Another Philadelphia Story

The distance from Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia, to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway site of the Art Museum is about 5.5 miles, and along it was stretched a line that was pulled in a gigantic tug-of-war with a $30 billion prize.  It’s all in the film The Art of the Steal, a wonderful telling of a very seamy story from the art world.

Dr. Barnes (1872-1951) grew up poor and put himself through the U of Penn by boxing.  He became a doctor, and invented an important antiseptic drug that made him fabulously wealthy.  He liked art, and had an excellent eye for it, so he used his wealth and leisure to visit Europe, get to know the avant garde, and buy their work.  It was pretty cheap, then.  He opened his huge collection to the public in a show in 1923, and it was hooted at, derided, and dismissed by the cultural elite of the City of Brotherly Love.  It was one more thing for him to hold against the City Fathers.

Not too long after that, opinions on post-impressionist art began to change, even in America, even in Philadelphia.  His collection was now recognized as a stupendous trove.  Today, it is considered to be worth up to $30 billion, whatever that means.  He built a home for it in Merion and stipulated that it should never be loaned, moved, sold, or divided, and that it was to be used as part of an educational program administered by the foundation he set up.    He designated a small black college as the trustee of the collection, another poke in the eye of the conservative Philly elite.  (He was a New Deal Democrat and progressive on racial issues.)  Unfortunately, he died without heirs, and he didn’t leave the foundation quite enough cash to make it an independent power of its own.

The political and cultural power brokers, what are sometimes known as the ruling class (they keep a low profile in America, but they are here) didn’t like the idea of all that fantastic art being left in a mansion out in the ‘burbs.  Despite their Republican credentials, with the reverence for private property and the sanctity of contracts that that implies, they set about putting aside the last will and testament of Dr. Barnes.  Why?  The documentary advances several motivations, but the bottom line is that having the collection downtown would serve their purposes, their tax purposes, their city-booster purposes, their political purposes.

In the scheme of things, it’s a small matter, I think.  (The individuals who fought the move disagree, but they all were personally connected to the Barnes in some way.)  Small but sad, and sordid.  Power rode roughshod over the clearly expressed wishes of a man who had collected art.  It was his, after all.  And he didn’t prevent people from seeing it.  He just didn’t think it should be in a museum administered by people he considered elitist phillistines.

You could argue that moving the collection downtown will be good overall.  More people will have access to it.  I myself might go see it, and I doubt I would if it stayed in Merion, but that’s how Barnes wanted it.  If you didn’t really want to go see it, well…maybe you wouldn’t see it.  Does everything have to be easily available to tourists?  Is that the final arbiter of cultural value?  Something unique was lost, that’s certain.

Yes, some of the opponents certainly sounded like snobs, sneering about tourism, and people arriving on buses to traipse through the planned home of the collection… but the fact that it was a power struggle is made clear by a note about Walter Annenberg’s donation of his collection to the NYC Metropolitan Museum that comes near the end.  His will stated that the collection should never be sold, divided, or moved.

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