Five years have passed since the Barnes Foundation uprooted itself from the only home its gallery ever knew, in Lower Merion, and moved in 2012 to sleek new digs at 20th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The move excited great controversy at the time and not a little bitterness from stalwart Barnes aficionados. There were multiple predictions of catastrophic failure, financial and otherwise, in the new location.
The bitterness may linger — Robert M. Zaller, a longtime Barnes-relocation critic and a history professor at Drexel University, calls the flurry of “shows and shenanigans” at the new place “a travesty,” for instance. But the predictions of financial failure are, at this juncture, something of a bust.
In its new Parkway location, the Barnes has met or exceeded virtually every revenue, fund-raising, and attendance projection made in 2010 before the move. More than 1.4 million visitors have made their way to the new Barnes, according to foundation officials. And though the huge attendance in the first years at the new site has since declined – 217,000 visitors clocked through in 2012 and 305,000 visitors in 2013 — the projections for annual attendance made in 2010 are looking fairly accurate.
“Membership,” said Thomas Collins, executive director and president, “is off the charts.” More than 17,000 memberships have been sold since the opening in 2012.
Revenue has “far exceeded our projections,” Collins said. In 2010, contributed revenue — money donated by individuals and institutions to fund annual operations — was projected to hit $3.6 million in 2016. It came in at $9.7 million.
On the other hand, earned income — from tickets, shop sales, and the like — came in at $6.6 million in 2016, versus a projected $7.7 million. The shortfall can mostly be attributed to soft parking revenue, Collins said.
Costs are also higher than expected, in part because of a slate of special exhibitions, like the forthcoming “Kiefer Rodin,” which pairs works by the contemporary German master Anselm Kiefer with sculptures by Auguste Rodin. In 2010, expenses for 2016 were projected to be about $13.6 million. Instead, they zoomed up to $19.4 million.
Albert C. Barnes, who died in 1951, made a fortune on his own eye-wash concoction and spent most of it to build arguably the greatest collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early-modern works in private hands in the world. That collection of Renoirs, Cezannes, Matisses, Van Goghs, and all the rest were housed in Barnes’ Lower Merion gallery, supposedly in perpetuity.
There, Zaller noted, the art was the subject of “quiet study” according to Barnes’ theories of art appreciation. In fact, Barnes did not want the gallery to move from its location, established in 1922, and codified that wish in the foundation’s founding legal documents.
But in the 1990s, his foundation began showing signs of severe financial stress. After an extended, brutal court fight, the Barnes Foundation gallery moved to the Parkway after 90 secluded years in Lower Merion, opening in Philadelphia in May 2012.
Back then, according to Margaret (Peg) Zminda, Barnes executive vice president and chief financial and operating officer, 2016 attendance was expected to be about 220,000, with 10,000 schoolchildren. Actual visits last year were 265,000. School visitors did come in at 10,000, but the Barnes plans to increase that number to 14,500 next year. (In its last couple of years in Lower Merion, Barnes attendance hit 60,000 annually.)
Not all the visitors have been paying ones, officials said. Paying customers amount to about 91 percent of projections, or a bit over 200,000.
Collins said expenses projected in 2010 did not foresee the Barnes’ greatly expanded programming; that programming has fueled the increase in donor dollars.
“The big surprise was not in the increase in administrative costs or the cost to run the facility,” he said. Rather, the big cost drivers have come from increases in educational programming and technology. There is no deficit.
“I don’t think anyone thought we’d have year-round exhibition programming with publications,” he said. Yet that is what has happened. The Barnes has mounted 12 special exhibitions, some quirky, some less so, which have sought to attract new audiences and even highlight the foundation’s own history.
To Zaller, critic of the move, this expansion is no point of pride. “I’ve watched what they’ve done and all the shows and shenanigans they’ve put on,” he said. “I think Barnes would be rolling in his grave if he could see the travesty they’ve made.”
“Kiefer Rodin,” opening Nov. 17, exemplifies the Barnes’ special exhibition approach. It will offer works by Kiefer made in response to sculptures by Rodin, an acknowledgment of the centenary of Rodin’s death and the proximity of the Rodin Museum, just across 21st Street. (The exhibition is presented in collaboration with the Musée Rodin in Paris; there will be an accompanying publication.)
Philadelphia was also the site (with Chicago) of Kiefer’s first big American exhibition, co-curated by Mark Rosenthal, then of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is widely cited as the exhibition that made Kiefer’s reputation in this country.
That 1988 exhibition was nothing if not monumental, but the Barnes exhibition promises an intimacy not ordinarily associated with the German artist – not to mention Kiefer’s surprising association with the French sculptor.
Since 2012, the Barnes has also released 14 publications — seven documenting the permanent collection and seven accompanying special exhibitions.
Collins said educational programming had been a major focus of Barnes activities, reflected by the growth in adult education classes. The attendance at such classes has grown about 200 percent, to 530 students in 2016. This fall, 17 courses were sold out as soon as they were offered, Collins said.
“We had no idea how much pent-up demand there was,” Collins said, noting that classes now cover the kind of formal analysis traditionally associated with the Barnes, as well as ideas and history that provide context for the art.
New digital tools are ready or nearly so – everything from a new visual search engine for the collection database to digital tours of the gallery – all designed to “tell more stories about the collection and the institution’s history, which is not insignificant,” he said.
The one area that needs real focus is the endowment, which stood at $65 million at the end of June, according to Zminda. Though that is above the goal of $50 million, set during the building campaign before the 2012 opening, it provides for only about 17 percent of the current operating budget.
In addition, earned revenue covered 34 percent of the 2016 budget, and contributed revenue (which includes memberships) covered 49 percent. (In 2010, the Barnes set its goal at 40 percent each from earned income and contributed revenue, and 20 percent from the endowment.)
“Institutionally, both the board and the staff believe that 25 to 35 percent of the operating budget from endowment would be ideal,” Zminda said.
“We know growing the endowment is critical,” said Collins. “We’ve grown all the revenue, so we want and need a hedge. It’s important.”