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So Much for the “Plain People”: Barnes Foundation’s Ellsworth Kelly Show Accompanied by Admission Hike

Ellsworth Kelly,

At the Barnes: Ellsworth Kelly, “Sculpture for a Large Wall,” 1956-57, Museum of Modern Art

Once again, it’s “in with the new, out with the old” today at the Barnes Foundation, which reopened almost a year ago in its new digs in Philadelphia.

As I write this, the scribe tribe is gathering (without me) at the Barnes for the press preview of what the foundation bills as its “first contemporary art exhibition in 90 years” (a year after the Barnes was founded). Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture on the Wall (May 4-Sept. 2) consists of five works by the artist, who himself turns 90 in May and is attending today’s press preview.

The “out with the old” part concerns tomorrow’s hike in the Philly Barnes’ inaugural ticket prices. Raising its already hefty admission charge makes a mockery of the most bogus rationale that the Barnes Foundation ever trotted out in successfully arguing for its scheme to move from its idyllic Merion, PA, home to the streets of Philadelphia. One purported benefit of this was to honor founder Albert Barnes‘ stated objective of exposing “the plain people” (as he called the common man or woman) to great art.

Here’s the 300,000th “plain person” in the new venue:


Toni Marino, Barnes Foundation’s 300,000th visitor, interviewed by KYW Newsradio

For the Kelly show’s centerpiece, his monumental “Sculpture for a Large Wall, ” 1956–57, its display in Philadelphia is a bittersweet homecoming. It has returned for the first time since its controversial 1996 removal from Penn Center’s Philadelphia Transportation Building, for which it had been commissioned in 1956. Then known as the “Transportation Building Lobby Sculpture,” it was transported to New York (with Kelly’s approval and assistance) after the Transportation Building fell into disuse and disrepair.

Exhibited in 1998 by New York dealer Matthew Marks, it was sold by him to Ronald Lauder, then chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, who gave it to MoMA, is current owner. (This past history, as well as the shocked reaction of the Philadelphia Museum’s then director, Anne d’Harnoncourt, to the city’s loss of this signature work, is chronicled in a Nov. 1, 1998 Philadelphia Inquirer article by Stephan Salisbury.)

With its recent announcement, less than a year after the Philly Barnes opened its doors, of an admission increase for those arriving before 3 p.m., the Barnes is making itself even less accessible to Philadelphians of modest means whom it professes to want to serve.

The price for adults under age 65 arriving before 3 p.m. rises tomorrow to $22—a $4 increase. That fee includes the audio guide, which currently costs $5 if rented on premises. But visitors can get already the audio guide for free by downloading the app.

Surprisingly, the price for pre-3 p.m. admission for seniors will increase even more that the price for younger adults: It will rise to $20, a $5 increase (compared to the non-senior increase of $4). That’s $2 more than what seniors are charged at the high-priced Museum of Modern Art. Admission at the encyclopedic Philadelphia Museum of Art is slightly less pricey than at the Barnes—$20 for adults; $18 for seniors.

According to Stephan Salisbury’s report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Barnes says that the “the main motive” for bumping up the fees was “to relieve congestion during high-traffic periods and to increase use of the Barnes audio guide, which now carries injunctions about appropriate gallery behavior.” Derek Gillman, the Barnes’ president and chief executive, told Salisbury that “we’re seeing more transgressions of people touching things and getting too close” to the art.

This attempt to rationalize a fee increase primarily on logistical, rather than economic, grounds sounds even less plausible than the “plain people” justification of the move to Philadelphia. If the objective is to “relieve congestion,” why couldn’t they simply reduce the number of timed tickets issued per hour? (It remains the same: 125.) If they want people to stop “touching things and getting too close” to artworks, hiring an adequate number of guards would be a better idea.

I have previously criticized what appeared to be an insufficiency of guards in the Barnes’ galleries. Queried by me earlier this month, a Barnes spokesperson wouldn’t say (citing “security reasons”) whether it has since upped its security force.

My guess is that the real reason for the fee increase is the usual one—a need for more income. At last May’s press preview for the Philly Barnes, Gillman had told me that the endowment then stood at “approximately $60 million and we want to go to $100 million.” But only about $30 million was then in hand; the rest of the $60 million consisted of pledges.

The Barnes refused to divulge the current level of the endowment when contacted by me recently. Its director of public relations, Andrew Stewart, told me this:

The endowment is where it should be right now in terms of having campaign commitments fulfilled. [How about in terms of the goal of financial sustainability?] The building is paid for [How about the operating budget?] and the Barnes is in a good financial position.

We will make a more detailed announcement about our finances when we feel it is appropriate.

I think the “appropriate” time would be now. The level of a nonprofit institution’s endowment shouldn’t be kept secret.

Until the Barnes becomes more financially sustainable (which it had argued would be a more easily attainable goal in its big facility in Philly than its intimate one in Merion), it seems that the “plain people” will just have to wait…or show up on the first Sunday of the month, when admission is free.

Regarding improved accessibility to the masses, here’s what Derek Gillman, the Barnes’ president and executive director, had told me last May:

We’ll make it accessible as soon as we can… What you have to do is make it financially viable and then you add on accessibility wherever you can….But you can’t if the institution is not viable.

Unlike some critics, I’m not against museums’ charging admission fees as part of their income mix. What I am against is the hypocrisy of championing the common man to achieve a goal (moving to Philadelphia) and then charging ticket prices that are not only exclusionary but trending in the wrong direction.

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