"...and art will do what it does"
June 3, 2012 1:43 PM   Subscribe

This is Argyrol! (here's their Facebook page (12 people like it!)) A colloidal silver topical anti-microbial ointment, it was used extensively in the first half of the 20th century, mostly for the treatment of gonorrhea. It also bankrolled one of the finest art collections of the 20th century.

The co-creator of Argyrol, Alfred Barnes, took the fortune he made off Argyrol and started to collect, voraciously, late impressionist and early modernist paintings. He brought his collection home to Merion, Pennsylvania, set up a Foundation and hung the paintings according to ideas he developed with John Dewey (who wrote Art and Experience based on lectures he gave as the Foundation's first president.) Then, for all intents and purposes, Barnes shut the door to the public. Intent on keeping his collection intact and pristine, as part of the foundation's establishment he prohibited any of the paintings of the collection from being loaned out to other institutions, even color reproductions of the works were restricted, and the collection was only open to the public for limited times.

The Foundation was not entirely functional though and about ten years ago it started to run out of money. The building fell into dis-repair and some of the paintings were in need of conservation. Ironic as its collection had grown in worth to (an estimated) 25 billion (yes, with a 'B' billion) dollars.

What happened next was either a gross breach of the intent of the Foundation and the destruction of what was one of the finest art collections in the world, or it's salvation.

The board was overthrown, the Foundation turned into a for-profit venture, a new building has been built to house it in Philadelphia - the galleries of which almost entirely duplicate the interior of the building which originally housed the collection.

For all of the storm und drang of the last decade Jerry Salz, in his review of the new building, has probably put it best,

Soon the dust will settle, the feuds will fade, and art will do what it does. Till then, remember this: Owners of art are temporary caretakers. Their wishes are not to be sacrosanct in perpetuity. The move of this singular jewel in the crown to a more accessible location, into a far better-equipped, much more flexible building, allows this monumental testament to art’s possibilities to shine forth more magnanimously and generously than ever before. When art wins, everyone wins. Even ­Albert Barnes.
posted by From Bklyn (21 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Public Notice: Be careful with your colloidal silver, or you will turn yourself blue.
posted by Chekhovian at 1:46 PM on June 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

The documentary mentioned in the Vanity Fair article ('The Art of the Steal') is on Netflix instant. It's pretty good, but it will probably make you a little angry. It did me, anyway.
posted by hartez at 1:52 PM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Did the people1 who demonstrated the use of brilliant green as an effective topical antiseptic ever go out and do great things? Because I think I still have a bottle of the stuff in a cabinet somewhere…
1. Browning, C. H., Kennaway, E. L., Gulbransen, R., & Thornton, L. H. D. British Medical Jnl, i, 73, January 20, 1917.
posted by Nomyte at 1:56 PM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I cut a biopic about Barnes recently. Apparently you can watch it here.
posted by fungible at 2:04 PM on June 3, 2012

And finally, if orange is your color, try carotenemia! All it takes is a steady diet of carrot juice.
posted by Nomyte at 2:15 PM on June 3, 2012

Ugh. A couple of things here:

1. Albert Barnes. Not Alfred.

2. The collection is truly amazing. More Cézannes than in all of France and More Renoirs than any other collection, along with Picasso's Joy of Life and so much more.

3. The Foundation was and remains is a 501(c)3 non-profit. It is not a for-profit venture. The current administration is certainly all about making that broccoli (the new space is pretty blatantly designed for corporate-level events and the money that that entails), but that money is going into the Foundation.

4. Much of the reason the Foundation became insolvent is because of its neighbors in Merion. Restrictions were placed on the Barnes at the request of said neighbors who were fed up from dealing with parking and tour buses and hordes of tourists in the '90s. Right or wrong, it's hard to keep an institution solvent with visitation capped at 400 visitors per day, 4 days per week. Ironically, it was those same neighbors who led the charge, along with former students of the Foundation school, to keep the Barnes in Merion. If I were being more uncharitable, I would say that they wanted their own private neighborhood art collection without the hoi polloi it drew. If. And it's not like these people had the best intentions:
"You've got some of the greatest minds of the last 100 years on those walls," Feinberg [who financed The Art of the Steal] says. "Picasso, Renoir, Matisse, Cézanne, Soutine: They're names that used to mean something. When they were on those walls, you could get the depth of what they were telling you, if you made the effort, if you put the time in. Now all they're going to be is names that divorced parents can tell their little kids to look at on the weekends they have them." (cite)
Oh, divorced parents? MY HEAVENS. Really, this story isn't about Barnes' will being destroyed; it's about a small group of wealthy privileged people wanting to keep a truly amazing collection of art from being sullied by the poors.

5. While money could have helped fix the Merion campus and conserve the paintings, it would have been a temporary band-aid. There was still no way to make the collection sustainable without the ability to increase the number of visitors, which the neighbors in Merion weren't going to let happen, so moving the collection was the only way to keep the collection intact. Barnes knew this was a possibility and he acknowledged it in the indenture of trust for the Foundation. The current Barnes director, Derek Gillman, quoted it in a letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer, but I can't find a link right now.

6. The Art of the Steal is laughable. It convincingly makes a case that the Foundation made a bunch of missteps under Richard Glanton, but everything beyond that is smoke and mirrors designed to make this look like a conspiracy and theft, and it's anything but. The art is now in a place where several times the number of visitors can see it in a much better environment (visiting the Merion gallery was... trying), it's in a community that wants it and the attendant tourists, the art can now be preserved in a real climate-controlled building with a preservation lab, and the experience in the rooms is strikingly similar to the old gallery. It's win-win-win for everyone except the neighbors in Merion, and even they don't have to deal with the tourists now.
posted by The Michael The at 2:30 PM on June 3, 2012 [25 favorites]

Ah, here we go:
{December 6, 1922} 11. Should the said collection ever be destroyed, or should it for any other reason become impossible to administer the trust hereby created concerning said collection of pictures, then the property and funds contributed by Donor [Barnes] to Donee [the Foundation] shall be applied to an object as nearly within the scope herein indicated and laid down as shall be possible, such application to be in connection with an existing and organized institution then in being and functioning in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, or its suburbs.
The trust indenture is Article IX of the Barnes Foundation bylaws; this is Paragraph 11. The letter I was remembering was actually written by Barnard Watson, chairman of the Barnes' board of trustees, not Derek Gillman.
posted by The Michael The at 2:59 PM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

My husband's cousin wrote the book on the Barnes Foundation fight (he's also one of the talking heads in The Art of the Steal). Like my husband and me, cousin John Robert went to Rice University, which has its own history with wills and will-breaking (see 4th paragraph), which is, to me, an interesting contrast with the history of the Barnes.
posted by immlass at 3:52 PM on June 3, 2012

The big selling point for me is that its totally in the dictionary.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 3:56 PM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Silver tincture for venereal disease? Sounds like something Paracelsus would have come up with.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:34 PM on June 3, 2012

As immlass mentioned, my cousin wrote a book about this in the 1990s (while there was still a fight) and appeared in the documentary.

It's a fascinating story that starts with an utter jackass (Barnes used to respond to requests to see his collection by sending rejections signed by his dog) who created an amazing collection of art which is currently worth tens of billions of dollars. He didn't get along with most of the art establishment of Philadelphia and didn't want them to have his art after he died. He had an amazing eye for art that would become valuable.

Walter Annenberg and Gerry Lenfest were particular enemies, and the Annenberg and Lenfest Trusts were willing to help the Barnes Foundation only if they broke the will and moved. It's pretty clear that Barnes wouldn't have approved of that.

He got his way for fifty years, all of which have involved battles to control his multi-billion dollar legacy. Shady characters and bad decisions abound.

His home-turned-museum reminds me of other twentieth century millionaire's museums and makes me wonder what will happen to them. Would San Antonio's McNay be the same if it were moved to the Riverwalk? I don't know. How long can someone control what they owned? How and why is it different if that something is worth billions?
posted by Mad_Carew at 5:56 PM on June 3, 2012

This entire page is Pure Blue Gold.
posted by dbiedny at 8:38 PM on June 3, 2012

Oh goddamnit. My link didn't work (I was posting from a phone). The documentary biopic I meant to link to is here. If you're interested in the man definitely check it out.
posted by fungible at 9:28 PM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

"Gently open glans. Instill a steady stream of solution into the male urethra, in an amount sufficient/comfortable to bathe the urethra and hold for 5 minutes. "

Oh, and, what was the other option? Lifelong infection, irritation, stigma of VD, you say? Let's stick with the VD, then, good chap. Cheerio!
posted by Skwirl at 10:36 PM on June 3, 2012

That's a nice biopic about Barnes fungible, thanks!
posted by From Bklyn at 2:55 AM on June 4, 2012

In this magical age of internet, are any of the links a collection of pictures of the paintings themselves?
posted by Theta States at 8:30 AM on June 4, 2012

Thea States, here is the collection highlights page from the Barnes Foundation website.
posted by Mad_Carew at 9:02 AM on June 4, 2012

In this magic age of endless mechanical digital reproduction, does it seem strange that so much money still revolves around paintings? I say this as an student of the arts, both personal and professional. When will we move on from being obsessed in collecting dead people's personal stuff and more into being Here and Now? Wealthy people just get bored and make meaningless drama, don't they? </derail>
posted by alex_skazat at 12:34 PM on June 4, 2012

Alex_skazat: Barnes and his supporters believe that the context in which you see the art is meaningful—that in addition to the art itself, how it's presented is part of the impact it has upon you.

Since Barnes was against the contemporary museums and their use of art, he'd almost certainly write you a nasty reply from his dog (Fidele) on the topic. I don't think he'd be much in favor of digital reproduction.
posted by Mad_Carew at 1:53 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

does it seem strange that so much money still revolves around paintings? I say this as an student of the arts, both personal and professional. When will we move on from being obsessed in collecting dead people's personal stuff and more into being Here and Now? Wealthy people just get bored and make meaningless drama, don't they?

I'm trying to corner the investor market on animated GIFs. Get in while still at the ground floor while you still can!
posted by Theta States at 2:05 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

... and more into being Here and Now?

I can recommend Dewey... You might be surprised at how close he comes to this exact sentiment. (If
I remember right, it's been a while.)
posted by From Bklyn at 2:43 PM on June 4, 2012

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