Breaking Up a Collection to Save It? : Art: Barnes Foundation trustees seek to override an eccentric Philadelphia collector’s will that forbids the sale of his masterpieces.
When the late eccentric chemist Albert C. Barnes created a home for 800 paintings and 200 sculptures in a limestone suburban villa surrounded by 12 acres of gardens in the 1920s, he was determined to keep out anyone he didn’t like--from scholars to the elite of Philadelphia society. Barnes died in 1951, and to this day his plan has worked surprisingly well.
Barnes may have assembled one of the world’s finest collections of post-Impressionist art, with more Cezannes and Renoirs than New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the strict rules on visiting that collection have made it largely unknown to anyone besides Philadelphians and art history students.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. April 26, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 26, 1991 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 17 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Not Chairman-- Philanthropist Walter Annenberg was incorrectly identified in a Times article Thursday as honorary chairman of the Art Advisory Committee of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Annenberg, in fact, resigned that position on April 4.
But over the last month that collection has emerged from obscurity with the announcement by the Barnes Foundation that it had gone to court to override the late collector’s will and seek permission to sell a reported 15 pictures to fund restoration, building repairs and the foundation’s endowment. A hearing will be held May 8.
The board of trustees’ petition focuses new attention on the controversial practice of deaccessioning, the sale of works of art from museums’ permanent collections. It has always been a controversial practice that seems to contradict a museum’s mission to act as a trustee in collecting works of art for the public’s benefit.
The practice came under fierce attack last year when the Guggenheim Museum in New York sold what are considered first-rate works by Kandinsky, Chagall, and Modigliani from its permanent collection to purchase a collection of minimalist sculpture. Critics charged that the sale betrayed the museum’s mission as a repository for early 20th-Century European art.
In the case of the Barnes Foundation, many of the same critics say selling works would not simply be ethically suspect, but illegal, since Barnes’ will prohibits any sales. Some also argue that the Barnes paintings are not in dire need of restoration, as the Barnes Foundation argues.
But board members say the problems facing the Barnes collection are acute: inadequate security and climate control, peeling plaster, and deteriorating paintings, all needs that cannot be met by the roughly $1 million annual income from the foundation’s endowment.
Led by lawyer Richard Glanton, the board of trustees of the Barnes Foundation is requesting that the court permit it to publish a catalogue of the collection and expand visiting hours. The collection is now open just three days a week and closed for holidays and the months of July and August. It also wants permission to charge more than the current $1 admission fee and hold fund-raising events on the grounds. Barnes forbade all social gatherings.
In published interviews, Glanton has said the Barnes Foundation does not intend to sell any of the collection’s finest works. Still, raising $10 million to $15 million could require parting with a masterpiece or two, said an art dealer who has been following events leading to a possible sale.
Most estimates value the Barnes collection at around $1 billion. Some go higher than $3 billion. Selling off works now, however, means entering an art market where values have dropped substantially.
“They’re not going to get anywhere in this market selling odds and ends,” said the dealer, who asked not to be identified.
The Barnes collection includes 57 paintings by Cezanne, 54 Matisses (among them the legendary 1906 “Joie de Vivre”), 171 Renoirs and 7 Van Goghs. Barnes also collected African sculpture, wrought iron, and paintings and jewelry from the American Southwest.
Barnes’ will specified that the works be shown the way Barnes had installed them, from eye level to the ceiling, with a collection of wrought-iron hinges and implements interspersed among post-Impressionist masterpieces, Old Masters and New Mexican miniature votive paintings on wood.
The Matisse masterpiece hangs across the top of a stairwell. Paintings have no titles, just small plates bearing the artist’s last name.
A majority of board members were appointed by Lincoln University, a local liberal arts college. In his will, Barnes gave Lincoln power to name four out of five members of the board. None of the current members has art or museum experience.
Recognizing that inexperience, last year the Barnes Foundation formed an Art Advisory Committee, composed of such museum professionals as Anne d’Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Tom Freudenheim, assistant secretary of museums at the Smithsonian Institution; Kirk Varnedoe, director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, and Roger Mandle, deputy director of the National Gallery of Art.
The advisory committee’s honorary chairman is billionaire philanthropist and art collector Walter Annenberg. He owned the Philadelphia Inquirer when it brought a suit in the 1950s to force the Barnes Foundation to widen public access to its collection.
Annenberg, who is said to be advising the board on the proposed sale, declined to be interviewed for this article. His office said he “had had enough publicity of late.”
Most other committee members also declined to speak for attribution.
One exception was the Smithsonian’s Freudenheim. He believes that the Barnes collection, in its entirety, has tremendous archival value in addition to containing great individual works of art.
Preserving the collection in its idiosyncratic installation, Freudenheim says, offers an important opportunity to study the history of taste. Selling any part of it, he says, erodes its value.
“All museums have these problems, but they still try to preserve collections worth hundreds of millions of dollars without selling off the work,” said Freudenheim. “In this case, we have a rare example of a first-rate collection that was put together by one person.”
Freudenheim and others also doubt that the Barnes board exhausted other possibilities before considering deaccessioning. “This appears to be a first-ditch effort rather than a last-ditch effort,” he said.
Most museum professionals condemn any sales from collections to fund operations or repairs. If it were an accepted practice for museums in need of money to simply sell off works of art, museums would be under great pressure to manage their collections as if they were made of negotiable assets, says Ed Able, executive director of the American Association of Museums.
“If we deaccession a teapot,” explained Earl A. Powell III, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “it’s only to buy a better teapot, and the donor of the original one is given credit on the new acquisition.” Gifts to museums would also decline, museum professionals warn, since donors would never know when their bequests might turn up on the auction block.
While Annenberg may be advising the Barnes Foundation on the sale of works from its collection, in his own recent bequest of 52 paintings to the Metropolitan Museum he specifically ruled out deaccessioning. He also said his collection must be shown as a group, with a ban on all outside loans.
Annenberg seems to view the Barnes collection differently. In a conversation with a journalist from the Washington Times last month, he implied that the foundation had no choice but to sell off works. “Where do you think they’re going to get funding to do what’s necessary?” he asked the reporter. “It would take them 20 years to raise funds.”