Earlier this summer, Julia Marchmain and I had the pleasure of visiting the Barnes Foundation in Merion, PA. Tucked inside a gallery in a residential neighborhood was arguably the world's finest collection of Impressionist and Modernist paintings. Cezanne, Matisse, Renoir, Van Gogh, Picasso, Degat and Seurat are all represented.
Estimated value: Impossible. Pieces like Matisse's arch-mounted La Danse are simply priceless.
The founder, Dr. Barnes, created his foundation for artists. His collection was not primarily a public exhibition but rather a teaching tool for artists and art students. The arrangement of the collection is unusual. A visitor looks upon a wall, spies a prominent painting in the center and then notices that the paintings arranged above, below and around the center work all draw out certain technical skills and artistic themes: an especially vibrant splash of red, a wheel & spoke design, the curve of the female form.
Selected metal workings and furniture complement the paintings. In museums and galleries, I am accustomed to wandering, reading the placards and focusing on the artist's biography and the painting's historical context. Barnes removes these distractions. The only written information is a single word on each frame with the artist's name, i.e. "RENOIR" or "SEURAT." It is a liberating way to view art.
Unfortunately, the enduring lesson of Dr. Barnes is that if you plan to bequeath a priceless art collection, you must ensure that there isn't a politician within 500 miles. Dr. Barnes' trust indenture explicitly prohibited the sale, movement or relocation of his collection. Within two generations, the corrupt Philadelphia (a redundancy, I know) political and social establishment targeted the Barnes Collection for relocation.
We viewed his art on its final day in Merion, PA. It is now relocated to a new home near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It took a surprisingly simple alliance of City Hall (Mayor, Governor, and Attorney General) and Dr. Barnes' old enemies in the Philadelphia establishment (Pew Charitable Trust, Lenfest and Annenberg Foundations) to tear apart his trust and grease the move to urban Philadelphia.
You could not have found a more socially sympathetic or politically-correct figure: Dr. Barnes worked his way out of the slums of Philly, went to medical school and created life-saving medicine. With his fortune he was an eccentric collector of art. He was a full-throated Progressive, a card carrying liberal Democrat and an enthusiastic New Dealer. If his wishes and intentions, if his property and contract rights were not respected, what chance does anyone have against barbarian politicians and bullying foundations?
Further reading: http://www.ifcfilms.com/films/the-art-of-the-steal