A survivor’s saga: Growing up and moving on with the Barnes Collection

On surviving the Barnes Foundation uproar

9 minute read
Derek Gillman (above) 'cut through a vast entanglement of opinions and interests.'
Derek Gillman (above) 'cut through a vast entanglement of opinions and interests.'
The Barnes Collection opened to the public -- for limited hours, days and ages -- around the time I came to the U.S. from England to get married. Until the recent move to Benjamin Franklin Parkway in downtown Philadelphia, I lived with it and near it for over 40 years.

The person responsible for my being able to see it at all, if only on Friday or Saturday, was Pennsylvania's then-Deputy Attorney General, Lois Forer, who petitioned the Montgomery County Orphans' Court to force the Foundation to open its galleries to the public.

Like Albert Barnes, I was fortunate to be educated in great art by looking at original works by famous painters. Unlike him, I viewed the art in great public collections in Europe, although London's National Gallery— where many masterpieces arrived as gifts to the nation— actually did belong to me. (As a child, I became so familiar with the hanging of my favorites that when Renoir's Parapluies was moved from right of the old main stairs, I took it personally.)

Venturi Scott Brown's Sainsbury Wing was under construction on Trafalgar Square when guards at the National Gallery assured me the architects were doing marvels for the collection of early Italian and quattrocento works to be housed there. Bob Venturi told me that his understated addition had been criticized by colleagues both for being insufficiently modern and incorrectly classical. But his homage to the great art within was recognized by those most exposed to it— the guards— as well as Prince Charles, who had dismissed a previous design as a "monstrous carbuncle."

Guards with guns

My first memory of the Barnes in the early '60s is of deserted galleries and fierce-looking Pinkerton guards. When I asked one a question, he glared at me. I was horrified to see he was carrying a gun, as no British bobby did.

We were looking at the marvelous early Picasso of a cachectic man before an empty plate— there were no labels then or now, so I never knew the title— when my husband felt moved to break the charged silence by remarking loudly, "And this is a remarkable example of Picasso's pink period!"

We often visited the Barnes, taking out-of-town guests, occasionally making reservations if visitors came from abroad. It was rarely fully subscribed. I had to badger one German couple into going to a "neighborhood gallery" they'd never heard of before; of course, they were totally bowled over. More recently, a professional friend, on a trip to Philadelphia, recalled his introduction to the Barnes as a formative experience of his life.

Albert Barnes's ensembles reminded me a bit too much of an English bourgeois mantelpiece, circa 1940s: electric clock in the middle, matched candlesticks on either side. On the left of the great central gallery, a Tintoretto is similarly balanced by a putative Giorgione, two like-sized old masters topped by two little Daumiers, framing the large family group by Renoir.

Monet's crowded boatman

I'd have preferred to be able to look at a painting without seeing others out of the corner of my eye. I thought of cutting peepholes in a piece of cardboard but never quite got around to it.

How refreshing to see Monet's early morning fisherman hung on its own, right at the beginning of the exhibition in the Philadelphia Museum of Art where the Barnes tour commenced. Now it's back in its corner at the new Barnes, where, as before, you practically brush against other paintings to view it straight on!

The fact that the fisherman's boat was actually Monet's bateau/atelier— a floating studio— I learned only after the Barnes Collection moved. But this moody painting will always remind me of On the River, a macabre little story by Guy de Maupassant, involving a fisherman and a cadaver.

Grime beneath the surface

Impressionist rivers were as foul as they come beneath their luminously painted surfaces, something I learned from graduate students who had the opportunity to study a collection of fabulous Impressionist paintings loaned to the University of Pennsylvania's Arthur Ross Gallery by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1996. The title of that exhibition— "City Into Country"— suggested the proximity of industrial grime, mechanization, a world in change just beyond the edges of the idyllic scenes depicted.

One of those Penn students was Judith Dolkart, who returned as chief curator of the Barnes in 2009, after almost a decade at the Brooklyn Museum.

One day in 1987, I found myself sitting outside the Barnes with a busload of university presidents from around the world. Our group had booked for the noon opening time and we arrived with a quarter of an hour to spare. Presidents of any stripe are not the most patient people, so to pass the time I told them a little about Albert Barnes and his will, which were responsible, among other peculiarities, for keeping them waiting outside on the street.

Michener's gambit

As a young man, the novelist James Michener spent an enjoyable day with Dr. Barnes after he mailed a letter from Pittsburgh claiming to be a poorly educated worker in a steel mill. Michener had been denied entrance as a Swarthmore student on three previous occasions. After he became famous, Michener bragged about his coup— and became, in his words, "a target of Barnes's scatological abuse for a five-year period." The old elephant went so far as to send a claque that effectively prevented the author from speaking at Penn.

The tempest surrounding the Barnes Foundation continued. Neighbors ruined dinner parties fighting about it in my living room, and the New York Times suburban reporter, in the days we had one, told me he couldn't wait to leave for his next assignment. At the time— the 1990s— I knew only that Richard Glanton had taken over as president and the residents of the Latches Lane neighborhood were adamantly opposed to more visitors, traffic or car parking anywhere in their neighborhood.

A few days before the collection closed for its (necessarily disputed) international tour in 1993, lines outside were so long that my brother, on a visit from England, was unable to get in. Later, he was prepared to cross the Channel to see the exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, but tickets there had already sold out.

Protest signs

I witnessed a final sorry episode in Philadelphia's teacup society at a dinner in town where the Barnes Foundation's current director, Derek Gillman, was speaking at my invitation. A participant, a member of Friends of the Barnes, distributed cards at the tables bearing the slogan, "The Barnes Belongs in Merion." Similar signs were scattered throughout Lower Merion; the closer you got to the Foundation, the thicker they appeared— on the lawns of the very same people who had opposed any suggestion for improved access to Barnes's mansion among all those stately homes!

Having seen Gillman's work for the Melbourne Museum even before he took on the Pennsylvania Academy, and having heard how thrilled with it the Australians were, I was delighted when he was appointed to run the Barnes in 2006. He, if anybody, might succeed in cutting through the vast entanglement of opinions, viewpoints and interests concerning an ever fabulous, financially beleaguered institution that was becoming daily more famous around the country and the world.

In true American fashion, a price was suddenly being placed on objects previously known and valued by rather few. Moving the Barnes Collection became tantamount to stealing Albert Barnes's property in what amounted to a "heist."

True public access

Lost somewhere in the new paranoid arguments was Dr. Barnes's always somewhat mythical purpose of bringing art to an underprivileged public— albeit a public selected by him, an elite in the true sense of the word. Dr. Barnes had never admitted students or intellectuals, artists or art historians; only friends— and an elect hoi polloi.

Those opposed to the move that would make the collection truly accessible to a public without the means of transportation or ignorant of the collection's existence now chose to dismiss such folk as some ugly new tourist phenomenon, a plague of locusts launched by profit oriented operators and a city greedy for revenue.

So what a treat for uninformed, unprejudiced minds (along with informed ones): the chance view this great collection for the first time in its new location on the Parkway! What possibilities for learning— guide in hand or via headset— or, for those introduced by the good doctor to simply looking at the paintings, with neither.

Family affair

The special gallery near the entrance of the new buildings gives a sensitive and respectful account of Dr. Barnes's beliefs and theories, and his philosophy and his views on the teaching of art are being revisited and recognized as never before. Their dissemination to greater numbers than previously enjoyed that privilege to participate is a personal triumph for the great private collector, surely one that must in the end have pleased him.

Postscript: One of my daughters, then age 12, pleaded to visit the old Barnes. Since she was tall for her age, she put on a dress, even a dab of lipstick, only to be turned away at the guardhouse nearest the road. This week, visiting from the West Coast, she and her daughters, aged 12 and 9, all enjoyed a three-and-a-half-hour visit. As a founding member, I can visit whenever I like—and the children can accompany me for free and as often as they wish.

Everything changes. Sometimes for the better.♦

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What, When, Where

Barnes Foundation. 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. (215) 778-7000 or

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