The Barnes Foundation — Museum and School
The Barnes Foundation, which now occupies a beautiful building at 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, was originally founded by Albert C. Barnes at his home in Merion. Dr. Barnes made his fortune by developing Argyrol, a drug to prevent certain eye infections. Beginning in 1912, he used his wealth to collect art. In 1922 The Barnes Foundation was established with the works in his collection. The collection includes pieces by Renoir and Matisse, among others. It boasts more works by Cezanne than the entire city of Paris. The museum is known for its unconventional but thought-provoking arrangements of paintings next to door locks and hinges.
Though it was not a public museum, people who wrote asking to see the art were almost always granted entry. Barnes was more likely to let in a blue-collar worker than a wealthy politician. He wanted to share his collection with those who were there to learn and appreciate the art, rather than the type of person he thought would take advantage of his art for their own gain. Unfortunately, the location of The Foundation, in Merion, often prevented people from viewing the art. Some were not willing to travel to the suburbs to see the paintings, and the museum’s inability to handle large bus groups worked against visitation. These factors went against The Foundation’s original purpose of making art more accessible to those who wanted to learn.
The Foundation, however, did hold classes to educate people in new methods of perceiving art. Barnes came up with the idea after he met John Dewey at Columbia University. The classes offered by the Barnes Foundation focused on how to see art objectively. They were also meant for regular working people, not just art students. The Foundation began by educating the workers at the Argyrol factory. Later, the classes were held at The Foundation. The students were invited to arrive early for classes and study the collection. Albert Barnes also invited black artists to come study on scholarship. Vincent Jubilee wrote that Barnes “quietly permitted a select a number of black artists to study his collection of African art at his Merion estates,” in an article about The Barnes. Two famous artists from the Harlem renaissance, Aaron Douglas and Gwendolyn Bennett, were invited to attend classes at the Barnes Foundation. They both received a stipend so that they could attend classes.
Once Barnes died, Walter Annenberg, owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, fought to open the museum to the public. In May 2012, The Foundation broke Barnes’s will by relocating to its current location in Philadelphia. Albert Barnes wrote in his will that the collection should not be moved from his mansion, but a judge ruled in favor of the move. Many people were upset and worried about the changes that would come with the move. The Foundation claimed that it was not making enough money in Merion to sustain itself, but critics said there were ways to make money. However, the galleries, were successfully moved and arranged in the same way at the new location.
The Barnes Foundation interacts with the community through education at its location on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. While the classes are not exactly the same, the Foundation continues to offer semester and full-year classes as well as shorter workshops. For those who do not want to, or cannot, spend the money, there are Free First Sundays that anyone can attend on first-come, first-served basis on the first Sunday of every month. The programs include entertainment for children and live performances. Through these programs, The Barnes Foundation still provides an art education for anyone who would like to learn.
- Glass, Newman Robert. Theory and Practice in the Experience of Art: John Dewey and the Barnes Foundation. Journal of Aesthetic Education Vol. 31, No. 3 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 91-105.
- Jubilee, Vincent. The Barnes Foundation: Pioneer Patron of Black Artists. The Journal of Negro Education Vol. 51, No. 1 (Winter, 1982), pp. 40-49.
2025 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy