern art is staggering - 181 paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 69 by Paul Cézanne, 69 by Henri Matisse, 46 by Pablo Picasso, seven by Vincent van Gogh, and others by Modigliani, Degas, Rubens, Monet, Manet, Utrillo, and El Greco. The collection, which includes African, ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art, is estimated to be worth $25 billion.

Thomas "Thom" Collins was appointed executive director and president of the museum on Jan. 7. The Philadelphia native brings to the job more than 20 years of experience working in top arts institutions, most recently as director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami and, before that, the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y.

"It will be a privilege to lead the Barnes Foundation in its next chapter," Collins said.

Yet a great museum is not what Albert C. Barnes had in mind when he established the Barnes Foundation as a school in 1922. In fact, he never intended to start any kind of museum, certainly not one in Philadelphia.

He had grown up in working-class Kensington, attended Central High School and the University of Pennsylvania, and launched a remarkable career as a chemist.

He and his partner, Herman Hille, developed an antiseptic compound, which they called Argyrol. Barnes proved to be brilliant at running the company. He marketed Argyrol directly to physicians and took the product overseas. His payroll never exceeded a dozen employees, but five years after starting the business, Barnes and Hille cleared $250,000 in profits (roughly $5.8 million today).

In 1908, Barnes bought out his partner for $350,000. The business boomed, and Barnes became a multimillionaire. He sold the company in July 1929, just before the stock-market crash.

With the sale of the business, Barnes poured his great energies and true genius into the Barnes Foundation.

In 1923, some of his early impressionist paintings were displayed at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. But critics panned the exhibit. One wondered why the academy had sponsored "this sort of trash." Barnes, who was enraged, bitterly attacked Philadelphia's Art Museum as a "house of artistic and intellectual prostitution."

In July 1951, Barnes, who was 79, was killed in an automobile accident.

The driving force of the Barnes Foundation proved to be French-born Violette de Mazia. She was Barnes' spiritual heir, disciple, and possibly mistress.

Barnes had decreed that the artworks should not be lent, sold, or moved, not even from one part of the building to another. And the foundation was to be open to the public only two days a week. De Mazia followed Barnes' mission precisely. But under her stewardship the buildings deteriorated and the estate lost money.

In 1988, she withdrew, and Barnes got a new head, Richard Glanton, an attorney who thought change was essential if the institution was to survive. Because of its run-down physical plant and declining endowment, Glanton sought permission to sell some paintings, but he was turned down.

He lost the battle but later won the right to send Barnes' paintings on an extended tour to Paris, Tokyo, Washington, and other cities. This was contrary to Albert Barnes' wishes, but the wildly popular tour raised $16 million for the foundation.

Barnes' supporters who opposed any change forced Glanton to resign in 1998. That year, Kimberly Clark, a former director of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, was hired as the foundation's first professional chief executive officer.

Years of litigation had left it in a weakened condition. Word got around that it might be forced to close. In California, Getty interests weighed in with a possible solution. The Barnes' future would be secure if all this priceless art, including the buildings, were transferred to one of the two Getty museums in Los Angeles.

The Getty proposal drew a reaction from the three nonprofit foundations, which until then had done little for the Barnes. With the infusion of their money, the Barnes was able to erect a handsome new building off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and move all the art there.

While diehards still claim that the Barnes should never have been moved, it seems to have achieved a place in the firmament of Philadelphia's cultural institutions. And certainly the Yalies could not have been more pleased.