Who Really Owns Great Works of Art?

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This has been a very good year for MOCA. Its milestone exhibition "Minimal Future" received kudos from critics and more importantly, the public flocked to it. Now the Museum just announced a major donation of 123 works of art made by MOCA Trustee E. Blake Byrne. Among the paintings, sculptures, drawings, videos and photographs are important works by European and American artists, including an especially strong selection by California artists.

A retired television executive, Mr. Byrne only began collecting in 1988, but managed to amass quite a large and impressive collection in a relatively short time. Wondering how to celebrate his 70th birthday next year, he decided to do it in style by making a generous gift no strings attached, to the city he obviously loves. It goes on display next summer. On behalf of the City of Angels, let me say from all of us, Happy Birthday, Mr. Byrne.

One of MOCA's founders and major donors, the late Marcia Weisman once told me she was not concerned about what the Museum would do with her collection after her death. "One is lucky to be a custodian of great art while alive. From beyond the grave, no one can or should dictate how and where art is displayed."

I wonder what kind of conversation Marcia is having in the Great Beyond with the infamous Albert Barnes, whose amazing and bizarre museum has been in the news recently. Dr. Barnes, who made a fortune in pharmaceuticals and established his foundation in 1922, collected works of his favorite painters by the bushel: 180 by Renoir, 69 by Cezanne, 60 by Matisse. There are also important works by Picasso, Seurat, Modigliani, Monet, Degas and others. However, Dr. Barnes had strange ideas about how his collection should be shown. In the 23 galleries of his museum in Merion, a well-to-do Philadelphia suburb, paintings are hung salon style from floor to ceiling, interspersed with decorative ironworks by 19th century Pennsylvania blacksmiths. Eccentric and rather cantankerous, Dr. Barnes didn't get along with either the Philadelphia establishment or American academic circles, so he made access to his collection notoriously difficult for anyone professionally involved in the art scene.

More than fifty years after his death, his unique collection is still ruled by the rigid instructions in his Will: nothing can be loaned to other museums; nothing can ever be sold; no work may be moved from the place on the wall he originally chose for it. So while in most museums it is considered a crime to display works on paper for longer than two months at a time because of their inherent fragility, at the Barnes, Cezanne's watercolors have been hanging on the walls for decades with their colors almost completely faded away.

Poor management has left the Foundation in financial ruins. The only solution is to move the collection to Philadelphia, where it can be properly installed in a new building so it can be seen by the public without the obsessive restrictions imposed by Dr. Barnes. Non-profit foundations have already pledged $150 million dollars to this end. Last week a Pennsylvania court permitted such a move, thus breaking the iron grip Dr. Barnes held on the artworks, as if he still owned them.

Some people cried over the impending loss of the intimate and idiosyncratic display of his collection. But I say, good riddance. Seeing this collection for the first time just two weeks ago, I was astonished by its quality, but angered by the inadequate display of so many great works of art. These masterpieces don't belong to Dr. Barnes. They belong to living people. All the true collectors understand they don't own art, they only serve as its temporary custodians.

Barnes Foundation
300 North Latches Lane
Merion Station, PA 19066
(610) 667-0290