Monday, June 21, 2010

More on Esplund on the Barnes

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned Lance Esplund's long essay in The Weekly Standard about the Barnes move. The magazine now has a letter to the editor from Brett Miller, the general counsel of the Barnes, and a response from Esplund. You can read them both here. I have a few observations.

Miller mentions the recent article by art dealer Richard Feigen that I discussed here. He says Feigen's solution involved selling "works of art from the collection to raise money for an endowment," a prescription "which stands in direct opposition to ... the ethical standards widely accepted by other collecting institutions." Esplund counters that "Mr. Feigen’s solution was to sell 'unrestricted' artworks ..., an action that is in no way forbidden under museum association guidelines."

I remain confused about this distinction between "restricted" and "unrestricted" works when it comes to the issue of deaccessioning. Did it suddenly become okay to deaccession "unrestricted" works and use the proceeds for operating expenses? Which are the unrestricted works at the National Academy? Or Randolph College? Quick, someone get Jehuda Reinhardz on the phone. I think we just solved Brandeis's deaccessioning problem. They should just sell the "unrestricted" works!

Turning to the heart of the dispute, I thought the chief weakness of Esplund's original piece was that he didn't bother specifying exactly what it is that will be lost in the move. As I said then:

"Towards the end of his long piece, Esplund finally gets around to conceding that 'almost all of the artworks are to be reinstalled as they were in Merion,' and that the new galleries will 'replicate the scale, proportion, and configuration of the existing galleries.' The artworks, the way they are installed, the scale, proportion, and configuration of the galleries -- what else is there? If we keep all of that, what have we lost?"

Miller calls him on the same point:

"Mr. Esplund spends a large portion of the article describing in great detail the art works and other elements comprising the ensembles and visual connections in the galleries. He ultimately and disingenuously implies that when the collection moves these unique connections will be lost through a 'Frankenstein’s monster-like revivification.' Despite his facile attempt to suggest otherwise, the new galleries will retain the scale, proportion, and configuration of the existing galleries and, through an interior garden, will reinforce the connection between art and nature."

In response, Esplund makes what I think is a startling concession: "There is no way for us to predict exactly how adversely the experience of the Barnes’s art will be affected by its new home and attendance going up five-fold" (my emphasis).

Think about that for a second. The 4.6 mile move up the road is a great "cultural tragedy," but, pressed to explain why, Esplund says: We can't know. It's impossible to predict.

He goes on to say that "more viewers equal more distractions" (does that apply only to the Barnes collection or is the goal to depress the number of visitors to, and therefore the number of distractions at, all museums?), and then another amazing statement: "Some works of art (Chartres Cathedral, the Great Pyramids at Giza, Fallingwater, the Barnes Foundation) are perfect exactly how and where they are."

The Barnes -- now promoted to a Work of Art, rather than a place where works of art can be seen -- is perfect exactly how and where it is. It cannot be improved upon. Don't move a hair on its head. Don't re-think anything, ever. They got it right the first time. (What were the odds!) It was, is, and always will be . . . perfection.

He also says that the Barnes is "a unique and radical vision," and the move to Philadelphia "will homogenize it." But again: how? How will it "homogenize" the vision? Does the unique and radical vision reside in an address -- 300 Latch's Lane? Isn't "the vision" embodied in the selection of works, how they are arranged and hung, etc.? If all of that is preserved -- and Esplund concedes that it is -- in what sense is the vision being homogenized?