It hardly seemed possible that the situation at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, could get any worse than it was. But with the latest round of lawsuits and countersuits that have now been generated by the actions of the current administration of the Foundation, a situation that was already pretty bad has grown appreciably worse.
To understand the ostensible basis for this latest concatenation of suits and countersuits, it needs to be recalled that the late Albert C. Barnes created the Foundation as a school for the study of art. The great collection of modern paintings and other art objects that are the principal assets of the Foundation was personally assembled by Dr. Barnes for that educational purpose. He was well acquainted with the great art museums of his day, and for the most part he very much disapproved of the superficial way they ministered to the aesthetic needs of the public. The Barnes Foundation was specifically created to provide a serious pedagogical alternative to the standard museological experience of art.
It is possible to disagree with Dr. Barnes’s ideas, of course; many people do. But there can be no doubt about the purpose they were meant to serve. In the Foundation’s own archives there reposes an extensive record of Dr. Barnes’s correspondence with Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Leo Stein, and others, in which this fundamental aesthetic-pedagogical purpose is systematically explored and defined, and it is also clearly reflected in the books—on Cézanne and Matisse, among other subjects—written by Dr. Barnes himself. Moreover, it was unequivocally stated by Dr. Barnes when he provided for a foundation, as he said, “to be maintained perpetually for education in the appreciation of the fine arts.”
Yet from the outset of the campaign to abrogate the provisions of Dr. Barnes’s bequest it has been arrogantly and incorrectly argued that the Barnes Foundation, despite the clearly stated intentions of its founder, was really all along an art museum only pretending to be a school. Unfortunately, the courts have repeatedly upheld this misrepresentation that has now led to the sordid and costly tangle of legal actions that cast a considerable doubt about the future of the Foundation.
What has happened is this: the citizens of Merion, a quiet suburb of Philadelphia, have grown fearful that the current effort to turn the Barnes Foundation into what one resident described~dash\altogether accurately in our opinion—as a “Getty-type commercial museum,” would, if successful, radically change the quality of life in their town by attracting heavy traffic, tour buses, holiday crowds, and all the attendant hazards that nowadays can quickly turn even the most picturesque village into a nightmare of rampant tourism. An effort was thus made by town commissioners and others who live in Merion to require the Foundation to abide by its legal status as a private educational institution. To function as a public art gallery would, apparently, require a permit which the Foundation has never been granted.
In retaliation for this action, the current president of the Barnes Foundation~dash\Richard H. Glanton, a Philadelphia lawyer who is black—has brought a civil rights action against the Merion township commissioners and certain other residents of Merion, all of them white, charging them with, of all things, “racial bias.” Then, in response to this bizarre suit, the town commissioners and seventeen of their neighbors filed a defamation suit against Mr. Glanton and three other Barnes Foundation trustees.
Where this costly and utterly grotesque carnival of legal horrors will end, no one can now say. What is certain, however, is that with each passing day Dr. Barnes’s program for a foundation specifically designed “for education in the appreciation of the fine arts” is made to suffer a continual betrayal. It is all a ghastly fable of what has happened to art, to art education, and to the political and financial exploitation of both art and education in our time. And it is very likely that, in this case, the worst is yet to happen.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 8, on page 1
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