Tuesday, June 13, 2006
I visited this weekend the Barnes Foundation, the famous private art gallery in Merion, Pa., that holds one of the world's great collections of French art. The foundation has been embroiled in controversy for years concerning the will of Albert Barnes, who died in 1951 with strict specifications concerning how his collection should be displayed (in groupings of Barnes's selection) and how it should be accessible to the public (sparingly). In the past 20 years, the university that was given effective control of the collection clashed with the wealthy suburban township of Lower Merion over access by buses and whether the foundation would be permitted to build a parking lot. The township wanted to minimize traffic, of course. Eventually, the trustees obtained a court order that allows them to move the collection to a new building in downtown Philadelphia, which is just a few miles away. How has Merion responded? Nearly every mansion surrounding the Barnes Foundation now holds a sign (tasteful, of course) reading, "The Barnes Belongs in Merion." This is a delicious twist to NIMBY -- the wealthy residents don't want to be bothered by lots of tourists, but they do like the cachet of having the collection in their midst.
I believe that art museums (which for much of this century were wrong-headedly placed in city parks, such as in San Francisco and St. Louis), big libraries, and sports stadiums belong in downtown cities, where public transportation, parking lots, and proximity to other attractions make them most conveniently accessible to all.