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Critic: Barnes Foundation move fueled by ignorance

May 23, 2010 |  2:09 pm
Barnes Tim Shaffer Reuters The uniqueness of the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa., is a primary reason for the difficulty in explaining why the planned move of its amazing collection of paintings by Matisse, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Seurat and scores more to a tourist site in downtown Philadelphia is such a gut-wrenching tragedy. A simple sentence, encapsulating shorthand or a brief paragraph just cannot explain it.

The problem is compounded when most readers are accustomed to museum galleries that have almost nothing in common with the Barnes. Sui generis, constituting a class of its own, the Barnes Foundation is literally incomparable.

That's what makes the cover story in the May 31 issue of the Weekly Standard so important. Art critic Lance Esplund has devoted more than 8,500 words to a cogent, argumentative, sometimes disconcerting and often enlightening essay on the place. The move now being engineered by assorted Pennsylvania blockheads is characterized by the cover's loud banner-headline, "An Act of Vandalism." Meanwhile, the inevitably deleterious effect is conveyed in the story's quietly devastating title: "No Museum Left Behind."

Esplund also shows why claims of the supposed benefit of bringing Barnes' art to more people at a tourist venue are sheer nonsense. "Barnes wanted to empower people to experience art — and, by extension, life — at its most profound levels," he writes, discussing numerous examples in depth. Profundity of experience is tough to pull off in a tourist trap jostling with crowds.

On art, Esplund is a critic with whom I don't agree about much. And I think the Weekly Standard is, typically, a magazine best picked up with long-handled tongs while wearing rubber gloves, protective goggles and a fully functioning horse-puckey detector.

But not this time. Historic preservation is always a tough sell, but Esplund has rendered an important service. Read the whole piece here.

--Christopher Knight

Twitter @KnightLAT

Photo: Barnes Foundation. Credit: Tim Shaffer / Reuters


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