For nearly 90 years, the quiet street in Lower Merion known as Latch’s Lane was a worldwide destination for art lovers.
The world’s incomparably greatest collection of Post-Impressionist and early modern art was housed there, in the Barnes Foundation. Connoisseurs such as the actor Charles Laughton came to make the pilgrimage. The art dealer David McKee told me once about how he’d driven the great British sculptor Henry Moore across the then-industrial wasteland of New Jersey for a visit.
Not everyone who wished to come was welcome. Albert C. Barnes, the self-made man who’d designed the collection, chosen each of the many thousands of works in it, and developed the curriculum of his Foundation in collaboration with America’s foremost educational philosopher, John Dewey, was not a man to suffer fools gladly. The Philadelphia poohbahs who ridiculed him, and the local critics who dismissed his unrivalled trove of Cezannes, Renoirs, Picassos, and Matisses as degenerate trash, found their rejection returned. But ordinary men and women, the humbler the better, found an open door. Barnes wasn’t just a collector and educator, but a philanthropist who, years ahead of his time in his social consciousness as well as his artistic taste, had been the chief patron of the Harlem Renaissance.
Barnes’ greatest vision, however, was for the art he’d assembled itself. He’d made his fortune by developing a drug that had saved the sight of thousands of infant children. Believing that great art could be a force for democracy, he wanted his collection to open the eyes of his fellow citizens as well. The curriculum he and Dewey developed around the collection was designed to do just that. I’ve known and spoken to many students who studied at the Barnes when it was housed in Merion in the splendid chateau-style building designed by Paul Philippe Cret, who gave Philadelphia some of its most distinctive architecture. Uniformly, they described it as a life-changing experience.
After Barnes’ death in 1951 and by instruction of his will, the collection was opened to the general public on Sundays, although the Foundation remained a teaching academy. Public access was later expanded to three days a week. Also by his instruction, no entrance fee was charged for visitors, nor any tuition for the art courses themselves. Barnes left the Foundation well-endowed, and for four decades after his death it subsisted on the funds its resources generated. Unlike public — and many private — museums, it never took a penny of taxpayer revenues. It was a gift to the world, pure and simple. It was also a unique refuge from the frenzy of the money-driven art world, and the commercialized emporiums that most public museums had become.
Above all, above even the splendor of the collection itself, it embodied Barnes’ truly Jeffersonian vision of building a democratic culture through the experience of great art.
So, naturally, it had to be destroyed.
Barnes’ fatal mistake, born of his lifelong philanthropy toward the African-American community, was to leave ultimate control of the Foundation in the hands of a small, private institution, Lincoln University. When the Foundation came under Lincoln’s active control after the death of his disciple, Violette de Mazia, in 1988, the school — without any substantive art program of its own — made good-faith efforts to shoulder its new responsibility, but control of the Foundation Board soon passed to a Center City lawyer who saw in its assets a commercial bonanza.
This opened the door for waiting vultures such as Walter Annenberg, Barnes’ long-time adversary, and the political hacks, including successive Pennsylvania governors and Philadelphia mayors, who followed in his wake and saw the collection as a gold mine if it could only be pried loose from the wilds of Merion and transplanted to downtown Philadelphia.
It is true that the art hasn’t gone far from its original home — 4.62 miles, to be exact — and that it may still be seen by the public, for a pricey admission fee. But the experience of the collection, and its educational function, has been transmogrified by the so-called museum in which it is now housed and the “cultural” carnival that now surrounds and tarts it up. What Henri Matisse once called the only sane place in the world to view art has now become just another stop on the bus tour.
The loss is incalculable for everyone, but perhaps most of all for Montgomery County, whose crown jewel, along with Valley Forge, the Barnes once was. It is also a disgrace. This is a county so sensitive to its heritage that it refuses to replace barely legible “historic” street signs, yet permitted its greatest treasure — valued commercially (as Barnes insisted it never should be) at a sum equivalent to the entire taxable property value of its 800,000 residents combined — to be stolen out from under its nose with the essential indifference of its County Commission and with barely a ripple of protest beyond a few activists who sought to mount legal and political challenges to the move against insurmountable odds.
The larger value our nation has lost is Albert Barnes’s vision of great art as the common possession of us all and as a vehicle of democratic culture and empowerment. The terrible shrinkage we have seen of our commons in the past several decades in the encroachments of privatization and the monetization of public values is both cause and consequence of the factors that destroyed the Barnes Foundation.
The empty shell of the Cret building on Latch’s Lane, which should break anyone’s heart to pass, is a symbol of the abandoned mansion of our democracy. We can still restore it. And I can’t think of a better way to begin than to put Henri Matisse back in the place where he found sanity, the place where he belongs.