Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Death of a Directive

The Weekly Standard is a journal of politics and political opinion, though it does retain space for art and book reviews. The current (31 May 2010) issue veers off-character in that it contains an unusually long (for the magazine) article about the Barnes collection that's on its way from Merion, PA to downtown Philadelphia. It's "No Museum Left Behind" by Lance Esplund, and a link is here.

I'm puzzled why the article even appeared in The Weekly Standard, given that's it's neither a political piece nor a book review. But it got published and it's worthy of comment.

Being long, it manages to touch on several themes. One deals with Albert Barnes and his take on art, especially the progression of traditional painting to modernism via French Impressionism. He tended to consider all of this part of a greater whole rather than distinct aspects, according to the article. This is why he mixed paintings of different vintages on the walls of his museum.

Esplund also discusses Impressionist and modernist artists -- Cézanne, Matisse and Renoir especially -- at some length.

Then he reacts in horror to the moving of the collection from the suburbs to Franklin Parkway -- this in total contradiction to Barnes' wishes and directives. To me, this is a regrettable fate suffered by most charitable foundations -- a conservative or traditionalist sets aside money that eventually funds projects that would totally repel him (think Ford Foundation, Pew, etc.).

Finally, Esplund riffs on what he considers the self-destruction of art museums in their seeming goal of maximizing attendance.

So many themes are touched on, I find it hard to comment. I'll note that I lived in the Philadelphia area for the better part of three years while at Dear Old Penn and knew of the Barnes collection. At the time (late 60s) it was difficult for people to view the collection; limited numbers allowed in, red tape of other sorts perhaps -- I forget. In any case, I had dropped my interest in art to the level that visiting the Merion facility seemed more trouble than worth, and I never went there.

I do think that putting the collection near downtown Philly makes the art far more accessible than it was. On the other hand, I don't like the business of contradicting the intent of the benefactor. So, on balance, I think the move is a mistake though I'm not as upset about it as Esplund seems to be.

The world is filled with ambiguous situations, isn't it?

[Cross-posted at 2 Blowhards]

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