Wednesday, December 19, 2012

House of Barnes

Let me recommend Neil Rudenstine's new book to anyone interested in the whole Barnes saga.  First of all, he completely demolishes the latest, desperate talking point of the anti-move crowd that the Barnes was not in terrible financial shape.  "The fundamental problem," he says, is that "the endowment effectively ceased to grow after 1961" (p. 153).  "Expenses continued to rise steadily at a far greater rate than the endowment, resulting in larger and larger annual deficits" (p. 154).  The Foundation, "in the face of steadily rising costs," was "essentially doomed" (id.).  By 1988 the endowment had fallen to about $7 million, or "about 30% less than its 1952 value," while expenses had increased by nearly 2,000% (p. 163).  The financial situation was "hopeless":  "more deficits were projected for the years immediately ahead"; "the reasonable expenses of running the most basic operations of the Barnes far exceeded the institution's capacity."  The "longer term finances of the Foundation were irremediable" (id.).

Though it's nice to have it all in one place, that's all been said before.  What's more interesting, I think, is his discussion of whether the Foundation was fulfilling its primary mission in the old location.  The organization's central purpose, according to its Indenture, was to advance "education and the appreciation in the fine arts."  Its primary concern was "spreading" the principles of "democracy and education" (p. 172).  The Indenture provided that "plain people" (the kind who might even eat at McDonald's!) should be admitted free of charge, and aimed to benefit people from "all classes and stations of life."

On this criteria, the old Barnes, Rudenstine convincingly argues, was a failure.  "We know that many people were prevented from visiting or attending courses" (p. 173).  Nor is there "any evidence at all of special and consistent efforts made to admit plain people free of charge or to determine the extent to which the Foundation was actively trying to spread democratic principles" (id.).  Looking at a micro level at the Barnes's education program, he finds that, "over a recent seven-year period," there were a total of 756 enrollments in all art courses combined -- about 100 a year.  Since the courses typically met once a week for a four-hour session, that meant the entire gallery was closed three and half days a week ... "in order to serve about 100 students" (id.).  Democracy!

Of that select group of students, the average age was 56, and the bulk came from "well-off suburban towns."  Only about 14 per year came from Philadelphia.  More than 40 students took the same course more than once, and more than 100 of the 756 enrollments were "repeats" (pp. 173-74).  In short, "the situation seems inordinately far from the strongly stated democratic purposes in the Foundation's Indenture" (p. 174).

As Rudenstine notes, "by far the strongest" opposition to the move has come from those who are "focused on the art collection and the Foundation's setting."  But -- "significant as these are" -- they "do not relate directly to Barnes' own stated purpose in creating his Foundation, or to the goals that he himself said he wanted to fulfill."  The "diverse city of Philadelphia would clearly offer the promise of greater openness and accessibility in a 'democratic' milieu" (p. 174).  In other words, what if the move to Philadelphia actually got us closer to Barnes's intent?  What if we think of his intent as more than just that a collection of artworks remain at a particular address?

Rudenstine concludes:  "[T]he art is there, installed as it was in Merion.  The education programs -- improved and expanded -- are there.  Special exhibitions will -- for the first time -- be possible. ... The primary purposes for which the Barnes was created will, reanimated, be at the center of the institution."