Dr. Albert C. Barnes was a Pennsylvania doctor who made an early fortune by developing a new kind of antiseptic. He put that fortune to good use in art collecting, purchasing world-class examples of modern painting and sculpture alongside a diverse assortment of other styles and art forms. Although not alone as an American art collector who founded his own museum, Albert Barnes stands apart because he was also a passionate art educator. An intellectual and original thinker, Barnes developed his own theory of art appreciation and used his collection to teach others. Despite numerous controversies over how to best honor its founder’s legacy, his Barnes Foundation, now a museum and school, still thrives today.
Albert Barnes: Background
Albert Coombs Barnes (1872-1951) grew up in poor areas of Philadelphia but received a good education at Philadelphia’s Central High School and then got a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He then went into pharmaceuticals. After spending a period of additional study and research in Berlin, Albert Barnes returned to Philadelphia and made a fortune as a co-inventor of a silver-nitrate antiseptic called Argyrol. He soon established his own A.C. Barnes Company, which was revolutionary for its progressive and employee-centric labor practices.
Barnes was not a particularly pleasant man, and he was notoriously difficult to deal with. Despite that, he was deeply committed to social equality for everyone. He was a big admirer of African and African-American art and music and a passionate supporter of Black artists and causes. In particular, he is closely associated with the African-American painter Horace Pippin (1888-1946), whose work he collected and whose career he helped promote. The primarily African-American workers at his pharmaceutical factory were the first students to benefit from Barnes’s art collecting. He displayed some of his holdings in his factory for their enjoyment and offered free art appreciation classes to them on-site.
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Like many rich entrepreneurs, Albert Barnes turned to art collecting as a hobby after making his fortune. He built his diverse collection with the help of his school friends William Glackens, a painter in the 20th-century American realist movement known as the Ashcan School, and Alfred Maurer, a Fauvist. Both are represented in the collection.
Barnes’s collection is most closely associated with modern art, and he had the money and desire to purchase the best examples available on the market. The Barnes Foundation owns an impressive 179 Renoirs and 69 Cezannes, as well as paintings, drawings, and sculptures by artists like Picasso, Van Gogh, and Modigliani. Perhaps the most famous objects in the collection are Matisse’s Le Bonheur de Vivre and The Dance (not to be confused with the more famous one at MoMA), the latter of which was a Barnes commission. However, Barnes appreciated more than just European modernism. He also collected old master paintings, antiquities, lots of American folk art, and art from Africa, Asia, and indigenous North and South America. To Barnes, it all fit together perfectly.
In Barnes’s museum, all of these different types of artworks are mixed together throughout the galleries. Folk-art furniture and decorative spoons share the wall with Impressionist paintings and African masks. There are no wall texts, no titles, and no obvious connections between neighboring works. However, the Barnes’s curation, dreamed up by Barnes himself, ran on very specific organizational principles, and deciphering them is half the fun. Barnes designed these arrangements, which he called ensembles, based on purely aesthetic qualities. Each ensemble brought together diverse artworks that shared a particular visual quality that Barnes hoped would be highlighted by the juxtaposition. Nowhere does the museum announce the theme of each ensemble. That is for the viewer to figure out. As we’re about to see, this idea of close looking and interpretation through the visual were the key components of Barnes’s approach to art appreciation.
The Barnes Method
Barnes was clearly intellectually curious, especially about art and its role in human well-being. He was particularly influenced by the work of philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey (1859-1952), whom he would later appoint the first head of education at his new Barnes Foundation. Dewey’s lectures about the importance of independent thought, experience, and inquiry on democratic human development seem to have inspired Barnes to use his art collection to benefit the broader population.
Most of us think of the Barnes Foundation primarily as a museum, but it started its life as a school of art appreciation, which Barnes chartered in 1922. He ran the classes out of his house in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania and soon commissioned architect Philippe Cret to build him a new home/gallery combination there to display his collection and run his classes. Spending time with art in the flesh was critical to Barnes’s philosophy, and this new space allowed his students to experience his world-class collection.
As a scientist, Barnes liked objectivity and fact, but ordinarily, art interpretation tends to be anything but objective. Barnes did his best to change that by developing his own mode of art interpretation, called the Barnes Method, which aimed to eliminate objectivity as much as possible. The method takes a visual, experiential approach to art appreciation. The idea is that close study, reflection, and factually-based assessment of art are superior to the complicated and erudite interpretations favored by traditional art history.
Barnes was an early explorer into territory that occupies many people today: how to make art accessible to people who haven’t studied art history. His classes were intended for common people, including working-class women and African Americans, rather than an art-viewing elite, whom he actively excluded. Barnes wrote extensively about his theories and published The Art in Painting in 1925.
Barnes did not come up with his art education program entirely alone. French-born educator Violette de Mazia (1896-1988) met Barnes when she took one of his courses. She eventually became his collaborator and rose to even more prominent positions after Barnes’s death, becoming director of education and then eventually a trustee. Today, de Mazia has her own foundation named after her, also fulfilling an art education mission.
The Legacy of Albert Barnes
Barnes formally incorporated the Barnes Foundation as an educational institution and continued to run it throughout his life according to his own, extremely particular vision. Although he considered gifting it to a university, the foundation remained a self-sufficient entity after Barnes died in a 1951 car accident. He structured his will so that it would remain that way.
Barnes obviously had reasons for setting up his foundation the way he did, and he had no intention of ever letting it change. In fact, Barnes’s will forbade it, or at least tried to, as we’ll see. According to his last wishes, nothing was ever to leave his collection galleries, not even to go on a temporary loan. Nothing could be added, sold, modified, or even moved. The foundation was to remain primarily an educational institution. Barnes did not see it as a museum.
Almost none of this has lasted, and the Barnes has been mired in controversy since right after its founder’s death. Although it still offers a variety of classes in the Barnes Method and related topics, the foundation has become progressively more of a museum than a school. Barnes’s visual ensembles remain the way he designed them, but the museum now also shows temporary contemporary art exhibitions relating to the collection and sometimes moves or sends out pieces from the collection on loan. It now has a gift shop. Yet all of this was merely a warm-up to the real scandal.
In 2002, the Barnes Foundation’s board decided it wanted to move the collection out of Lower Merion (a Philadelphia suburb) into Philadelphia proper. Obviously, this conflicted with Barnes’s will and generated many lawsuits, which were eventually decided in the Foundation’s favor. In 2012, the Barnes Foundation moved into a brand-new building by Tod Williams Billie Tsein Architects. The interior galleries aim to replicate those in Barnes’s original home, and the new building is sleek and elegant. However, there’s no question that the overall structure (and thus the experience) is substantially different from the classicizing original, which now operates as an annex and storage facility for the foundation.
Whether the Barnes Foundation legally violated the terms of Barnes’s will is not necessarily clear, but it unquestionably violated the spirit of Barnes’s wishes. This much-condemned decision seems to have been motivated by several factors. Money was obviously key, but there were also problems with the museum’s increasing popularity clashing with its suburban setting.
Whether it was a purely mercenary move or once motivated by a genuine desire to make Barnes’s collection accessible to more people is up for debate. This challenge is not limited to the Barnes, as other small but celebrated American museums (like the Frick Collection and Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) have also fought to avoid stagnation while also preserving their individual personalities. Each has come up with a different solution, and the Barnes has definitely taken the most liberties with its founder’s wishes. Based on a 2021 visit, the Barnes Foundation seems to be thriving and giving more people than ever the chance to experience its masterpieces. But as to whether Albert Barnes would have been happy with what his collection has become, maybe it’s best not to think about that.