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Derek’s Dominos: MacGregor, Lowry, Conforti and Shearer Sing Back-Up

In its press release announcing the appointment of Derek Gillman as its new executive director and president, the Barnes Foundation of Lower Merion has lined up an all-star array of art museum directors to give major-league support to Gillman’s minor-league credentials: Neil MacGregor of the British Museum, Glenn Lowry of the Museum of Modern Art, Michael Conforti of the Clark Art Institute and Linda Shearer of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center have all weighed in on what a “wonderful choice” the director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts will be to lead the Barnes, as it prepares to move to Center City Philadelphia from the suburban mansion where collector Albert Barnes had intended it to stay.
I am saddened and surprised that these heavy-hitters have put their clout behind this wrongheaded move. They may have intended merely to show their support for the new director, but their comments implicitly validate what he has been engaged to accomplish. Barnes stipulated in his foundation’s charter that the approximately 3,800 objects displayed in his Lower Merion mansion remain exactly where he left them.
The efforts and financial support that have gone into moving the collection should more appropriately have been devoted to keeping it where it is now. Instead, as yesterday’s press release tells us, Polshek Partnership, architects for many new and expanded museums, has been engaged as a consultant to help devise plans for a new Philly facility. (The architect for the actual building has yet to be named.)
As I wrote in my Feb. 5, 2004 WSJ article on “Single-Collector ‘Jewel Box’ Museums,” we need to preserve such intimate oases, especially “at at time when directors of major museums are publicly fretting over the frenetic atmosphere in their crowded galleries.”
And as I observed in my Jan. 10, 2004 NY Times Op-Ed piece, “Destroying the Museum to Save It”: “There’s no way an enlarged Barnes in downtown Philadelphia could come close to matching the serene setting of the original…bucolic surroundings, complete with arboretum and horticulture school, where Dr. Barnes ensconced his collection and art-education program.”
Many of the foundation’s financial problems can be attributed to its famously chaotic management. Just go to the Gallery Highlights section of its website for a striking example of managerial cluelessness. Here you will see none of the major masterpieces for which the Barnes Collection is justly famous—no Cézanne “The Card Players,” no Matisse “La Danse,” no Seurat “Poseuses.”
A die-hard local group, Friends of the Barnes, is still campaigning to keep the collection in Lower Merion, and their township’s Board of Commissioners recently passed a resolution asserting that plans to uproot the Barnes “should be forever abandoned.” But the movers-and-shakers of Pennsylvania, from the governor down, have put their weight behind the move, which has been allowed by the courts as necessary for the Barnes’ survival. This misguided momentum now seems unstoppable.

an ArtsJournal blog