Barnes — Art in a curatorial stranglehold

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By Sue Spaid

For the past three years, I have followed the debate surrounding the Barnes Foundation’s move from Merion to Benjamin Franklin Parkway with great interest. October 12th’s discussion on Marty Moss Coane’s radio show with architecture critics Inga Saffron and Nicolai Ouroussof inspired this editorial.  There seems to be a great confusion about what the Barnes Foundation is.

Barnes Foundation exterior, Merion, PA. Barnes embedded art right in the facade of the building. Apparently there are African design motifs woven into the exterior of the new Barnes on the Parkway
Barnes Foundation exterior, Merion, PA. Barnes embedded African art motifs right in the facade of the building. Apparently there are African design motifs woven into the exterior of the new Barnes on the Parkway, too.

Some Philadelphians act as though the Barnes Foundation is no different than Betsy Ross’s home, an historic landmark whose preservation must perfectly reflect its era. Others consider Barnes’ everlasting exhibition an eternal memorial — the artworld’s very own Liberty Bell — that his foundation’s board has betrayed. Several callers decreed Barnes an artist whose collection cum artwork must be replicated exactly. Some see it as an invaluable local collection with endless exhibition opportunities. Paradoxically, Barnes’ unfortunate mistake was that he collected fine art in addition to historic objects.

Rendering of one of the communal spaces in the new Barnes on the Parkway
Rendering of one of the communal spaces in the new Barnes on the Parkway

As a professional curator with 25 years of experience, I consider it odd to view collectors or curators as “artists” who have some special right to freeze artworks in place in perpetuity. Novalis’s famous quote, “An artist belongs to his work, but not the work to the artist” suggests how artworks belong to no one, not even their “legal” owners. Society values art because it reflects its time, anticipates the future and adapts to later eras. Exiled at the Barnes Foundation just as Barnes “curated” it, actually limits each painting’s possibilities. His peculiar arrangement reflects his era, not ours. In fact, people seem to appreciate the Barnes’ Foundation more for its eccentric Mutter Museum-like sensibility (Saffron courageously calls it “nutty”) than the actual paintings on view. Since building renovations tend to reflect current trends, not “original” styles, the impetus to continue hanging the art on burlap walls in an entirely new building seems totally unfounded!

Nothing could be better for the paintings than their liberation from Barnes’ curatorial stranglehold. Yes, the Barnes Foundation must display bold colorful photos of how Barnes arranged his objects in each gallery and recreate Barnes-era period rooms (for fun). Most important, the Foundation must invite fresh eyes to install the works in novel contexts, offering heretofore unthinkable thematic opportunities. Consider “Henri Matisse and Modern Art on the French Riviera,” currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Perelman Building, as exemplary of one such opportunity. Compare the experience of this thoughtful exhibition with routine visits to the PMA’s Impressionist galleries, where the juxtapositions rarely change. With very little effort, the Barnes Foundation could be lauded for its exciting exhibitions, leaving the dynamic paintings, rather than their staid display, to immortalize Barnes’ vision.

–Sue Spaid is a freelance curator and PhD student in philosophy at Temple University.  Her most recent curatorial outing is Endurance: Daring Feats of Risk, Survival and Perseverance, at Abington Art Center.

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