It’s all about education. I could not get these words out of my head at the end of an extraordinary day spent first at The Barnes Foundation and later in the streets of North Philadelphia. The photographs you see here are paired, with the Barnes first, and what I found on the streets second.
The Barnes is an exuberant place with a wild history. North Philly is a wild place with a desolate future. I’ve decided to contrast those two today, motivated by the fact that artistic expression, jubilant or despairing, can be found in both places. The desire to depict wills out, regardless of geography, historical time, and fame – or lack thereof – of the painters.
Albert Coombs Barnes was born into a working class family in 1872. As a German-educated chemist he made a fortune from co-inventing the silver-based antiseptic Argyrol, a successful treatment for gonorrhea. Between 1908 and 1929 he ran his own company, based in Philadelphia, making sure that his workers had two hours of instruction each day during their regular wok hours: they were trained in philosophy, read about education (John Dewey was a close friend) and most importantly instructed in art. Barnes was a truly passionate champion of education and believed in experiential learning; he started to collect art in 1912. It was eventually hung in his home and gallery of a large estate and arboretum that he built in the outskirts of town and opened to the public and art students.
Collected art? The New York Times’s Roberta Smith once called him an omnivore art shopper. I wonder how long it took her to find that polite alternative to the term “hoarder.” The collection is vast, encompassing some 6,000 paintings, furniture, sculpture, and iron-wrought gadgets that dot the wall. He seems to have enjoyed putting fine, functional, and decorative art on the same level.
Fast forward to this century, long after Barnes’ untimely death in a traffic accident. The Foundation wanted to leave its old home in Merion to attract more visitors in a more central location. Mismanagement of funds, strife among board members, a community that did not want to lose one of its landmark attractions, and above all Barnes’ will that prohibited any changes to location and arrangement of the artworks, led to endless legal fights. They eventually resulted in a green light for the construction of a new building in Philadelphia’s central museum district, which emulated the exact internal layout of the inside of the old estate, covered the walls in the same mustard yellow fabric (amazingly effective), and hung the collection within an inch of its old composition.
The building itself has garnered mixed reviews since it opened in 2012. I found it sterile on the outside – maybe he’d appreciate the involuntary reference to his medicinal antiseptic that enabled the amassing of the art displayed in the beautiful interior. The sparrows defiantly build their nests in the fissures of the walls, breaking up the monotony…. I’m sure the architects will be apoplectic.
There is an irritating lack of signage at the Barnes, both with regard to finding your way around (getting tickets, for example, in a far-off basement is hard to do on intuition alone); and in the lack of adequate wall plaques. None of the paintings has written information next to it. Therefore, no titles for today’s photos: I could not run around chasing information sheets discreetly placed in corners of the rooms.
But that preserves, of course, a sense of intimacy akin to experiencing a private art collection, rather than a sense of visiting a museum. Intimacy spread among some 6,000 paintings … the variety is stunning, the color-bursts elating, the sense of someone’s love for art and need to teach about it overwhelming. There are more Renoirs and Cézannes than I have seen in all my visits to European museums combined.
Matisse (Joie de Vivre)
The collection is valued at 25 billion dollars. According to a research report by the Pew Charitable Trust from last November, 25%, or more precisely 25.7%, is the percentage of Philadelphia’s population that lives below the poverty level. Philly is the poorest big city in the nation. In absolute numbers that is more than 400,000 people concentrated in the city, almost half a million of whom are truly poor, more than half of them African Americans.
Housing is cheaper and transportation more reliable than in the suburbs, which keeps the poor in inner city environments. There are, however, no jobs in the city to lift them out of poverty; job growth has happened only on the periphery. The few jobs added in the city since 2005 and the ones that are accessible to most people are in the sales and service industry, with a median annual income of $29,250. Almost 30% of the poor have not even a finished high school education, and only 13% have a bachelor degree – the minimum needed for participating in the opportunities offered in the larger region for a more educated work force.
At the root, then, is a lack of education – a fact surely determined by multiple factors, but required skills and knowledge are sorely missing nonetheless. I can just envision Barnes turning in his grave in frustration with a society that does not emulate his example of providing supportive access to education for all. If we continue on our current path, Bosch’s vision might well come true.
Portland artist and photographer Friderike Heuer is the author of the excellent YDP –– Your Daily Picture, which focuses on art, nature, and politics, and to which you can subscribe.
This piece, which ran originally on YDP on Tuesday, May 9, 2018, is the final in a three-part series which ArtsWatch is reprinting:
- Part I: Becoming modern at the Harvard Art Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
- Part 2: Leaping into Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
- Part 3: The Barnes, the street, and images of reality in Philadelphia.