Fiske Kimball (1888–1955). Letter to Albert C. Barnes, December 6, 1927. Barnes Foundation Archives
Albert C. Barnes (1872–1951). Letter to Fiske Kimball, December 7, 1927. Barnes Foundation Archives
Historian, teacher, author, and architect Fiske Kimball is best known as the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) from 1925 to 1955. At the time of his appointment, the museum was called the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, and was still housed at Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park. During Kimball’s tenure as museum director, the PMA grew from a regional collection of mostly industrial arts to an internationally renowned museum.
Kimball knew how to work the system and was able to complete the construction of the PMA’s current building on the Parkway in the depths of the Great Depression by using federal WPA workers. He secured major collections for the museum, including Walter and Louise Arensberg’s collection of modern art and Edmond Foulc’s collection of medieval and renaissance art, and was a master of fundraising from the private sector.
Kimball and Barnes were not dissimilar: both were intelligent, stubborn, passionate, and single-minded about their respective vocations. When Kimball first came to Philadelphia, it looked as if the two men were interested in working together, but their opposing and equally uncompromising positions soon put them at odds. While Barnes wanted to bring the PMA on board with the Foundation’s revolutionary education program, Kimball’s goal was to convince Barnes to donate his collection to the PMA.
In this letter to Barnes, Kimball emphasizes the important role modern art was to have in the “new Museum” (once the PMA moved to the Parkway), and offers a large, prominent space to display a portion of the Barnes collection on loan (clearly hoping that it would later become a gift to the museum). The prestige of being showcased in the spectacular new PMA building would likely have swayed most collectors, but Kimball never quite seemed to grasp that Barnes’s goal for his collection was education, not museum display.
Barnes’s reply to Kimball (signed by Barnes Foundation secretary and treasurer Nelle Mullen) is short and to the point. By 1927, Barnes had already pegged Kimball and the PMA as a lost cause; he thought the PMA was merely a warehouse full of art, incompatible with the Barnes Foundation’s educational mission. The two men continued to butt heads for many years, Barnes publicly lashing out at what he saw as “a house of artistic and educational prostitution.” Kimball never fully appreciated Barnes’s dedication to his experiment in education and Barnes was unwilling to compromise his principles or expand his vision to include Kimball’s more traditional view of the art experience.
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Header and image 1 & 2: Fiske Kimball (1888–1955). Letter to Albert C. Barnes, December 6, 1927. Barnes Foundation Archives (front and back)
Image 3: Albert C. Barnes (1872–1951). Letter to Fiske Kimball, December 7, 1927. Barnes Foundation Archives