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Barnes Foundation

clarsen's picture


Visiting The Barnes Foundation a few weeks ago nearly felt like another art history trip to a museum.  Cézanne, Courbet and many other artists we’ve been studying the past few months covered the walls.  As I reflected with Peter Paul Ruben’s The Incarnation as Fulfillment of All the Prophecies, I noticed that much of what came to mind tied in to a previous lesson I had had in that class.  I over analyzed rather than allow myself a natural experience.  Previously, I had given little thought as to how paintings and sculptures in museums spoke to one another.  Barnes successfully ties his collection together through his use of furniture and metal pieces thereby creating his own work of art.  The Art of Steel added to my curiosity and allowed me to question both the motives and decisions behind the move of The Barnes.  There was much controversy behind the choice to change the location to Philadelphia, yet how did it alter the foundation and artwork in the long run?

After Albert Barnes passed away, his foundation became much more a museum rather than school.  No longer would people have to write asking permission to visit in Barnes’ small intimate house.  No longer open only two days a week with students taught.  The Barnes Foundation transformed into a museum, so high in demand that the artwork went on tour.  Due to its small location and large attraction, leaders were tempted to change the location to Philadelphia where they were convinced attendance would quadruple.  Although The Barnes Foundation does receive a significantly larger amount of visitors than before, the move changed the true motives and meaning of the foundation.

Albert Barnes specially exhibited his collection to benefit students and those he believed less privileged.  When Barnes did respond and give permission to letters asking to visit, guests were extremely appreciative.  Knowing how rare the occasion was and given the opportunity to spend time in a fairly empty house made the experience much more valuable.  Compared to the modern day connection, visitors are certainly much less grateful and will not have the same response to the artwork. Visitors are more likely to take their acceptance into the museum for granted and share a less meaningful experience with the work.

The move not only changed the experience and meaning of The Barnes Foundation through its shift in size but additionally through new accessories and advertisements.  Albert Barnes was fiercely against photographs of his work to be taken or distributed in order to preserve rarity and worth.  Soon after others took control, the pieces were plastered nearly everywhere.  Advertisements for Van Gogh’s The Postman cover buses and stops making the image trite and over commercialized.  After seeing the piece so many times, a guest at The Barnes is less likely to spend as much time with the painting or share a deep connection.

In addition to advertisements, an audio tour and booklet sharing details of the works of art were added to the museum.  They describe each piece and make the experience significantly less personal.  When facts and interpretations are easily at hand, one is less likely to truly share their own connection with a work.  Barnes did not have paintings labeled with titles as it gives away much about the topic rather than allowing the viewer to make their own judgments.

Since Albert Barnes passed away and new additions were made to his foundation, the changes have morphed the perceptions and experiences of visitors.  Not only has the foundation been drastically changed, but also the way the artwork is viewed.  An increase in visitors and wealth does not necessarily benefit the museum when its original motives are not being carried through and it fails to remain true to Barnes’ plan.