The Barnes Foundation

WE need to save the Barnes Foundation!

I should warn everyone that I’m prone to fits of passion and I’m about to fly full force into this one. Yes, brick wall, I’m aware that you’re there. Yes, glass ceiling, I’m quite aware you’re there as well. BUT we need to save the Barnes Collection. When I say “we,” I mean WE-the entire entity of art lovers on this planet.

When I wrote the above blurb, I was angry. I was so angry as a matter of fact that my roommate asked if I was okay. See, I was sitting in my room watching a documentary film called, “The Art of the Steal” and before I knew it, I had curses flying out of my mouth. I sat there calling people in the film all kinds of dirty names.

My ire has since calmed down, but the situation has not left my mind. In fact remains I am still very angry about the situation of the Barnes Foundation.  It doesn’t help that I’ve also joined the facebook page and get signed a petition through the website for Friends of the Barnes Foundation, an organization of neighbors and citizens in Merion, Pennsylvania, a few short miles from Philadelphia that are fighting to keep the wonderful collection of art in its proper home.

Unlike many people, I was not educated on this collection until I watched the documentary. I know. I know. You may be thinking that I should not trust a documentary. Normally, I’d agree with you. As with any story, there are more sides than just one and anyone can skew a story to their desire. However, my one interest in documentary films is the passion behind them.  I honestly believe that documentary films are sparked by an intense interest in learning the multi-sides of any story. The unfortunate part is that most of the time documentaries are made because something bad has happened and it’s a way for the artist, to document it, to go undercover, to attempt to expose the truth, or at least tell the side that can’t as easily be told.

What really leaves me at this point, where I’m blogging about saving the Barnes Foundation, is that the movie made me wonder about an artist’s rights.   Before I get into artist’s rights though, I need to give some background history (which the movie does a wonderful job of presenting the full story):

Albert Barnes started the Barnes Foundation in 1922 after making a ton of money (not sure how much) thanks to his pharmaceutical company called Barnes and Hille (his partner was Herman Hille) which included the manufacturing of Argyrol, a silver-based compound used to fight infections, and discovered his love for art and started collecting.  Unfortunately, Mr. Barnes died in 1951 in an automobile accident and the The Barnes Collection now is listed at being  worth something like $20-$30 billion dollars.  From the looks of it, the collection is stunning. Simply stunning. I’d give anything to see the collection at the actual location before it is moved to Philadelphia in 2012.  I just may, too because I know without a doubt that I will never visit Philadelphia to visit this art collection once it is moved. I simply will not.

The details behind how the art is being relocated to Philadelphia (something that Barnes specifically did not want)  is detailed in the film and I highly recommend that you see it to learn more. It’s really amazing how politics, money, and the law can really go against the wishes of someone, even if their dead to get those with power what they want.   Some of the claims made for the relocation is that the Barnes Foundation building in Merion is in disrepair and that there is not enough money to keep the collection in its original home. I find it preposterous to think that 1. that collection could not raise the money needed without the help of the city and state or being relocated and 2. that Barnes left the foundation in such a state of disaster that someone with intelligence (note this is separate from greedy intelligence, or greed itself) could not come in and create an effective and efficient plan to save the organization.

Albert Barnes created the Foundation with a simple mission: “promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts.”  This is where my thoughts on artist rights come in. Albert Barnes was not an artist per say, but he was an art collector and his rights are what matter.

Barnes left in his will certain requirements that include not selling, loaning or relocating the art and that document is being completely and totally ignored. As a matter of fact, one executive director, loaned the art out. The exhibit traveled the world and saw great notoriety. I don’t believe that Barnes didn’t want the world to see this art, I believe he wanted the art to be seen and appreciated by the masses that truly and deeply understand the work. Anyone can pay $15 to view art, but not every once can deeply feel it. I am not trying to come across as an elitist because I’m not. I personally do not enjoy paying to see art. I believe that art is an expression that should be open to all people, from all walks of life. However, I also don’t shell out money to see any art exhibit at any museum. I don’t travel to see art in Museums. I still remember my first viewing of the Mona Lisa. I remember looking at her and saying, “That’s it? She’s so small!” It is only now that I am more immersed in the art world that I can look at pieces and see exhibits with a broader light shining through. I see stunning pieces and it makes me want to create!

What bothers me most about the state of the Barnes Foundation is that the owner of the art is being ignored. His desire is being ignored. If I were Matisse and I sold my art piece to a buyer who took great pains to create a visually stunning display and was someone I trusted with my art, I’d want my art to remain within the guidance and will of that person. Just because someone dies doest not mean that their ownership ceases to be valid or exist.

From the sounds of it, Barnes created this Foundation with good intent. He did not buy it to make money off of it and yet that is what it all comes down to, money. This collection is said to be so timeless, so astounding that anyone would want to get their hands on it for the sheer volume of money it can bring in.

Not only is his will being ignored, but he left the Foundation in the hands of Lincoln University, or in other words, “Amended bylaws enabling the Board of Trustees of Lincoln University, one of America’s first historically African-American universities, to nominate four of the five trustees of the Barnes Foundation, upon the demise of all original trustees” (  As of now, there are no original trustees or trustees from Lincoln University. If you look at the list of Board of Trustees, I wouldn’t trust any of them.

What I’m left with now is the idea of ownership. Who really owns art? As a designer, I believe I own my creations. When I choose to sell a product of mine, I am sharing my art and there is an exchange of money, but I still own the creative process behind it even if it’s out there being shared with the world. After all, I do want my creations to be out there, loved and enjoyed by all, but what if it all came down to something like this? What would I as an artist/designer want to be done with these pieces? It really is some heavy food for thought that I think all artists should consider.  Barnes had his own agenda, as did Matisse and Renoir and Cervantes, but what would they want now, if they were here watching this unfold? What do we as individuals owe the artists  for the pleasure of viewing this art? What do we as artists owe Barnes for being an incredible collector with an amazing eye? What do we, as artists, expect of our own art as we age and eventually die? Furthermore, what do we, myself included, expect of our own minuscule collections of art? I mean, I love all the pieces I’ve collected and I would definitely leave them to people who I love to continue sharing the process, but those pieces also aren’t worth $20-$30 billion.

Having said that, I’m going to check out the Barnes Foundation myself in June.  I just bought my ticket in the process of writing this. A mini-road trip to the Philadelphia area the first weekend of June is just what the doctor ordered and what this blogger needs before she can write much more about the Barnes Foundation.  Stay tuned for my thoughts on the exhibit itself sometime in June.  Until then…keep making, collecting and appreciating art. Oh and maybe try to help save the Barnes Foundation if you can.


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s2 stationery & designs

A rule-breaking designer, artist & entrepreneur who's passionate about paper and handcrafting stationery. I also write, travel, and focus on eco + social good.

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