Better times for the Barnes, at last

Barnes on the Parkway

5 minute read
Protesters at the ceremony: Be careful what you wish for.
Protesters at the ceremony: Be careful what you wish for.
From the Broad Street Review’s earliest days, the debate over the court-sanctioned move of the incomparable Barnes Foundation collection from Lower Merion to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway has raged in both essays and letters to the editor. Some were noteworthy for more sizzle than substance; others were thought provoking on all sides of the issue; but all gave testimony to the importance of this forum for arts commentary and criticism. But now the fun is over.

Events on Wednesday, October 15 brought the debate to a close. Whatever the merits, pro and con, further argument is irrelevant. At some point near the end of 2011 the new Barnes Museum on the Parkway will open to the public, absent the restrictive hours, limits on the number of visitors and the step-child education program that have defined the collection’s life in Lower Merion.

On October 15 Dr. Bernard C. Watson, chairman of the Foundation’s board, and Derek A. Gillman, the Foundation’s executive director and president, hosted a gathering at the Collection’s future home on the Parkway at 20th Street.

Among the important events and announcements:
• A symbolic demolition of the existing Juvenile Detention Center facility occurred, with the aid of a wrecking crane and fireworks.
• The city granted official permission to the Barnes Foundation to build its new home on the Parkway.
• Completion of demolition and site preparation will continue into early 2009.
• The architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, will submit final designs for the new museum in early spring 2009.
• Before the end of 2011 the Barnes Museum on the Parkway will open to the public.
• Governor Rendell committed an additional $5 million of state aid to the project, this grant for demolition of the Detention Center and other site preparations.

The only reasonable conclusion is that the issue of the future location of the Barnes Collection is now settled.

A fifty-year state of denial

My contribution to the debate in Broad Street Review, beginning in March 2006, consisted primarily of defending Judge Stanley R. Ott’s ruling to allow the Barnes Collection to move to the Parkway. Central to my argument has been what I take to be the most important part of Albert Barnes’s will and of his dream for the foundation he established.

Arts education was at the heart of that indenture and that dream, but more specifically arts education of a distinctive (even if idiosyncratic) nature and for a specific (even if unlikely) audience of ordinary, working-class people. I have contended that from the time of Dr. Barnes’s death in 1951 to the most recent petition to Judge Ott’s court, all those associated with the Barnes Foundation have been in a state of denial about the publics served by the Foundation and its educational programs. I have argued that only by moving the Barnes Collection to Center City, where it will be easily accessed by that public, can Dr. Barnes’s vision stand a realistic chance of being realized.

I was strongly encouraged at the October 15 gathering by several additional announcements related to the primacy that will be given to arts education going forward.

• A full-time education director of has been appointed to the Foundation’s senior administrative team.
• The architects Williams and Tsien have been directed to design a new museum that will accommodate an enhanced education program and also preserve the Collection’s existing atmosphere.
• The Barnes Foundation has entered into a partnership with the Art Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Fabric Workshop and Museum, and the Institute of Contemporary Arts to launch “Art Speaks! Connecting Visual Arts and Language Arts,” a program for enriching arts education for all Philadelphia School District fourth graders.
• The Foundation and Lincoln University have entered into an agreement through which Lincoln will offer a new undergraduate degree program in the visual arts, using Barnes Foundation resources and course material, beginning in spring 2009. It will seek to prepare minority students for careers in arts administration and arts education.

So, yes, Albert Barnes’s long-delayed hopes for his collection may soon be realized at last.

Nutter’s response to protesters

Of course, no good deed goes unpunished. Also present at the October 15 event were protesters, including prominent figures who have disagreed with me in the BSR debates. Assisted by bullhorns and placards, they continued to hold out for their protectionist stance of retaining the Barnes Collection in Lower Marion, regardless of the consequences for educational programming. Perhaps the best response was offered by Mayor Michael Nutter, who recalled the long history of opposition by Barnes Foundation neighbors and Lower Merion political leaders who wished that the Collection would either become invisible or disappear. “Be careful for what you wish,” the mayor observed.

With its new leadership, its strengthened financial condition and its new, more strategic location, the Barnes Foundation faces a happier future, one that I hope will be free of repeated visits to Judge Ott’s courtroom and focused instead on the essential (and, beyond all the legal arguments, essentially worthwhile) objective of Dr. Barnes’s will.

To read responses, click here and here.

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