Barnes without Barnes: On Philadelphia’s New Barnes Foundation

Guest post by Jeremy Braddock

This May, to great acclaim, and after more than a decade of acrimony and struggle, the Barnes Foundation opened in its new location in Center City Philadelphia. Bounded on three sides by the Rodin Museum, the main branch of the public library, and Whole Foods Market, in the shadow of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (a street that was cut into the grid in the 1920s in a largely unsuccessful attempt to create a Philadelphian Champs-Élysées) the Barnes and its $25-30 billion art collection has finally been integrated into the civic economy of post-industrial Philadelphia.

Traditionally, the cultural and economic value of the Barnes collection has been conveyed by enumerating its 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos — or by the extraordinary quality of many of Barnes’s acquisitions, among them numerous masterpieces such as Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life) (1905-6), Seurat’sModels (1886-88), and Cézanne’s The Card Players (1890-92). And it is these postimpressionist and modernist masterpieces that made the move so desirable, as they are guaranteed draws not only for specialists but for tourists less likely to have made the trip to the Barnes’s original home six miles away in the Main Line suburb of Lower Merion. Yet the singularity of the collection — as Judith F. Dolkart and Martha Lucy’s new catalog well conveys — consists not simply in the aggregation of these canvases, but in their integration among a more heterogenous set of objects, including African sculpture, Pennsylvania German chests, French and American ironwork, and Renaissance painting, all of it carefully presented in a deliberate and idiosyncratic arrangement which itself obtains the status of a work of art. Taken together or in isolation, the meaning of these works is also bound up in the meaning of the institution that was transformed by its relocation earlier this year.

Albert Barnes grew up in the working class Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington, attended public schools and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, after which he made a fortune patenting and manufacturing the antiseptic compound Argyrol. He was a collector of art since the first decade of the twentieth century, and made his first modernist acquisitions in 1912, shortly before New York’s 1913 Armory Show fundamentally transformed the American art market. At first, Barnes displayed works from his collection both in his home and also on the walls of his factory in West Philadelphia, where, by the 1910s, he was actively engaged in seminar discussions with his employees, often organized around the discussion of pieces from his collection. Integrated into the normal work day, these seminars were inspired by Barnes’s voracious readings in philosophy and psychology, in particular the writing of John Dewey, whose influence on Barnes deepened as the two men began a long and collaborative friendship in 1917. In 1922 the Barnes Foundation received its charter as an educational institution, and in 1925 its buildings opened. It was here that the Barnes collection was displayed with just a single interruption until this year, its specific arrangement untouched since the collector’s death in 1951.

When the Barnes Foundation first opened its doors, it was not simply the case that modern art had not yet been accepted by the major civic museums in the United States, much less was it the commercial juggernaut it later proved to be. In 1925, nearly all of those major museums remained unbuilt. In their absence, the Barnes Foundation emerged as an institution not only hospitable to the new art, or much of it, but eager to pose larger questions about the meaning and function of cultural institutions, and of art itself. It is for this reason that one could understand as constitutive, and not as an afterthought, the Barnes Foundation’s bylaws which insisted that “it is the plain people, that is, men and women who gain their livelihood by daily toil in shops, factories, schools, stores and similar places, who shall have free access to the art gallery.” As my epigraph from Benjamin suggests, such claims can be understood as a part of the collection’s total significance.

The new state-of-the-art facility designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects has been met with unanimous acclaim, and not infrequently by critics who confess their prior concern and trepidation about the move. In the New Yorker, for example, Peter Schjeldahl recalled that “[I]n 2004, I termed the proposed relocation ‘an aesthetic crime,’ because I couldn’t imagine that the integrity of the collection […] would survive. But it does, magnificently.”

It may be appropriate to briefly express some surprise at these critics’ surprise. Anyone familiar with Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s earlier output — in particular the tremendous American Folk Art Museum in New York — knows the intelligence and sensitivity of their work. The new administration of the Barnes Foundation, under Derek Gillman, was very scrupulous in selecting the architecture team, as it was about replicating what it is now calling “the hang” — Barnes’s arrangement of the collection. Even though the latter was a legally mandated condition of the move, the degree to which the gallery rooms uncannily evoke the feeling of Barnes’s original galleries is no less remarkable.

In addition to celebrating the beautiful new buildings, most reviews appear in tacit agreement about the function of museums and about the purpose of art for a public audience. Yet these were the questions in which Barnes was fundamentally interested, and the failure of his hugely ambitious attempt to recast the meaning of aesthetic experience in a democratic society is also a fundamental element of the collection’s meaning. This should throw into relief the title of Martin Filler’s New York Review of Books article on the new Barnes — “VICTORY!” — which in itself suggests an additional dimension to consider, a scenario which there are implicit winners (“the public”) and losers (the overreaching Barnes hamstringing his own best intentions from beyond the grave).

Neither of these versions of Albert Barnes — the visionary and demanding democratic reformer nor the “maniacally controlling” micromanager — is deeply represented in the inaugural installation of the new facility’s Exhibition Gallery (a space in which unexhibited works from the collection can finally be displayed, along with more information about the Barnes’s history). And this raises a larger question of how, or if, Albert Barnes himself could now be represented by the institution with which he was for 80-odd years, or at least 26, synonymous. Liberated from the need to take sides about the propriety or impropriety of the move, it is now possible to have a new kind of conversation, one that can begin by acknowledging the possibilities and difficulties of accounting for the meaning of Barnes’s work.


One of the most interesting elements of Barnes’s career, indicative of what is both admirable and excruciating about Barnes’s legacy and singularly prone to misconstruction, is the question of race. In 1928, three years after it opened, the Barnes Foundation awarded year-long fellowships to the African-American artists Gwendolyn Bennett and Aaron Douglas. The terms of the fellowships included a generous monthly allowance of $125, enrollment in the classes that were held in the galleries, and, most enticingly, access to the collection’s unparalleled holdings of postimpressionist and modernist painting and African sculpture. Because MoMA would not open until the following year, these works were virtually unavailable for American artists to study, as Douglas was acutely aware.

The opportunity arose at an auspicious moment in Douglas’s career. He had just completed his first mural commission, at the Club Ebony in New York City, and it would not be long before he commenced work on his great series of murals at Fisk University. Douglas’s biographer Amy Helene Kirschke has speculated on the significance of this year of study at the Barnes for the development of the artist’s mature style. While it undoubtedly afforded him concerted examination of the two visual languages that his work famously synthesized, the question of the year’s importance has always remained the object of speculation, due in no small part to Douglas’s sparing comments about it after the fact.

A likely reason for Douglas’s silence on this issue is the manner in which his and Bennett’s fellowship tenure resolved. The year had passed without a single meeting between the artists and Barnes. Finally, the collector arranged for an extraordinary meeting at which he told Bennett and Douglas of his wish for them to publish written attacks on Alain Locke, the former Howard University professor and editor of the seminal New Negro anthology of 1925 (a book that not only contained Bennett’s and Douglas’s work, but also an essay by Barnes himself). In Kirschke’s account,

[w]hen they asked him what he wanted them to say, Barnes responded that he would provide them with the material they needed. Barnes complained that Locke had plagiarized some of his work. In Barnes’s view, Locke did not know anything about art when he wrote [sic] The New Negro, and what Locke wrote he “had got it from me.” Clearly Barnes was still angry, even paranoid, over Locke’s refutation of his views of the Negro in art in the essay “The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts,” which immediately followed Barnes’s piece in The New Negro.

Though marked by a few inaccuracies, Kirschke’s narrative in Aaron Douglas: Art, Race, and the Harlem Renaissance (which draws from Douglas’s papers at Fisk) is a valuable record of the highly charged intersection of several symbolic economies, including the relation of patron to artist, the interaction of black and white intellectuals, the institutionalization of modernism in the United States, and the attempt to carve a space for political progressivism within the rarified world of high culture. What is most obvious is the degree of fealty that the artists were obliged to respect in exchange for the receipt of patronage. Indeed, it is worth noting that in accepting the fellowship Douglas had expressly gone against the instructions of another notoriously demanding patron, Charlotte Osgood (“Godmother”) Mason.

In this respect the episode speaks to the opportunities, as well as the difficulties, for a Barnes Foundation now located much closer to black communities in Philadelphia. Looked at one way, it is crucial to recognize that among all American art collectors of the modernist period it is only Barnes who acknowledged, let alone attempted to intervene in, the “race question” in the United States — to openly denounce segregation, for instance, as Barnes did in his New Negro essay. Yet any closer look at these efforts inevitably also reveals a more complicated and uncomfortable set of politics in which Barnes could also use his progressivism as a form of symbolic capital; he was even willing to fight or embarrass black intellectuals in so doing. The latter, of course, is a version of Albert Barnes happily left in the past. Yet it would at the same time be both exciting and appropriate to see the Barnes Foundation once again meaningfully engage questions of race and income disparity, and their relationship to the culture of the fine arts.

Anyone who spends time reading Barnes’s correspondence — and now that the Barnes’s archives have been processed and are open to scholars that number is thankfully certain to grow exponentially — will know that the exchange concerning his perceived rival Locke in fact represents a relatively mild instance of Barnes’s contentiousness and vituperation. Yet it is also indicative of a second dimension of Barnes’s identity that will be a challenge for the new Barnes Foundation to fully represent; whereas the vignette indeed provides more evidence of Barnes’s volatile personality, it is worth asking why Barnes’s petty vituperation should have taken the specific form of a charge of plagiarism.

This question will seem less mercurial when we recognize that the accusation of plagiarism was almost habitual, rather than an isolated incident in Barnes’s career. Two years before the meeting with Douglas and Bennett it had been the decisive card played in the unraveling of what had been a provisional affiliation between the Barnes Foundation and the University of Pennsylvania (one that would in time have given Penn control over the institution and its collection). In that instance, the collector accused the Penn professor Louis Flaccus of a “flagrant steal” from Barnes’s 1925 book The Art in Painting when Flaccus published The Spirit and Substance of Art, a work that both acknowledged its debt to Barnes and contained discussions of several of the paintings in his collection. Here, it is worth paying attention to the way Barnes rhetorically situates his attack upon Flaccus:

The small number of your visits to the Foundation is a matter of record in its official files, side by side with psychological data of reactions which is a routine part of our experimental researches in the observation of methods of approach to painting. The plain fact is that no true plastic experience, of the character your book states was yours, ever resulted or could result under the circumstances. The proof of this assertion is furnished by your book itself where it gives specific objective facts as existential in particular paintings in our collection, and which data are demonstrably not present, and which do not fit into the theory to which you twist them. […] Your child “pictorial form,” stripped of its padding, seems to be the parallel son of “plastic form,” a term I was the first to publish in the content paraphrased by you.

It is entirely characteristic of Barnes’s correspondence that it should be at once playfully facetious and ominously malign. From our perspective, however, we do not need to be sympathetic to the intended effects to recognize the way they imply that the true reach of what one could call Barnes’s intellectual property rights was meant to extend farther and more meaningfully than the content of his published writings. Barnes was claiming authority over the very symbolic economy (what Barnes names “objective facts”) of the paintings themselves. Flaccus’s crime is implied not simply to be the “flagrant” theft of Barnes’s critical term “plastic form,” but also the misrepresentation of the meaning of the paintings, which it had been the labor of Barnes’s critical writings to establish, and which Flaccus’s inauthentic appreciation had allegedly violated.

It is missing the point to see this only as a matter of maniacal control. To put the issue broadly, for Barnes to bring the charge of plagiarism is to raise the question of what it might mean to think of the collector as an author. Without apologizing for Barnes’s threatening behavior, it is important to assert that his most important intellectual, or authorial, contribution did not consist in his published writing on art; nor can it be isolated in his superlative identification and acquisition of great individual works of art. Critical is the way the charge of actual plagiarism is here supposed to be substantiated (however facetiously) by the observation of Flaccus’s experience of the galleries. We can imagine the subtext of the complaint: the petty charge of plagiarism masks Barnes’s frustration that Flaccus fails to acknowledge Barnes as the author of the provocative arrangement of works he is observing. And it is this arrangement that indicates the way Barnes’s interest was to institutionalize modernism not only as a canon of artworks but as a system of practices (critical, educational, polemical, exhibitional) aimed at determining the reception not so much of the individual works, but of art as such. This context helps to clarify the nature of the complaint against Locke, as well, where the true motivation of the conflict was institutional. By 1928 Locke was actively competing with Barnes for the acquisition of African sculpture, with the aim of establishing a museum of African art in Harlem.

It is important to acknowledge that the very successful replication of the gallery rooms in the new Barnes Foundation buildings will grant hospitality to those visitors who have been more compelled by the meaning of the association of works than by the works taken in isolation — meanings we are only beginning to understand. And one can also hope that the new Exhibition Gallery will contextualize Barnes’s exhibition practices not only with its own internal documents, but by rigorous comparison with other institutions. Most notable among these would be the ascetic style Alfred Barr crafted for MoMA, which would become so powerful as to make its particular point of view seem natural and inevitable.

Yet in framing this as a question of authorship, I am also suggesting that the meaning of the arrangement is more than one of ideology or pedagogy, and this points to an additional dimension of authorship of which its curators are likely aware but unlikely to represent publicly. Although Barnes’s arrangements serve explicit and complex didactic functions, as the Barnes Foundation has always acknowledged, they also contain punning systems of signification that cannot be accounted for in the high seriousness of Barnes’s original institutional mission, however it is officially represented. In Room VII, for instance, a Pennsylvania German chest bearing the name Suesaena Ackermann appears immediately under Gustave Courbet’s frankly erotic Woman with White Stockings (1864), a Barnesian allusion to the story of Susanna in the Book of Daniel, in which a woman is observed bathing by village elders and falsely blackmailed for sex; in Room IV a Renaissance painting of Christ’s circumcision appears on a wall that also houses a razor while three other paintings in the room prominently feature men brandishing knives. Since Barnes appears never to have made mention of these associations, it is probably appropriate for curators to remain silent about this less pedagogical, and more creatively expressive, form of authorship that is active throughout the galleries (one that is hardly exhausted by these two examples). Some opponents of the Barnes transition, meanwhile, could take comfort that the raunchy and inappropriate will not be entirely repressed from an institution that has otherwise successfully been given place among other institutions it once opposed.

Should we, or the current Barnes Foundation, care about the historical meaning of the Barnes Foundation as an oppositional force? Barnes’s closest friend and interlocutor John Dewey, in the classic Art as Experience (1934) attacked European civic museums as “memorials of the rise of nationalism and imperialism” while assailing American collectors and institution builders “who … have felt especially bound to surround themselves with works of fine art which, being rare, are also costly.” These words, in a book both dedicated to Barnes and whose pages were “gone over one by one with him,” may seem an anachronism in a museum world now more bound to the support of corporations and non-profit organizations than to the state and to private institution-builders. But these words from the same book may not: The growth of capitalism has been a powerful influence in the development of the museum as the proper home for works of art, and in the promotion of the idea that they are apart from the common life.” The fact that Barnes was both a capitalist and avid attender of European museums does not mean that his institution (which he never called a museum) did not aim to craft a curative, or replacement, for the system Dewey attacked.

It is not easy to imagine a museum that would address whole-heartedly the implications of Dewey’s critique. But this would not be the only reason for us to return to the scene of these struggles. In 1920, three years before the Barnes Foundation was chartered, Barnes sent Dewey a copy of William Carlos Williams’s newly published Kora in Hell, introducing it with these words:

It seems to me that we have in such books the dawn of a new art that will line up better with your thoughts on democracy than what most artists are doing. They are in a virgin field and necessarily confused if not chaotic—but I believe it to be transitional to something big and important. It is the new spirit of the new times we are entering in the spiritual field which will later be manifested in social and political spheres.

Here we can see the fullest meaning of Barnes’s faith in the agency of modern art. Like Dewey’s pathbreaking philosophical writings (Barnes is here thinking most of all of 1916’s Democracy and Education) modernism bespeaks “the new spirit of the new times.” Yet in order for this revolutionary character to be “manifested in social and political spheres,” Barnes would conclude, it would require the intermediation of institutions such as the Barnes Foundation.

It is no longer reasonable to expect early twentieth century art to convey the radical charge that it did almost a century ago. And because the revolutionary transition Barnes imagined did not transpire, it may be easy to dismiss Barnes’s letter to Dewey as one more instance of overreaching, impractical idealism. In the early twenty-first century, we are more accustomed to hear that the democratizing agency of art and information is predicated upon the conditions of its accessibility (or simply “access”). Yet although such questions assuredly involve location, they must also involve other considerations such as the price of admission (up now to $18 at the new Barnes from $5 at the old location) and education (adult classes at the Foundation are priced at $900 per semester with no scholarships or reduced tuition currently offered; on the other hand, the Barnes website now features a newly developed set of resources for K-12 teachers).

Even as the Barnes Foundation takes it place on Philadelphia’s museum row, it is possible to discover in Barnes’s letter a still-relevant question about who, and what, art is for. If all art, as Barnes’s currently exhibited lecture notes attest, is a “social affair,” then we could ask what it would mean to interpret the culture of information, and the meaning of access, through the principles of Barnes and Dewey’s democratized aesthetics, and not the other way around. It is precisely because it is 2012, and not 1925 or 1951, that the most interesting conversation to have about the Barnes Foundation today is not about private property rights, but about why Albert Barnes expected so much more from art than we do. The possibility remains open as to whether the beautiful new Barnes building will be a place where the kind of questions Barnes once asked will be asked anew.

Jeremy Braddock is an associate professor of English at Cornell University and the author of Collecting as Modernist Practice. This post was originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books.