The space that Albert C. Barnes dreamed up, planned, designed, financed, built, decorated, propagated, nurtured, endowed, cherished, defended, and most certainly loved, shuttered.
Perhaps the finest collections of nineteenth and twentieth-century French painting in the world never again to be seen as its curator intended. Never again to be seen in its odd, arresting, pleasing, and wonderfully distinctive space that can never be replicated. Not by us. Not now.
What is it about us that we could not tolerate the Barnes Foundation as it was and as it was intended to be by its founder, Albert C. Barnes?
There were claims of faulty finances and the once leaky roof, the stubborn indenture with its idiosyncratic provisions, cries of mismanagement and old scores to be settled. Year in and year out came another complaint. Yet whatever their veracity, each somehow tolled a hollow ring, echoing a greater emptiness as their numbers grew.
I never visited the Barnes Foundation, even when I lived just miles away. Yet even now a continent removed, it is not lost on me that when the Barnes emptied its galleries one last time something great was lost and that in letting Barnes’s legacy slip through our collective fingers, we have diminished ourselves as a people and as a civilization.
We rightfully lament the annihilation of the Buddhas of Bamiyan or the plundering of indigenous artifacts from their native lands as acts against culture. How are we so blind to the cultural vandalism in Lower Merion?
There are those for whom the sprawling new complex that will warehouse Mr. Barnes’s collection on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway will be seen as a great step forward. They will view it as progress. What with its environmentally friendly design, 80-plus parking spaces, snack shack, reception space, and trinket store, patrons can be in and out of the Barnes before lunch and at the Blackjack table in Atlantic City by early afternoon.
The Barnes Foundation, of course, ceases to exist in any meaningful sense once the paintings are removed from the building and property that Mr. Barnes crafted for them. His collection is consequential as he intended it only in that space.
As acclaimed Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi put it: “The current building in Merion was designed specifically for the Barnes collection . . . . The building and site design are an integral part of the collection, and vice versa. Separating them vastly diminishes the value and purpose of both.”
We also are diminished by treating without care Mr. Barnes’s legacy. What does it say of American jurisprudence that it could not muster a defense of Mr. Barnes’s bequest, that the law could not do what we all expect it ought to do for us: protect the terms of our wills and estates as we have determined them after we are gone? Of what value are our contracts if they should be dispensed with when we are not around to protect them? Where is the trust in trusteeship? What is wrong with us that we could not find it within our collective selves to do what we would expect others do with our legacies?
Edmund Burke famously wrote that society is a contract between the living, the dead, and those who are yet to be born. The conflagrations over the Barnes Foundation and the shuddering of its doors last Saturday illustrate a profound inability to think outside of the present, to think principally of ourselves, to ignore our past while thumbing our nose at posterity. Destroying Mr. Barnes’s legacy is an extraordinary act of generational selfishness masking as public interest. It is a gross violation of the intergenerational contract that connects society across time and that makes life meaningful. In this act of cultural vandalism, we have diminished ourselves across generations. We should be ashamed.
Note: On July 3, 2011, the Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion located outside of Philadelphia closed its doors. The foundation was chartered in 1922 and is generally considered America's greatest collection of early 20th-century modern painting. Barnes expressly prohibited the removal of his collection from its home in Lower Merion. In Spring of 2012, Mr. Barnes's collection will be relocated to downtown Philadelphia. The controversy surrounding the Barnes Foundation is recorded in the film The Art of the Steal.