For the Record

The fantastic blogger Azita over at Fig & Quince, reminded me about the documentary film on the Barnes titled, The Art of the Steal.  My hairdresser that day in Philly told me I should watch it as well and it completely slipped my mind.  We watched it last night (it streams on Netflix) and according to this film, what actually went down over there at the Barnes makes me feel like my post about his art was a bit glib.  Well, I mean, obviously it was glib, but the seriousness and seediness of the saga is fascinating and paints an oily film over Philly and politics and organized philanthropy in general.

But…it’s also difficult to take sides or make any sort of judgement since the story is really a tale as old as time.  It’s about greed, money, resentment, envy and ultimately power; a Greek and Shakespearean Tragedy steeped in irony.  Just ultimately…human.  Watch the film when you can.  In the meantime, the story from my hairdresser is reprinted below—with corrections in bold.

This man named Dr. Barnes had a tough life, grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Philly, etcetera.  He made his fortune by inventing acetaminophen? Maybe?  Something like that a drug to treat gonorrhea.  In the era of Gertrude Stein, at the height of French ImpressionismImpressionism, Post Impressionism & Modern, he had a lot of money from selling his company and decided to collect art…a lot of art…30 billion dollars worth of art…maybe less.  I can’t remember.  He sequestered it away in a museum he built specifically around the collection, just outside of Philadelphia.  In fact, the building was SO specific it was actually built around a painting, I believe by Manet Matisse. However, Barnes decided he would only make this collection accessible to childrenstudents who attended a specific schoolthe art school he made out of the collection, it was not to be viewed by the public.  And MOST importantly he did not want the art to fall into the hands of the Philadelphia art world…he didn’t want a commercial value placed on it.

Dr. Barnes—

“Why?” Michael interrupted.

I guess he thought they were all a lot of uppity so and so’s.  Oh…and there was also something about Annenberg.  They got into an argument one night. I think Barnes continually told Annenberg he shouldn’t be so snooty because everyone knew his grandfather father made all of his money in the mafia.  Apparently This was common knowledge, Annenberg Sr. had been in jail for tax evasion, but Annenberg, I guess, had the same sense of humor as maybe someone like…Tom Cruise.  Right?  You know what I mean, right?  No sense of humor…especially about anything related to his own shortcomings.  So Annenberg & Barnes never spoke again, and tried to take each other down in various ways whenever they had the opportunity.


Oo Oo Oo!  Wait!  So when Barnes died at age 78 in a car crash…he had no heirs and a will that stated 2 things:

The first was that this art is for this nice school was to be continued to be used for the school.  And it was for about 40 years after Dr. Barnes died.  A teacher ran the institution exactly as Barnes wished until she died.  Then it went to Lincoln University, a very small university with a primarily African American student body.  The Philly Art Museum and Penn were dissed, purposefully.  You just have the watch the film to see what happened next.  It’s a great big hubris filled messfest, mostly involving this guy…


 But of course, over time,  the school couldn’t afford to take care of the art, so Eventually the state of Pennsylvania Philadelphia said, ‘Hey!  Lincoln University, how would you like 50 million dollars (a fortune to a school that size)?  We’ll give you the money if you give us the art.’  Uh-huh.  This is how the will was broken so the public was able to view the art.
The second stipulation of the will was that the art must NEVER, EVER, EVER be moved into the city of Philadelphia.

“But wait, I thought the Barnes Museum was in Philladelphia?”

It is!  Dr. Messite attended the opening of the new space in Philly just last year.  And guess who’s primarily responsible for breaking the will and funding the move?  The Annenberg Foundation, even!  (…along with the Pew Charitable Trust and the Mayor of Philly.)

So, my hairdresser is boycotting the museum.


  • I’ve never heard of this! But I love the way you told the story about it. Particularly about your hairdresser boycotting the museum. Classic. I shall keep an eye out for the film!

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