Kyle Henson | Change even Matisse could believe in


The Logical Skeptic | What the Barnes Museum’s move shows about our culture


kyle

Kyle Henson
The Logical Skeptic

Photo by Kyle Henson


It should be no surprise that President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign theme of change went somewhat unfulfilled. However, that shouldn’t be taken as an attack upon Obama’s leadership. Instead, this failure seems to more accurately hint at a pervasive resistance to change that plagues our society. This problem proves most dangerous when our stubbornness to adapt allows obvious, and sometimes even easily solved, inefficiencies to persist.

A perfect example of this resistance concluded just two weeks ago after nearly two decades of controversy. This case surrounds the proposed move of the world-renowned Barnes Museum from its original home in Merion, a wealthy Philadelphia suburb, to a new location on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The museum, despite being housed in a mansion built specifically for the collection’s display, was simply too small to generate the revenue necessary to meet the demands of maintaining the museum and its works. Though the museum possesses one of the world’s largest collections of impressionist and post-impressionist art, collectively valued at over $25 billion, it slipped into financial ruin.

The obvious solution to the museum’s woes was a move to a new space closer to Center City, which would allow for greater appreciation by the city and the increased revenues necessary to keep the doors open.

Unfortunately, the museum’s trustees’ desire to do just that were severely complicated by the founder’s will, which explicitly demanded that the museum be left identical to how it stood upon his death in 1951.

The trustees’ attempt devolved into a legal battle with a passionate but comparatively small and less powerful opposition. The trustees ultimately succeeded in convincing the courts of the inevitability of the move in 2004, and the new museum opened to the public just under two weeks ago.

At the time of his death, Barnes’ wishes were much more reasonable than they are today. The great impressionist master Henri Matisse appreciated the original museum so much, in fact, that he proclaimed it “the only sane place to see art in America.” With the increasing cultural significance of the foundation’s collection and the financial troubles, however, the poorly lit and cramped mansion had become one of its least logical possible homes.

Beyond these external constraints, Albert Barnes’ original mission was actually best served by the museum’s move. From its conception, Barnes wished for his museum to serve the “plain people” of Philadelphia: the less educated, wealthy and cultured individuals of the city. As a result of the changing demographics of Philadelphia since the museum was built in 1921, the potential success of this goal gradually eroded. The move into the city brings the art closer to the “plain people” Barnes sought to benefit. Additionally, it will help alleviate increases in ticket prices as visitor volume is allowed to increase.

So what exactly does the Barnes Museum illustrate about American culture?

With the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Museum just down the Parkway, the Barnes Museum has created a cultural trifecta — further solidifying Philadelphia’s status as a hub in the art world.

Despite this value to the city and the logistical challenges associated with keeping the museum in the suburbs, the change that brought the Barnes into Center City was still heavily resisted under the legal protection of a 60-year-old will.

This type of needless and emotional battle of nostalgia in the end harms all parties involved. In an age of broken and ineffective government, we have little time for illogical bickering that only further clouds our ability to adapt to a changing world.

We seem to like the idea of change, but often we don’t actually wish to take the risk of disrupting the status quo. Fortunately, Philadelphia was able to overcome this resistance and now has a new Barnes Museum — preserved with the charm and grace of the original — that even Matisse might find worthy.

Kyle Henson is a rising College senior from Harrisburg, Pa. His email address is khenson@sas.upenn.edu. The Logical Skeptic appears every other week during the school year.

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