The Laws of Nature

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Fine Art: Public or Private?


Last evening I viewed a documentary/opinion movie entitled “The Art of the Steal.” It focused upon how the Philadelphia Museum of Art managed to acquire and control the most important and valuable private collection of art, known as The Barnes Foundation, established by Albert C. Barnes in 1922. This foundation housed one of the world’s largest collections of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings purchased by Dr. Barnes with money he made from pharmaceuticals. At this point the collection is worth an estimated $35 billion. Housed in a beautiful building (photo) nearly five miles south of Philadelphia, Barnes hung his collection for the purposes of education. The Foundation’s “school” annually enrolled a small number of fine art students under the instruction of an even smaller contingent of faculty. The public was allowed access to view the collection only two days a week. Barnes hated the social elite in Philadelphia and had his lawyers draft a will to keep his Foundation intact and specifically out of the hands of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Time, greed, loopholes in the will, and political shenanigans undermined Barnes’ attempt to keep his Foundation intact as a private instructional institution with limited public access. In the year 2014 his collection will move into a newly constructed building in association with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and under the control of the Pew Foundation. This, of course, will bring in millions of tourist dollars annually for the city of Philadelphia. Barnes must be rolling in his grave.

I mention all this because it raises an interesting question: Is it imperative that the general public gain access to any and all significant private collections of fine art that exist? In other words, is the owner of a significant private collection of fine art beholden to the general public to share it? Who really owns great works of art, and when is a collection significantly large enough to become public domain?

What is your viewpoint?

20 comments:

PAMO said...

Private property is private property. It is up to the owner of that property how it is shared, IF it is shared.

Casey Klahn said...

I agree with PAMO, and with Barnes. Why be an artist at all if the chain of ownership will become severed by "public" demands? Individualism is very important to me as an artist.

I just watched Modigliani. What a hoot. Individualism.

Large scale patronage has a place, but there is a difference between authority, and authoritarianism. Barnes had authority - he knew great art (it seems). Philly? Not so much, I detect. They could have made purchases when these artists were living.

I like the way the little city of Anacortes, Washington rolls. They hold their humble art fair every summer, and the city purchases one piece from an artist annually. They have a Morris Graves, and maybe a Mark Tobey! Hello. These were investments that now yield big money.

maria kovalenko leysens said...

Also watched the movie a few days ago and can't stop talking about it. So many interesting discussions with my students and kids. Words like integrity, obligation, preservation, ethics, respect... and to who... and when...

Peggy Stermer-Cox said...

Hi Kathy! Wonderful discussion. I'm not sure the answers are easy. On the one hand, I think Mr. Barnes wishes ought to be honored. On the other hand, I like seeing the masters in person. But, there are many pieces in other museums and provisions are made for viewing...

I guess I persuaded myself to align with honoring Mr. Barnes will.

-Don said...

My first lhought is the same as PAMO's.

So is my second...

I'm sure there's a loophole to how I think. Oh crap, I forgot to cross my T. Now my thought doesn't matter at all...

-Don

Katherine Tyrrell said...

Frankly I'm on the side of making great art as accessible as possible.

Nobody ever owns great art - whoever is the most recent purchaser is merely the custodian. On that basis all an "owner" is ever doing is controlling access. It seems to me Barnes was about promoting education in art according to a model which prevailed a 100 years ago. If he lived today would he really be wanting to promote the same model?

It seems to me the issue is about past actions by museums and current actions. If he hated the Museum because of the way it behaved in his lifetime it is it a dead cert that it behaves in the same way now?

Where is the honour in preventing people learning from seeing the art in his collection? Plus what exactly is the great ideal which is served by keeping a great private art collection completely private AFTER the person is dead?

I personally applaud those people who have created great collections by seeing and appreciating those collections. Making them accessible to the public doesn't make then any less private in terms of ownership and control over their ultimate disposal.

A huge number of private collectors in the UK make over their collections to the national museums before their death. Many of the paintings currently seen in the major museums are on permanent loan from their owner/collectors. Their philanthropy is clearly recognised in their lifetime as well as after their death.

So is the absolute regard for private property thing an American "thing"?

I certainly have no problem with legal constraints which say a collection must be kept together and cannot be sold to bail out rotten financial management by a museum - but that's because I'd like to see art kept accessible to the public.

So for me, the ultimate criteria is based on the way the custodian and the museum behave today. We need to promote best practice. I'm not persuaded that managing a collection according to a model of "how things should be" which was relevant 90 years ago is the best way forward.

Kathy said...

Thanks to all for a substantive discussion! After watching the movie, which was clearly one-sided, my opinion was that Barnes' will should be honored. However, after reading Katherine's comments I have a different viewpoint. I suppose that what I object to most is the WAY in which the collection was acquired - which seemed rather dishonest. However, I'll probably be among the throng that pays for the wonderful experience of viewing this exhibition in Philadelphia. So, my objections can't be all that great after all!

Katherine Tyrrell said...

I can understand the point about the way a museum secured access to a collection - however I think we should judge them by their deeds in making it more accessible and promoting the ultimate objection of improving people's knowledge of art.

Lenny said...

The collection is accessible where it is. You only need to buy a ticket and go.

Kathy said...

Good point, Lenny!

Dan Kent said...

I am a believer in private ownership, and have a great distrust of a government taking private property for public use. It is slippery slope. It could start with art, and expand from there.

Let's say I own a Picasso. I want to will it to my son. Should the state be able to forbid my transfer of the Picasso to my son? Okay, now let's say I own 50 Picasso's or 100, a substantial collection - now should the state be able to interfere with my transfer? Is one situation different than the other? Why should it be? If so, where is the line to be drawn?

And Lenny has a great point - this is an instance where public access was allowed! The art is already accessible, so without knowing the arguments made, it seems to me that any claim for public access that can be made by the government falls flat in the face of that fact.

I believe a purchase is a purchase. I am not a mere custodian if I pay market value for a work. I am the owner and I am entitled to pass my private property by will. This is the same for 1 work or 50 works or 100. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: GO PAMO!!

Barbara Weeks said...

Dan you said it perfectly!

Kathy said...

Hi Dan - I see your point, and want to clarify: the government didn't take over the Barnes' collection. Rather, it was the Pew Foundation which is a non-profit foundation. They managed to do this by convincing the Barnes' trustees to move the collection.

Tonya Vollertsen said...

Hi Kathy! Great discussion! I would have to hop on board with PAMO as well but I think mostly because the collection was already accessible and Barns didn't really demand anything strange. I wonder if I would feel differently if say, he had demanded the works be destroyed after his death. Just a thought.

layers said...

hello.. been awhile..busy summer.
I will put this doc on my Netflix list- recently watched EVERLASTING MOMENTS about a mother who found a camera, and SEREPHINE about a french woman artist... this is an interesting debate- I am torn between being able to see works of art in museums and honoring those who have private collections.

Joan Breckwoldt said...

Oh Katherine, you're the second person to mention this movie in a week, so now I had better order it from NetFlix and watch it.
Without having seen the movie, I would hope anyone who was able to afford to purchase some of the "best" art in the world would loan it to a museum so the general public could view it. (I often wonder if another reason is so the individual doesn't have to pay huge sums in insurance too.) Anyway, it would be a shame not to be able to view Sargents, Monets and Rembrandts.

thanks for the great thought provoking post,
Joan

Stan Kurth said...

I'll just say this: I can think of a handful of prominent collectors and all of them are or were enthusiastic about their collections being exhibited (one way or another).

司冯欣 said...

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Susan Roux said...

Hi I'm just finding you. Where is your home in Maine? I live in Poland Spring. I was born and raised in northern NH. As I breezed through your past post, it seems you were hob nobbing all over my territory!

Hope you enjoyed your time up north. Its been a fantastic summer!

Peggy Stermer-Cox said...

Hi Katharine, I finally saw the documentary myself. WOW! What a tragedy that the Barnes Collection is being manipulated by the very people he sought to protect the collection from. It's a very sad affair for all who love the great art! Over two months later, I still remembered this posting!