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A Barnes Foundation for the 21st Century?

By Frank Gruber

November 23, 2009 -- I'm excited by the possibility that Eli and Edythe Broad might make a deal with the City of Santa Monica to locate a museum that will contain the bulk of their art collection in the Civic Center, on what's now a parking lot and where currently stands Paul Conrad's "Chain Reaction" sculpture.

I suspect that if the Broads and the City make a deal, the Conrad will be found a different location. Who pays the moving costs will be another point for City Manager Lamont Ewell to negotiate.

There will be many points. I share, as discussed below, some of the questions City Council Member Bobby Shriver's raised at the City Council hearing last week about authorizing negotiations, and I have some questions myself. ("Enthusiasm and Caution for Possible Broad Museum," November 18, 2009)

But the reason I am excited about the potential museum can be summed up in two words: "Barnes Foundation." Not coincidentally, those words also serve as a reminder of every pitfall Mr. Ewell should have in mind as he negotiates for the museum.

Alfred C. Barnes was the prototype for every 20th century millionaire (or now billionaire) who collected avante-garde art. Barnes made a fortune selling a pre-antibiotic antiseptic solution and was a millionaire by 1907, when he was 35. He started collecting art a few years later. He was attracted to the "contemporary art" of his day, or at least that created by artists who were French or worked in France. (Barnes had a fruitful relationship with a Paris art dealer.)

The Barnes collection includes works by Renoir (181), Cézanne (69), Matisse (59), Picasso (46), Soutine (21), Rousseau (18), Modigliani (16), Degas (11), Van Gogh (7), Seurat (6), Manet (4), and Monet (4), and is considered one of the three greatest collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in the world. (The other two being in Paris and Saint Petersburg.)

Barnes turned out to be collecting what would become the most popular genre of art in the world.

Barnes had ideas, based in part on the work of John Dewey, a close associate, about art and education, and put all the art into a foundation charged with continuing his program. Ironically, given that at the heart of Dewey's and Barnes' ideas was that art could and should be appreciated by the masses, Barnes - and even more so those who controlled the foundation after Barnes' death in a car accident in 1951 -- used the foundation to restrict who could view the art in the museum that Barnes built for it in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia.

It took litigation to open the Barnes, a tax-exempt foundation, to even two hundred people on two days a week. During the past 20 years, there has been even more litigation; the saga is too long to detail here, but Barnes' will has been overturned. The collection will soon move to a new museum in Philadelphia where Barnes' wonderfully idiosyncratic displays of art will be replicated, and where, for better or worse, multitudes of visitors will now be able to see them.

So what does this have to do with bringing a Broad Art Museum to Santa Monica?

At the outset, it's a given that the instincts of the Broads about what to do with their collection are exactly the opposite of the restrictive policies that characterized the Barnes. The Broads have always lent works to public museums. They recently spent $56 million to build a gallery at the Los Angeles County Museum where much of the collection is on display. Let's face it -- they've been agonizing for years about what to do with the collection when they're gone; specifically, how best to take it public.

Now that they seem to have settled on building and endowing a standalone museum, in a partnership with some city, the history of the Barnes provides both inspiration and grounds for caution.


On the inspiration side, the reason I'm thinking "Barnes Foundation for the 21st Century" is the hope that the Broads turn out to be as prescient about art at the end of the 20th century as Barnes was at the beginning of it.

Not that we know this will prove to be true. Speaking personally, I can't imagine that anyone will care in 50 years about the work of Jeff Koons, which the Broads have a lot of, and although the Broads have collected widely ( , it's impossible that in 50 years anyone will believe that the collection is representative of all the good work that's been done around the world while the Broads have been collecting.

But then there's that saying about what's in the beholder's eye, and the Barnes is a great collection but you don't go there to see works by Klimt or Kandinsky, although they and many other now-esteemed artists Barnes didn't collect were contemporaries of those he did.

From the City's perspective, or if you want to look the Broads' gift horse in the mouth, they are asking for public support so that their vision of what is the important art of their time can be institutionalized forever. Yes, this is undemocratic, but then we don't have elections about what good art is. The Broads have collected carefully, and the chances are good that in 50 years their museum will, like the Barnes, provide a compelling and beautiful snapshot of the art of their time.

But the City's contribution would not be peanuts. As Mr. Shriver pointed out last week, the land at the Civic Center is valuable. It's not worth the "hundreds of millions" he said it's worth, but 2.5 acres of land would be worth about $50 million if, as the City has said in connection with the idea of capping the freeway, land in downtown Santa Monica is worth $500 per square foot.

The contribution should be enough to give the City leverage on the longterm operation of the museum, but providing the land for the Broad's museum might actually save the City money. The City wasn't going to sell the land anyway, and the City's plan for the Civic Center calls for the City building a cultural facility - the Broad museum could obviate the need for that.

More to the point, it's worth noting that three foundations active in Philadelphia, along with state and local government, are now spending hundreds of millions of dollars to move the Barnes into the new, public building in Philadelphia.

What else can our negotiators learn from the history of the Barnes? Council Member Shriver in fact touched on some last week, when he mentioned two points that need to be considered: insuring public access to a private facility (the Barnes, as already discussed, was infamously hard to get into), and whether the operating endowment provided by the Broads will be sufficient (the Barnes ran out of money and had to be rescued).

I would add that if the new museum will start out on public property and with any public subsidy (as the Barnes did not), the Broads should not be allowed to restrict the future administrators of the foundation from deciding what art from the collection should be exhibited. Barnes' displays of art are by now historic, reflecting his ideas about art and education about art, but in even a partially public museum, future evaluations of today's art should not be limited by the collectors' views.

For instance, if future curators agree with me that the Koons pieces should be in storage, they should have the authority to make that decision.

To summarize, the City of Santa Monica can spend relatively little money, and give up land that is appropriate for a museum, to bring what is potentially a new (and accessible) Barnes to town. That sounds good to me.

(Next week I'll write more about the potential Broad Museum -- specifically about the implications for the urban design of the site.)


Meeting notice:
The Planning commission took a preliminary look at the draft land use and circulation elements of the general plan last week, but because the plan was only available just before the meeting, they scheduled a special meeting to discuss the draft for Dec. 9


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