I found this article about a famous private art collection housed in Philadelphia to be a fascinating case – again involving the issues of art and private property. We had recently explored this topic in my post about Bansky’s art in Detroit, and this time the issue is no less complex and no less mired in legal and political battles.
A bit of background from the article,
The Barnes Foundation, founded in 1922 by the late multimillionaire Dr. Albert C. Barnes, is a rambling two-story granite structure centered on a plot of rolling, carefully sculpted arboretum grounds – and it is home to the most fantastically impressive collection of post-Impressionist and early Modern art masterpieces still in private hands.
As the inventor of a medical compound useful in combating venereal disease, the Philadelphia-born Barnes amassed a staggering fortune and invested in artists that the city’s art and high society crowd, in the 1920s, regarded as vulgar and unworthy of serious critical attention. But as tastes changed, and Barnes’s Renoirs, Matisses, and Picassos accrued in value – his collection today is conservatively estimated as being worth $25 to $35 billion – the city’s elders began expressing interest in relocating his collection to a spot closer to the downtown Philadelphia Museum of Art. Barnes resisted such moves, and laid out specific wishes in his estate papers specifying that his collection should never be broken up or moved – unless it became financially unsustainable for the collection to remain in his house.
While it is clear what Dr. Barnes’ wishes were – what is unclear is how truly “financially unsustainble” the current state of the collection is in. Curiously, it does not seem that Philadelphia advocates of the move (both private and public “donors”) care much about a final verdict in the matter and have already begun breaking ground on a new site and are quick to assure those against the move that the new home of the artworks will be as true to Barnes’ intentions as possible.
A series of court battles, internal struggles, and public relations campaigns over the decades has resulted in the wheels being set in motion for the Barnes Foundation to relocate to a site within city limits. Amid a welter of claims and counter-claims, the original 1925 structure has been declared financially unsustainable, and the Barnes Foundation’s board of directors is now controlled by individuals who favor the relocation of its founder’s prized holdings. Groundbreaking has thus begun, and a concrete foundation has been laid, for a new Barnes Foundation building that will sit along the city’s tree-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a short walk from the Philadelphia Museum of Art that Barnes detested.
A small but determined band of Lower Merion [the original city where the Barnes collection is located] activists, known as the Friends of Barnes, is still trying to halt the move, but a state court has already ruled that they lack “standing” to bring legal action to achieve their goal. Undaunted, they are exploring other legal avenues and hoping to draw attention to the multimillion-dollar costs of moving the Barnes collection to Philadelphia. Politicians, educators, art lovers and others influential in Philadelphia are meanwhile excited to see access to the collection expanded, and tourism revenues boosted. They have tapped an initial fund of roughly $200 million – some $30 million of which was provided by the state of Pennsylvania, the rest from private donations – to bankroll construction of the new facility, to complete the transfer of Barnes’s holdings, and to start an ongoing endowment. And they vow to preserve, in their new presentation of his artworks, the precise configuration and overall spirit of Barnes’s house.
While I do not know enough of the details about this case and there is a documentary, The Art of the Steal, which further describes how this situation has come to pass- it seems that moves like this do much to erode the perceived value of private property rights in the sense that there is a sense of celebration in destroying the original collector’s wishes as well as entitlement to the works he privately curated, which most ironically, many people found to be worthless and abhorrent at the time he collected them.
It should be clear why the issue of one’s art or one’s art collection and private property rights should be considered of utmost importance, but so many people are content with lazy “So what?” thinking. They say, “Uh, like, so what? Who cares if some old dude’s paintings are moved? It’s, like, probably good for the collection and good for the city and good so more people can see the art.” Sure, if you only consider what is happening in what might even be an arguable improvement in the situation. However, this simplistic rationale only considers what is seen.
What is unseen is the application of this kind of thinking to all art at all times. Think about it this way, when the intentions are not so magnanimous…you are a controversial artist. You made your art, own your art. Your government or some private individual believes your art is troublesome or just plain unworthy of being sold or displayed. They take your art and do what they please. In this case, they do not move it to a “better” location or build a “better” monument to the work – but they destroy it.
This type of scenario is also a logical outcome of the “so what” thinking above. This scenario is no less likely than the Barnes case. However, in both cases, the rights of the art owners should be protected above the interests of all other individuals. This is what artistic freedom is all about.