For the Record

There is a documentary film on the Barnes Museum titled, The Art of the Steal.  According to this film, what actually went down at the Barnes makes me feel like my post about his art was a bit glib.  Obviously, it was glib, but the seriousness and seediness of the saga are fascinating.  The film paints an oily film over Philly, politics and organized philanthropy in general.

It is also difficult to take sides or pass judgment since the story is a tale as old as time: greed, money, resentment, envy and ultimately power-a Greek and Shakespearean tragedy steeped in irony.  Watch the film if you can.  In the meantime-the story from my hairdresser is reprinted below: corrections are in bold.

Ok, this man, Dr. Barnes, had a tough life-grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Philly, etc.  He made his fortune because he invented acetaminophen, maybe?  Something like that a drug to treat gonorrhea.  In the era of Gertrude Stein, 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, thirty billion dollars worth of art.  Maybe less, I can’t remember.  He sequestered this art in a museum he built specifically around the collection outside Philadelphia.  In fact, the building was SO specific it was actually built around a painting-I think by Manet Matisse. Dr. Barnes decided to make this collection accessible only to children students who attended a specific school the art school he made out of the collection; it was not to be viewed by the public.  MOST importantly-he did not want his collection to fall into the hands of the Philadelphia art world because he didn’t want a commercial value placed on it.

Dr. Barnes—

“Why not?” my husband interrupted.

I guess he thought they were a bunch of uppity so and so’s.  Oh- 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 never spoke to Barnes again.  They tried to take each other down in various ways whenever they had the opportunity.


Oo!  Wait.  So when Dr. Barnes died at age seventy-eight in a car crash he had no heirs and a will that stated two things:

1-His art is for this nice school was to be continued to be used for the school.  

2-The art must NEVER, EVER, EVER be moved into the city of Philadelphia.

His collection was used for forty years after he died.  A teacher ran the institution exactly as Dr. Barnes wished until she died.  It then went to Lincoln University-a small college with a primarily African American student body.  The Philly Art Museum and Penn were dissed-purposefully.  You have to watch the film to see what happened next-a big hubris filled messfest, mostly involving this guy:


Over time the school couldn’t afford to take care of the art any longer.  The state of Pennsylvania Philadelphia said, ‘Hey,  Lincoln University, how would you like fifty million dollars (a fortune to a school that size)?  We’ll give you the money if you give us the art.’  This is how the will was broken so the public was able to view the art.

“Wait, I thought the Barnes Museum was in Philadelphia?”

It is.  Our dentist attended the opening of the new space in Philly last year.  AND-guess who’s primarily responsible not just for breaking the will, but also for funding the move?  The Annenberg Foundation, even (along with the Pew Charitable Trust and the Mayor of Philly.)  In conclusionmy hairdresser is boycotting the museum.

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