Thursday, September 25, 2003

What a sad day! The Barnes Foundation, a private collection of art in Suburban Philadelphia has been pulled to pieces and now ceases to exist as its former owner had intended.

"Art Held Hostage"

I was lucky to have had the chance to visit it while it was still in its original home and order a number of years ago - back when there were just rumors of a major upset to the foundation.

What I loved about the Barnes was the the all encompassing nature of the collection and the eccentricity of its arrangement. Ancient Egyptian bas-reliefs would be hung on a wall next to Matisse canvases. Amish hex symbols could be placed near artifacts from Ancient Sumeria. The arrangement of the works did not try to follow whatever was hitting the Art Establishment at the time, but by Mr. Barnes's personal taste. I guess that many could consider the ordering of the pieces to be heteroclite. For me, though, (and many others no doubt), it just worked.

A few years ago, a number of the Barnes pieces made their way to the National Gallery for an exhibition. I had given thought to visiting, but decided against it. I have nothing against the original pieces in and of themselves.  However, as the exhibition was ostensibly about the Foundation itself, I didn't much want to see them out of their home and that particular context. For me it would be like travelling 1/2 way across the country to see pieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum outside of Gardener's awesome Italian Palazzo. Something would be missing.

It is a pity, with the increasing corporatization of artistic organizations, to see this sort of smothering of a small, independent collection like Barnes's. The exhibitions that I have seen of late often have been put together with the notion of drawing in as many people as possible to make money off of or of pushing whatever agenda is the rage in the academic world. University galleries nowadays seem to have a run of ham-handed, politically correct exhibitions where the visitor is subjected to patronizing notes about the importance of understanding that all cultures are rich and diverse, of the role of women in such and such society, etc. Some of it could have been helpful, but, more often than not the way in which the art was presented was bland, the information given was clicheed, banal.
(Perhaps these exhibitions were showing off the personalities of the curators?   If that is the case, I would say to lay off the ego and let the pieces speak for themselves.)

Without a doubt, the works that Barnes had collected will lose their context after a generation or so.  Seems to me that letting go of this context is a pity, given the blandness that is taking its place.  Seems also an unhappy thing to divide up and destroy a remaining manifestation of a strong, original, eccentric personality like his.

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