How to keep the Barnes in Merion?
Advice to Montgomery County
An open letter to the people of Montgomery County:♦
I certainly appreciate the recent articles in the press about progress that’s been made in attempting to keep the Barnes Foundation and its collection in Montgomery County. I applaud the vision of the people of the county who are acting on the realization that they have something very dear to lose on Latches Lane. It’s like discovering that the Parthenon is located down the street, on a lot with high grass, and then finding out that the people who run the place let the grass grow so that they could sneak the thing out of town before anyone missed it. This realization is coming a little late, but it’s not too late— even though the gardeners growing the grass do have a great PR campaign going.
It goes something like this:
“It’s too late; it’s a done deal.” In reality, they haven’t done much. The gardeners have been skillful in getting public entities to put up taxpayers’ money on the gardeners’ promises that they will raise hundreds of millions at some point in the future. In the meantime, residents of Montgomery County are awakening to the idea that, with a little creative financing, the Barnes’s financial woes could be solved without destroying the “Center of American Philosophic Pragmatism” and without spending $300 million to do it.
A few hundred people could raise quite a fuss in this county if they chose to do so. You could call, fax and e-mail every politician you can think of. Tell them you don’t want the state to spend another $250 million to move the Barnes from its historic place among the trees of the world. Tell them Montgomery County can take care of its own.
“We’ve already started the architect search.” Yes, they’ve solicited architects to submit proposals. Which brings up another issue few people are aware of. I was shocked to search the Internet for the six architects the gardeners have selected and see the type of work that they are known for. (See, for example, Inga Saffron’s comments in the Inquirer.) Lots of raw cast concrete, lots of very cold spaces, lots of glass and metal. Albert Barnes would roll in his grave. (Now that I think of it, this type of architecture is a perfect fit for the Ben Franklin Parkway, where there isn’t a tree in site except for the beautiful grove of sycamore trees the gardeners plan to cut down.)
If the mandate from Judge Ott’s court was to preserve the spirit of the current Barnes, how can that be accomplished in a building that looks like an overpass? One would think that Judge Ott would jump at the chance to right that wrong. But it will take the people of Montgomery County to give him the chance, since he can’t initiate that procedure on his own.
“We have raised all of the money.” Nothing has been raised. The gardeners have nothing more than pledges for funds.
“The new Barnes will have a dynamic educational program.” Education doesn’t seem to be a high priority in the Barnes board’s future thinking. The board has yet to appoint a director of education. Nor is anything being done to preserve the curriculums of the Barnes’s two senior art educators, Harry Sefarbi, who is 90, and Barton Church, who is 80. These are people who had personal contact with Albert Barnes and Violette De Mazia. No one alive knows what they know. Have the gardeners videotaped, audiotaped or transcribed any of their lectures? Not a word has been recorded for posterity. An observer can reasonably wonder whether the gardeners are concerned about maintaining Albert Barnes’s legacy or burying it.
“The new Barnes will be more like a museum.” Museums are places where paintings by famous artists are hung in solemn halls, organized historically or in "schools" of similar styles. Shows are staged to celebrate artistic celebrity, like Cézanne or Renoir. This isn’t what’s supposed to happen at the Barnes, because the Barnes is a school, no a museum. The students— not the visitors— are supposed to be the point of its existence. The Barnes doesn’t need to expand in order to remain a school; however, it does need to offer more scholarships to interested, deserving citizens of any age. Here’s another challenge for Montgomery County residents to take up.
“The current location is inaccessible.” To paraphrase Kipling:
If you possess a hardy soul and are capable of future planning (say, a few weeks);
If you have the ability to communicate (say, a phone);
If you have the desire to reach out (and call the Barnes);
If you can execute a plan (reserve a ticket on a specific day);
If you can follow through (actually go to the Barnes);
If can clear your mind (walk the gardens and arboretum);
Then, my son, you shall be exalted and rewarded with art as it can be experienced nowhere else on the planet.
I would encourage all of residents of Montgomery County to visit the Barnes as soon as possible (before the gardeners succeed). When you go, give yourself an extra hour before your ticket time so you can first walk through the gardens. Sit for a little while near the teahouse and koy pond, then tour the arboretum. I suggest you touch the trees, feel their varied barks. You may rewarded to see a beautiful red hawk dive for its prey, or you may surprise a deer standing as still as a sculpture pretending you can’t see her. If you’re paying attention you will realize that you’ve been transported out of your personal situation, out of your job, out of your financial woes, out of your humdrum day-to-day life. Your hour is probably up, and you’re ready to walk through the front doors into a one of kind assemble of art. You walk into the main gallery to find a mural by Matisse that sweeps across the horizon, and it begins. ◆
Scott Jefferys lives in Hillside, N.J.
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