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The Barnes Collection:  A Rare American Glimpse of Impressionist Art

The Barnes Collection art gallery, located just outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has the largest private collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings in America. It has 181 works by Renoir nearly double the number owned by the famed Musee' d'Orsay in Paris as well as 69 paintings by Cezanne, 44 Picassos, and 60 works by Matisse, including a mural the artist himself painted on the Barnes gallery wall.

The estimated value of the works is more than $25 billion.

But 80 years after the collection became part of an educational foundation, relatively few still know about the Barnes Collection, let alone have visited it. And the public knows even less about the man who amassed this artistic fortune: the late Albert Barnes. Was he an eccentric millionaire inventor who didn't want the public to see his collection? Or, an enlightened art scholar and early advocate for African Americans?

Just finding the Barnes Collection is a challenge: what would be considered a major tourist attraction virtually anywhere in America is hidden in a residential community of mansions and expansive lawns. There are no signs leading the way from Philadelphia - just a small, weathered plaque outside an imposing fence and gate surrounding the Barnes gallery.

If you're not an invited guest, it may take months to get one of the limited number of entry tickets. The challenges facing a Barnes' visitor began after Albert Barnes started buying art from France in the 1910s and 1920s.

Barnes, a doctor who became wealthy after developing an antiseptic, did not intend his collection to become a museum but rather, as a "tool" for an art school. Ironically, he shunned wealthy and famous people for example, the famed novelist James Michener requested to see the Barnes art collection three times and was refused; he finally posed as a lowly steel mill worker and got in. The selective visitation policy continued until government officials forced the gallery to be more accessible to all.

Barnes Foundation executive director Kimberly Camp says the original visitation policies may have gone too far in following the collector's wishes. "After Barnes' death in 1951, the people that were here wrapped their arms around it so tightly they almost choked it to death," she said. "They wouldn't let anyone in to do any research. The staff here wasn't even permitted to tell people they worked at the Barnes Foundation. So the only way the media and public got information about what was happening was by myth. The myths were repeated and picked up by reporters. The next thing you know, it was in print and one paper copied another and the bad [biographies] were even worse. The information is just not correct."

Except for a one-time tour of selected works a decade ago, the Barnes' paintings have never been moved. Even reproductions of the art works in books, on postcards or other items were prohibited until a decade ago.

Eileen Norris, a lifelong resident of the Merion-area community, recalls that Albert Barnes was regarded as a somewhat "difficult" person. "The person that I knew lived across the street from him," she said. "He and Dr. Barnes got along like oil and water which is to say, not at all. Dr. Barnes was slightly demanding and probably expected more from his neighbors. Ironically enough, it turned around the other way after [Barnes] was gone [died]."

Aside from his personal traits, Albert Barnes was also criticized by art "experts" who scoffed at his way of displaying art: it's arranged in a seemingly-random style from floor to ceiling, as Ms. Camp showed a visitor in the gallery rooms.

A painting of the Italian master Giorgione or the Greek painter El Greco might be next to an Impressionist work by van Gogh or Manet. And the paintings are surrounded by metal sculpture, Navajo Indian, African or folk art. Indeed, the Barnes Collection is often regarded as among the first multicultural art collections in the United States.

As Barnes director Camp explains, the unusual arrangements of art reflect Barnes' way of comparing art from different cultures. "The important thing to note about the ensembles is that they are, in many ways, like a blackboard that was not erased that day, because the teacher was hit by a truck," she said. "Barnes left one day and he didn't come back; he was killed in an automobile accident. Up unto that day, all of the ensembles were dynamic. Sometime they would change daily. As a lesson would change, different works would be assembled in different ways. Different things were constantly being added, because he was constantly collecting. So like musical chairs, this is where everything stopped on that particular day."

Ms. Camp adds that the variations in quality of the paintings in the collection were a part of Barnes' art education ideas. "Barnes collected for the purpose of teaching," said Kimberly Camp. "So there are very bad paintings by very good artists. There are unfinished paintings by good artists. There are fabulous paintings by unknown artists. The idea is to get people to understand and be able to determine for themselves - based on a vocabulary and formal analysis of their work, so they can begin to see. A lot of people say there are no labels on the pieces. Barnes said, if you want to learn history, sit down and read a book; if you want to learn to see, come to the Barnes Foundation."

Perhaps the least-known aspect of Albert Barnes' life was his long interest in African American culture. Kimberly Camp, an African American, suggests that Barnes may be seen as an early advocate of exhibiting African art. "It was not a time in this nation's history where we embraced diversity and certainly not looking at African Americans as equals," she added. "Barnes said that by the time he was eight years old, his mother took him to a camp revival meeting in Merchantville, New Jersey, where he experienced Negro spirituals and learned about the transformative power of art. He also said from that time he almost developed an 'addiction' for African Americans, which I think, is among my most amazing discoveries about Barnes."

Barnes' interest in African American culture even extended beyond the visual arts. "Barnes, when he was here, often included music as part of the viewing experience because it was a lesson in perception,' she said. "So unlike most museums where we're very quiet when you walk in, here you'd have Negro spirituals, classical music, live musicians. He often had concerts by the glee club from the New Jersey Manual Training Institute for Colored Youth in Bordentown. I actually found out that one of my childhood friend's mother actually sang here when she was a child. I asked her what would happen. And she said Barnes would work with the choral director to pick out the program and would perform here in the galleries."

In his will, Barnes designated Lincoln University, America's oldest, historically-black college, to nominate four of the five trustees of the Barnes Foundation. Ms. Camp says that the fact that Barnes entrusted his collection among mostly African Americans has upset some in the art world. "There are some who see an incongruity between having the largest collection of Renoir and Cezanne, collections estimated to be valued in the billions of dollars, and having it be [run by] a black organization," she said.

The subject of racism has also emerged in recent years as a flurry of lawsuits started between the Barnes Foundation and its neighbors who were angry that more tourists were coming to their streets.

Area resident Eileen Norris recalls. "The Barnes Foundation was wonderful," she said. "Everyone who went to high school here always went there to visit. Unfortunately in the last 10 years, neighbors and those that aren't even immediate neighbors have been rather distressed because there has been so much bus [traffic], so many [cars] parking and double-parking and people pulling up in [residents'] driveways and leaving their cars there forever! That has tended to upset people. But the idea that, now they're going to move it out of Merion is just as upsetting. Nobody wants to lose the Barnes either."

The idea of moving the Barnes Collection from Merion to downtown Philadelphia, where it would be much closer to tourist sites, was devised as a possible way of generating more funds for the gallery. The cost of the lawsuits has quickly depleted the Barnes' modest funds. Meanwhile, as these and other issues are debated in court, the Barnes Collection may continue to be among America's least-known and least-visited art treasures.