- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 2004

A Pennsylvania judge ruled Monday that the financially troubled Barnes Foundation is free to relocate its celebrated collection of Renoirs, Cezannes and Picassos from suburban to downtown Philadelphia. The decision by Judge Stanley Ott raises troubling questions regarding the integrity and sustenance of art museums.

The artworks are housed in a 23-room private museum built by Dr. Albert Barnes during the 1920s in Merion, Pa. In his will, Barnes specified that the artworks should be exhibited permanently according to his aesthetic vision and never sold or moved. The medical-supply millionaire intended his collection to be primarily a teaching tool for the foundation’s art school and limited public access by admitting no more than 400 visitors each day.

On the face of it, lifting those restrictions and moving the Barnes treasures to a brand-new museum in a prominent urban location seems like a good idea.

It will allow bigger crowds to view one of the richest art collections in the world, and in doing so, will strengthen Barnes’ original mission of exposing more “plain people” to art.

The court ruling makes this possible by allowing the Barnes Foundation to use $150 million in grants for a new building and an endowment. Those funds pose a new challenge for the foundation: balancing the need to reach a broader audience with the responsibility to preserve a unique identity.

Repackaging the stunning collection endangers the founder’s vision and the museum’s distinctive character. One of the joys of the current venue is its idiosyncratic display of artwork, serenely oblivious to the current fashion for sparsely and chronologically arranged installations.

Barnes filled his neoclassical gallery, designed by architect Paul Cret in 1925, with an enchanting mix of paintings, sculptures, furniture, hardware and ceramics. He carefully juxtaposed pieces from different cultures and eras to reveal common visual elements. Visiting the museum, which requires buying a ticket weeks in advance, is like making a pilgrimage back in time.

Of course, re-creating this atmosphere is possible in a new building, but hardly likely given current museum practices, which favor fewer pieces in more spacious and pristine surroundings. In the future, masterpieces by van Gogh and Cezanne, which hang cozily side by side at the Barnes museum, probably will be mounted like postage stamps on a huge white wall. To picture the effect, imagine dismantling the Phillips Collection and dispersing its treasures throughout the National Gallery’s East Wing.

Or visit the Cone Wing at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Its antiseptic galleries display the Matisses and other modern masterpieces that once adorned the Baltimore home of Claribel and Etta Cone. The paintings have been stripped of their original, ornate gold frames and hung in single file rather than in multiple levels as in the Cone sisters’ salon.

In moving its collection, the Barnes no doubt will be tempted to hire a big-name architect to create a blockbuster museum with auditorium, restaurant, gift shop and other amenities aimed at drawing tourists. Other small museums devoted to one collector’s vision are already moving in this direction.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which continues to honor Gardner’s wish for displaying her art in her ornate mansion, recently tapped the Italian architect Renzo Piano to design a new wing, which will house spaces for special exhibitions, a cafe, a shop, an auditorium, administrative offices and a new main entrance.

More consequential for the art world than a mere change in venue for the Barnes is the court’s decision to disregard the stipulations — complied with for decades — governing the collection’s display. Cutting the strings attached to a long-honored bequest could have a chilling effect on potential museum donors by heightening fears that their special wishes, too, could be tossed aside years after gifts are made.

The ruling reinforces a growing trend among major institutions to refuse conditions attached to gifts. One of the best-publicized instances of this occurred in 1995, when Yale University returned $20 million to Texas billionaire Lee Bass after he sought veto power in the choice of faculty to be funded by his largess.

A more recent example occurred when businesswoman Catherine B. Reynolds donated $38 million to the Smithsonian Institution for an exhibit on individual achievement at the National Museum of American History. After curators balked at her ideas for commemorating famous figures, including Nobel Prize winners, instead of groups of people, Miss Reynolds rescinded most of her money in 2002.

At a time when government grants have been shrinking, private support of museums has never been more essential. The Barnes ruling, with its potential to discourage future pledges, will have repercussions in the museum world that will be felt far beyond Philadelphia and for a long time to come.

There is a lot more at stake here than shifting a few pictures around on gallery walls.

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