Another Philadelphia Story

September 12, 2010

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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I miss Venice

December 21, 2009

I last spent time in La Serenissima about thirty years ago.  How time … [insert cliche here.]  I was on my way to India via the land route, and stopped for a week or so, drunk with architecture.  It was September, and I thought that the high tourist season would be over by then, but I was wrong.  I spent my first night on the Lido beach, I recall.  The sight of boats laden with tourists gliding through the dark, surrounded by crowded walkways, reminded me of Disneyland, but I knew why I was there.

With daylight, I found my way to the Giudecca, the Jews’ island, where the International Youth Hostel was.  I ate for free during the several days of the Festival of Unity staged by the Communist Party – delicious.  The irony was tasty too – I am neither an observant Jew nor a communist.  Moreover, the Jewish ghetto of Venice was never located on that island, which is home to one of the great Renaissance monuments, the church of Il Redentore  by Palladio.

Venice seems to have a special place in the imagination of Europeans, even Italians, as well as tourist hordes worldwide, and it is featured in films often. Two films I like very much that feature Venice are Italian for Beginners and Bread and Tulips, one Danish, one Italian, both romantic comedies.  Then there are the films I don’t like, and films I thought were great but that I’m too scared to watch again.

When I was studying the history of architecture, a grad student told me that “everyone loves Venice.”  That is, all architects and planners, regardless of their stylistic bent or ideology (and the latter can be pretty fierce among architects – intensity seems inversely proportioned to the number of completed projects…) all point to the city of Venice as the exemplar of whatever they hold most dear.  It is often cited as a supreme example of “organic” urban growth, and indeed, from the air, it looks sort of like a schematic fish!  I have always thought the Grand Canal, snaking through it, looks like the main intestinal tract in higher animals, and once again, that is, sort of, what it is for the city as a whole.

Now, the city is a fossil, without an economy independent of tourism, although we shouldn’t despise it for that since in our “spectacular age,” tourism is an industry like any other.  The sinking has stopped with the cessation of pumping in Mestre and other places, but high water, as always, is a problem.  The flood gates are under design to preserve the physical fabric of the place from inundation, but the lower stories  of many structures, already sunken to the point that portions are permanently submerged while they were designed for occasional flooding, are crumbling and need shoring up.

I don’t really care – the city is a physical creation unlike any other in the world and should be appreciated for that beyond all else.  It is a monument to the amazing creativity of the urban collective, and it provides an ideal point against which to measure any urban fantasy, because it was as real as real can be for centuries.  Pity it, laugh at its not-too-clean canals, dismiss it as a decaying urban theme park:  what city can claim to have been so powerful, so rich, so influential, and so fantastically beautiful in a way unmatched by anyplace on earth for so long?

Oh, and then there’s that Fourth Crusade, with its never-ending lessons for the rest of us…


Koons Roof People Pictures

May 26, 2008

Today, a holiday, was a beautiful day. Or at least, I think so. A friend of mine demurs – too much sun! Courtesy of Mayor-Midas Bloomberg, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was open, while it is usually closed on Monday. So I took myself in to see the Comics and Fashion exhibit (dumb) and the Jeff Koons sculptures on the roof garden.

One of the things I like about going to a museum often is that I can take the time to observe the other people, instead of devoting all my attention the art that I may not have the chance to see again in a long time. I love to look at people looking at art. What are they thinking? Do they like it? Does it move them, impress them, bore them? Are they just enjoying the thrill of being here?

Lately, I’ve become more and more aware of people and their phones and their cameras – who hasn’t? Since they are so cheap and easy to use now, people use them everywhere, and often. I particularly like to watch people taking pictures of “attractions” and events. Here are a few from my rooftop visit to the Met. Voyeurism? Voyez vous!


Dog and Pony Show —- ——– Reflections in a Candy Apple Heart

Which Way is It? ————– Why I Prefer a Viewfinder

Paying Homage ————- Creative

The Classic Group Shot ————— Art, Monument, Idol?

Looking at..?