Derek Gillman, director of the Barnes Foundation, might have the art world’s most difficult job. He faces the controversial task of moving one of the most well-known collections of impressionist and early modern paintings, a 4,500- piece hoard estimated by some to be worth $20bn, from leafy Merion, Pennsylvania, to central Philadelphia – in direct contravention of the will of an enigmatic collector who died 60 years ago. Some consider Gillman a saviour, rescuing the collection and freeing the work from years of captivity, while others paint him as a villain.
Albert Barnes, born in 1872, was a manufacturer of pharmaceuticals and collector who loathed Philadelphia’s art establishment. He commissioned the limestone residence and gallery, tucked deep behind an inconspicuous gate in a wealthy suburban neighbourhood, in 1923, a year after his foundation was established. The French neoclassical building houses 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses and 46 Picassos among many other masterpieces and Barnes stipulated that the work should never be sold, loaned or rearranged from the carefully chosen “ensembles” that have hung on the walls since he died in a car crash in 1951, at the age of 79. The Barnes mission was to “promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts”, so public access has always been limited to make learning the priority.
But, after years of burning through its original $10m endowment, the Barnes Foundation was nearly bankrupt by 2002. Legal battles have ensued to determine whether it could be uprooted, under the control of charitable groups and transplanted to a custom-built and more accessible museum in Philadelphia, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. The old building closed its doors last week; the new museum, in the heart of the city’s art district, will replicate the hang of the art ensembles in the original galleries, and otherwise make an interpretative nod to the original building and its gardens. A fundraising campaign has already reached its $200m target.
“The Barnes had its arms wrapped around itself,” Gillman said in a recent interview. “We want to open up its arms to the world.”
The impulse behind those outstretched arms has not always been reciprocated. In January, protesters gathered in freezing temperatures with signs and yellow crime scene tape, urging that the move be stopped. A 2009 documentary, The Art of the Steal, garnered acclaim for depicting it as a conspiracy and a heist. Court proceedings to halt the move continue.
Gillman, the Oxford-educated director who formerly led the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, argues that a few vocal critics have stirred the animosity. Most trusts (the legal structure governing the Barnes Foundation) change over time, he says, and the move was the only way to preserve the art.
“It’s been made emotional,” he said. “Circumstances change. Things don’t always go as one might want.”
The drama surrounding the Barnes foundation comes as private museums are proliferating despite a weak economy, and the closure of the original location on Sunday raises questions about the fate of other private art collections. It serves as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong, despite good intentions. Observers of the saga say the Barnes was a perfect storm created by the exceptional quality of the art and the rigidness of the founder’s wishes. Many modern collectors have used that as a lesson and drafted more sophisticated trusts, realising that a lasting legacy requires flexibility.
“It’s a second gilded age for private museums,” said András Szántó, a museum consultant. “Increasingly, the largest collectors are going out on their own.”
Among the highest profile projects in the US are the Broad Art Foundation, to be opened by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad next year, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, backed by Walmart heiress Alice Walton and opening in November in Bentonville, Arkansas, near the Missouri border and Walmart’s headquarters.
Broad is investing about $300m in building a museum and lending library in Los Angeles for his 2,000-piece collection. He believes that a “self-perpetuating” board of trustees and the size of his endowment will help his foundation avoid the financial fate of the Barnes. Broad’s decision not to donate his work to an existing museum caused some raised eyebrows but he said he did so because he feared most of the art would languish in storage if left in the hands of others.
“Our interest is in having the work shown to the largest possible audience,” he said. “If we gave our collection to any one institution, 90 per cent would not be seen.”
Because of the need for new sources of revenue and more space, existing private museums have also been attempting to expand. In Boston, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was granted court permission to deviate from Gardner’s will to build a $118m addition to the museum to prevent the existing structure from failing because of overuse.
The constraints of a fixed collection can be visually striking. Due to the Gardner’s restrictions on acquiring art, frames in one of its rooms remain empty, a jarring reminder of an unsolved theft 21 years ago. Anne Hawley, director of the Gardner, described the pressure caused by the continuous need to raise funds and stay relevant while remaining true to a founder’s mission. “The mission always has to be re-examined,” she said.
A cast-iron charter can also prove costly. According to Stephen Urice, a University of Miami law professor and cultural property expert, most single-donor museums end up in court with relief being sought for restrictions within a generation or two of the founder’s death. Most endowments will ultimately run out, he said, leaving it up to public support to maintain a museum.
“At what point do you balance out the current public support and those donors’ desires and needs with the original founders’ desires and needs?” Urice said. “Even the most perspicacious of donors cannot foresee changes in circumstances.”
Anne Higonnet, an art historian at Barnard College, sees the value in preserving Barnes’s vision but believes that ultimately it is best for more people to see the art.
And they will. In the coming months, unmarked trucks will secretly begin removing masterpieces such as Van Gogh’s “Postman”, Monet’s “House Boat” and Matisse’s “Joy of Life” from the original Barnes galleries. The paintings will be driven just a few miles to their new home on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, once considered Philadelphia’s Champs-Elysées, where they will see better light and more visitors.
More protesters are expected to show up when the building opens in the spring of 2012, but Gillman urges critics to concentrate on the bigger picture.
“Keeping the collection intact was the closest to Barnes’s intentions,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fulfil his wishes of bringing art into people’s lives.”