Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Art of the Steal: Access & Controversy at the Barnes Foundation


Last week, I finally watched The Art of the Steal, an arresting documentary on the controversy around the evolution of the Barnes Foundation from a suburban educational art facility to a major urban art museum (to open in May 2012). The documentary raises basic questions about donor intent, legal execution of eccentric peoples' wills, and, most interesting to me, the definition of access to a collection.

A quick background on the Barnes Foundation. It was founded in 1922 by Albert Barnes, a wealthy scientist who collected what is now considered an incomparable collection of Impressionist and Modernist art. Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso--Barnes collected it before it was popular in the U.S., and he collected the best of the best. With the help of educational philosopher John Dewey, Barnes founded the Barnes Foundation as an educational facility in Merion, PA, near Philadelphia. Unlike most art collections, Barnes' art was neither exclusively private nor a public museum. It was primarily used as a teaching collection for youth and adult students. The Barnes Foundation allowed a limited number of public visitors two days a week, but visitors were second-class citizens compared to the students.

Barnes protected his vision for the collection in his will. The art could not be sold, reproduced, loaned, or traveled. The school was to continue. There were slight concessions to public visitation, leading to capped attendance of about 60,000 per year. However, over the past thirty years, Philadelphia leaders clamored for the art to move to the city and be made more accessible to visitors (projections suggest the new facility will welcome 250,000 per year). The film documents the incremental subversion of Barnes' will and the eventual development of a new, highly public home for the collection in Philadelphia--exactly what Barnes despised and sought to avoid.

The documentary is shrill at times, with several Barnes Foundation stalwarts ominously repeating the word "conspiracy." There are cringe-worthy art critics who decry Barnes' rivals as "people who know nothing about art." But the fundamental story is fascinating and really challenged some of my basic ideas about museums. Despite my focus on populism and access, I am sympathetic to Barnes and his followers, who feel strongly that a serious injustice has been done.

The civic and cultural leaders who successfully challenged the original intent of Barnes' will had two basic arguments for the transformation of the collection:

  1. The Barnes Foundation was struggling financially. A move to a more accessible venue in the center of Philadelphia would increase attendance dramatically, thus bolstering finances.
  2. The Barnes collection is an incredible cultural artifact that more people should be able to access. Demand exceeded availability for public hours in the Merion location, and that demand constituted a valid public concern, one that foundations and politicians felt necessary to address.

I think both these arguments are bullshit. Let's look at each one closely.

First, let's talk money. The strangest thing about the documentary was the insistence by all parties--those who supported the move to Philadelphia and those who wanted to preserve the Barnes in Merion--that increased attendance would solve institutional financial crises. I kept scratching my head and thinking, what kind of art museum makes big money on attendance? Most art museums get a maximum of 10% of their income from admissions.

Consider two examples in the Philadelphia area. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, which welcomes about 800,000 visitors per year, had income of $80.4M in their 2010 fiscal year (based on their public 990 tax form). Of that, $3.9M (5%) came from museum attendance, and an additional $1.7M came from special exhibitions (2%).

Now, another institution--the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which welcomes 54,000 visitors annually and manages a school for community members as well as BFA and MFA students. Their total revenue in 2010 was $16.2M (their 990). Of that, $1M came from attendance (6%), and $9.3M (57%) came from the educational program.

What's healthier for the financial viability of the Barnes Foundation--focusing on being a school, or focusing on being a museum? I don't see how a four-fold increase in public attendance--saddled with the significant costs of operating a large urban museum--will ensure stability.


Second, let's talk about access. If a donor designates a particular use of his or her property, how closely does that have to be followed? If a large body of civic and cultural leaders feel that the designation is no longer culturally relevant, does that matter? If someone owns something unique (and bars its reproduction or transfer), how much "public good" does that collection have to confer before the owner's wishes are challenged? And on a more practical museum management level, are there multiple ways to validly define access to a collection?

I don't feel qualified to answer the first three questions. But I do feel confident in my answer to the last one: yes. There are many ways a collection can be accessible or inaccessible (check out the UCL report Collections for People for a rigorous review of this). There are some collections that are entirely private. Others are accessible seasonally to a handful of visitors. There are publicly-owned collections that are only accessible by appointment or through digitization efforts. There are objects you can see, and objects you can't.

The Barnes Foundation was inaccessible to visitors who wanted to come to the facility, pay an admission fee, and view the art in the galleries. At the same time, it was deeply accessible to a cadre of teachers, students, and artists who spent prolonged periods with the work.

The controversial reconfiguration of the Barnes Foundation suggests that the first kind of access is more important than the second. That attendance trumps depth of experience. That center city trumps suburb. That granting access to 60,000 people per year is not sufficient to appropriately meet the demand to view the collection. That that demand has a moral public value.

In museum circles, we often say, "numbers aren't everything." But when we say that, what other things do we offer up as alternatives? Can we make a compelling quantitative argument for the benefits conferred to students at the Barnes Foundation, many of whom engaged in multi-year art and horticulture programs? How many one-time 1-hour visits does a three-year course of study equal? Is it really "better" to have 250,000 visitors shuffle through a museum than to give a deep experience to a few hundred? Who gets to decide?

The Barnes Foundation was not founded as a museum. It was founded as a school that used a privately-held art collection as its curriculum. I don't see why museum standards of access should be applied to such an institution just because it would be politically convenient to do so.

And that, I think, leads to the real reason governors, mayors, and heads of Philadelphia-based charities pushed to move the Barnes Foundation to the city. The Barnes collection is an extraordinary cultural jewel, and Philadelphia wants that jewel in its crown. It doesn't really matter if the collection is accessed by 60,000 people or 250,000 people, whether those people have a deep experience or not, and whether their admissions tickets will improve the institution's financial health. What matters is that Philadelphia can tout the Barnes collection and its wonders in its tourism and marketing materials for the city.

In some ways, this is a good thing. It implies that civic leaders do understand the incredible value of cultural institutions as identity-builders and tourism-attractors. But I don't think that justifies such a blatant disregard for donor intent, trumpeted with a one-note, "more attendance = better" horn. What do you think?
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