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Barnes Yarns: What is Ex-Director Kimberly Camp Thinking? CLARIFIED

Kimberly Camp, former director of the Barnes Foundation

The Barnes Foundation’s former director, Kimberly Camp, who has been under-the-radar since being replaced by current director Derek Gillman, has come back into public view with a vengeance and is likely to be a loose cannon. She is writing a tell-all book, tentatively titled, “Defending the Dead: The totally true story about The Barnes Foundation transformation.” And in a long blog post published June 22 on her personal website, she dropped this bomb:

Bankruptcy was not the reason we filed the petition to move the Foundation to the city. At the time the petition was filed, the Barnes Foundation had a cash surplus and we had no debt—none. But, saying so made the rescue so much more gallant.

What Camp said was technically true: There was never a declared bankruptcy (nor, to the best of my knowledge, did anyone ever use the B-word in describing the Barnes’ circumstances). Nevertheless, through a combination of bad management, bad luck and inordinate legal expenses, the Barnes was down to its last pennies. The only thing that kept it solvent was the $3.1 million in
“bridge funding” provided jointly by the Pew and the Annenberg and
Lenfest foundations, donated to keep the place afloat while it sought court approval for the controversial move from Merion to Philadelphia. Camp, then director of the Barnes, was an active participant in the 2003 court hearings (parts of which I attended) where the Barnes’ financial plight was laid out in detail.

The infinitely litigious Friends of the Barnes (aka Barnes Watch), who have repeatedly and unsuccessfully fought in court to keep the foundation in Merion, have now seized on Camp’s recent words as dubious justification for yet another lawsuit. Last week they petitioned the Superior Court of Pennsylvania to reopen their case against the already accomplished Barnes move, on the grounds that “the [former] President and CEO of the Barnes Foundation admits that everything that was said during the trial about the Barnes about not having enough money was false.” (From my reading of Camp’s words, she made no such admission.)

Camp’s provocative remarks are now being taken seriously by artworld commentators, including Christopher Knight, art critic of the Los Angeles Times, who yesterday interpreted Camp’s words as evidence that it was a “misconception that financial ruin compelled the move.” As anyone knows who has read my diatribes on this subject, I am second to none in my strong belief that the Barnes should have remained in Merion. In my January 2004 NY Times Op-Ed piece, Destroying the Museum to Save It, I outlined how funds could have been raised to secure its financial viability.

But suggesting that the Barnes was not fiscally moribund at the time of the court hearings is as much a distortion of history as recent claims that founder Albert Barnes would have been pleased with the new Philadelphia facility.

[CLARIFICATION: In an e-mail sent Tuesday, Knight made the point that his commentary didn’t deny that the the Barnes was fiscally unsound, only that its financial plight did not necessitate its moving from Merion (an analysis with which I agree).]

Also in Camp’s blog post are the impressions she formed of the new Barnes during the VIP opening. She did much to professionalize the operations of the Barnes during her time there, most notably by instituting a Collections Assessment Program that led to the startling discovery that many Barnes objects were missing. She had always seemed sincerely devoted to Dr. Barnes’ collection and mission, and to keeping his creation in Merion, where he had intended it always to remain.

On her blog, Camp lamented the absence of the “ceramic re-creations by the Enfield pottery works of African masks from the Barnes’ collection,” that were (and still are) flanking the entrance to the Merion building. “It was the only place in this country where you entered a major collection of European and American art through an African aesthetic lens,” Camp wrote. Now (as I mentioned in this CultureGrrl Video, and as architect Billie Tsien confirmed when I mentioned this to her), the entrance has an Asian, not African, flavor.

Camp then turned her attention to alterations of the molding below Matisse’s “Dance” murals—an update that most critics found unobjectionable.

Here’s the Merion molding…


…here’s the molding designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien for the new Philly facility…


…and here’s why Camp feels this contemporary revision is inappropropriate:

Along the inside of the main gallery room in Merion, Barnes installed a frieze, with African masks every five feet. When Henri Matisse delivered “La Danse,” he insisted that Dr. Barnes take down the frieze because he said it distracted from his mural. Dr. Barnes refused. The design complemented the iron railings inside and outside of the Barnes gallery building that included an African mask in the center below a Grecian urn, flanked by classical scroll designs.

Dr. Barnes was making an important statement. He was saying to his audience that African aesthetic belonged on the same plane, and was as important as Greek and Roman classical design. These elements are missing from the new building…..Barnes’ inclusion of African art as a permanent fixture of the building was not adornment. It was not decoration. It was a unique, still controversial but very specific statement. Now it’s gone….

It seems to me the greatest danger always was removing Albert C. Barnes from the Barnes Foundation. The collection and his ideas are intertwined….I always suspected the foul denigration of Barnes, even after his death, was a way to discount him as a man, to then discount his ideas as “quirky”….Maybe I am slavish to Dr. Barnes’ ideas and his vision, but then that’s why the working title of my book is, “Defending the Dead.” It seems someone still has to.

Just don’t expect to find this book in the Barnes’ giftshop.

an ArtsJournal blog