ART

A movable feast

PATRICIA CHISHOLM February 14 1994
ART

A movable feast

PATRICIA CHISHOLM February 14 1994

A movable feast

ART

PATRICIA CHISHOLM

The wait was long and agonizing. But now that it is over, Glenn Lowry can hardly contain his jubilation. Last week, the director of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) announced that 80 works from the famed Barnes collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern paintings will be on display in Toronto for 16 weeks, beginning sometime in September. The exhibition features little-seen masterworks by Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso and Renoir. They were collected in the early part of the century by eccentric pharmaceuticals magnate Albert Barnes, who stipulated in his will that the canvases were never to leave the gallery that he set up in Merion, a satellite of Philadelphia, in 1925.

But after a protracted court battle in 1992, the Barnes Foundation received permission for a onetime tour of four cities around the world.

Toronto will show a stunning collection

Last week, the foundation obtained permission to extend the tour to the AGO and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Tex. “I had an overwhelming feeling when I first saw this collection,” Lowry says. “These are fresh, vibrant, potent works of art. And the number of important paintings in the exhibit takes your breath away.” The tour, which began in 1993 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, showcases one of the most fabulous private art

collections ever assembled. Included in the show are Cézanne’s Card Players (1892), Picasso’s Acrobat and Young Harlequin (1905) and Matisse’s The Joy of Life (1906). Other artists represented include Monet, Rousseau, Van Gogh and Modigliani. De spite their importance, most of the paintings are unfamiliar: until now, the foundation has refused to allow color reproductions. In fact, the catalogue that accompanies the show contains the first-ever color pictures of most of the collection.

That history of secretiveness has helped to make the tour an overwhelming success. More than half a million people attended in Washington. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris broke its attendance records, drawing more than 1.5 million. Now at Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art, the show moves to Fort Worth in April, then to Toronto, and finally to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1995.

It is an expensive show to mount—as much as $6 million for the AGO, according to Lowry. And public sources have stepped in to help. The Ontario government has given the institution a $3.75-million grant to cover the Barnes Foundation’s fee. Municipal governments are contributing loans totalling $1.5 million to help with marketing. The AGO is trying to raise private money for other costs, including transportation. But the gallery predicts that,

with the more than half a million anticipated visitors—each of them paying $15—it will not only make back its costs but also earn extra to help eliminate a $4.5-million deficit.

In getting the exhibition, the AGO won out over 20 other institutions. “The AGO is a first-class museum with first-class curators,” says Richard Glanton, a Philadelphia lawyer and president of the Barnes Foundation. “We were impressed by their sensitivity to the mission of the Barnes Foundation.”

The originator of that mission was born in Philadelphia in 1872. Trained as a physician, Barnes made his fortune by developing and manufacturing a number of medicines, including Argyrol, a treatment for eye inflammation. An art lover from an early age, he began buying impressionist and post-impressionist paintings when they were still considered cutting-edge. He arranged his collection of more than 2,500 objects in idiosyncratic displays intended to illustrate the cross-fertilization among African, Greek, French and other cultures. And he severely restricted access, granting it only to students of the foundation, which offers noncredit courses in the collector’s esthetic theories, and a tiny trickle of others. Barnes refused to let scholars view his collection. He referred to the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art as “the House of Prostitution of Art and Education.” After his death in 1951, foundation trustees strictly adhered to most of his policies. However, the gallery was opened to the public on a part-time basis in 1961, after the Pennsylvania government threatened to end the foundation’s tax-exempt status.

In 1991, new trustees, led by Glanton, touched off a still-smouldering debate by seeking permission for the tour. Millions of dollars were needed to finance renovation of the now-dilapidated gallery. The application in a Pennsylvania court was opposed by a few groups, including the de Mazia Trust, an $8.5-million fund set up under the estate of Violette de Mazia to protect Barnes’s vision. The trust is administered by former students of the foundation. A longtime protégé and companion of Barnes who died in 1988, de Mazia was a vehement supporter of his view that the paintings should be used primarily for the foundation’s educational programs. She also believed that the paintings should not be moved.

But the court mied that a tour was a reasonable way to raise funds for properly housing the works. To adhere as closely as possible to Barnes’s wish that the works not be loaned, the court decreed that the tour would be a onetime event only: future repairs are to be financed by a new fund established from the proceeds of the Toronto and Fort Worth shows. And what would the strong-willed Barnes think of the commotion created by the exhibit? The AGO’s Lowry grins at the question. “This was the only option the trustees had,” he says. “I think Barnes would have acknowledged the need to preserve the art works he fought so long to protect and support.” The thousands who visit the AGO this fall will be helping to preserve the collector’s stunning legacy while revelling in some of the greatest art that has ever been created.

PATRICIA CHISHOLM