Glanton's Tenure: A mission to alter Albert Barnes' dream

Feb 18, 1998

Richard H. Glanton most likely never said, in the manner of Louis XIV, "Le Barnes c'est moi," but he certainly acted as if it were.

Richard Glanton

Through seven and one-half years as board president and de facto director of the Barnes Foundation, Glanton achieved a remarkable feat of magic. He made four adult human beings - his fellow trustees - virtually disappear.

Largely through his own efforts, he came to personify the foundation at home and abroad. To the public, he became a savior who liberated the foundation's fabulous secret art collection for the enjoyment of art-lovers around the world.

This impression is utter nonsense. While not widely known outside the art world when Glanton took over in 1990, the Barnes Foundation was hardly secret. Since 1961, it had been open to the public three days a week, although it didn't promote itself. Anyone with a dollar to spare could experience one of the most splendid and eccentrically varied art collections in the world.

Nevertheless, Glanton received effusive praise over the years for his take-charge attitude. He often deflected criticism of his rule by raising race as an issue.

For at least one group of critics, that wasn't the issue at all. The issue was the idea of Dr. Albert C. Barnes' aesthetic ideals - and they are purely aesthetic - being compromised and commercialized by someone who seemed antagonistic to them.

True, the Glanton regime's campaign to transform the Barnes into a high-profile, numbers-driven museum had considerable support. That is how all museums think these days. And the Barnes has dozens of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces of proven mass appeal. Given such an incentive to broaden the audience, it would have been remarkable if the Barnes board had resisted the urge.

What was overlooked, though, by both Glanton and his board - along with people who saw the Barnes as a tourist magnet - is that there wasn't anything intrinsically wrong with continuing to operate the foundation primarily as an educational program. That, after all, is what the founder intended.

What a shock, then, when Glanton's formerly compliant confreres suddenly knocked him off his perch last week. For a man who had hobnobbed with the president of France and been dubbed ``an officer of the arts and letters'' by the French government, this must have been a hard fall.

Glanton has the satisfaction of having made the Barnes better in some ways. Yet his record of achievement is decidedly mixed. Besides his much-publicized success in raising money, it includes several significant failures.

One is the failure or unwillingness to give the foundation professional leadership. Glanton decided to run the place himself, even though he had no experience heading an art institution.

In retrospect, it seems amazing that this magnificent art collection has bumped along since 1988, when Lincoln University assumed control of the Barnes board, without an art-wise hand on the tiller, or anywhere near it.

Glanton consolidated in his hands the administrative power that he came to wield so authoritatively. But what the institution needed was a strategic thinker and a person who might have been able to reconcile Barnes ' vision with present realities.

A professional director would not have to juggle the Barnes with his or her regular job as a lawyer or dentist. Secondly, he or she would bring knowledge of art and museum practice to the job. Would you hire a lawyer to fix your teeth?

Better still, a director experienced in museum education would be better qualified to develop an education program for the Barnes consistent with the founder's wishes that could also serve schools, colleges and the general public.

A professional leader with art and/or museum experience remains a top priority for the Barnes . The need is so obvious that one questions the wisdom of the board's decision last week to hire as ``interim manager'' a former corporate official who, like Glanton, lacks professional experience with art.

Consider now Glanton's most publicized success, the once-in-a-lifetime tour of more than 80 masterpiece paintings from the Barnes collection that went to seven museums around the globe between the spring of 1993 and the fall of 1995. That tour raised more than $16 million, of which $12 million was spent to renovate the foundation's building in Lower Merion.

(Forget for a moment that the Glanton board floated only one other idea for raising the money, the outrageous suggestion that a dozen or so paintings be sold. That may have been only a trial balloon, to soften up the opposition to a tour. )

The exhibition tour is the gaudiest feather in Glanton's cap, yet it was Barnes whose passion for art and eye for quality formed this extraordinary collection, and it was the collection itself that made the tour a crowd-pleaser.

It always seemed to me that Barnes ' achievement was underplayed. The media doted on his "eccentricities," which included refusing admittance to people he didn't like, but the boldness of his connoisseurship - and the passion for art that inspired it - wasn't sufficiently appreciated.

Once the Montgomery County Orphan's Court had sanctioned the tour as the most feasible way to pay for necessary building repairs, all the Barnes board had to do was pack up the paintings and ship them out. An exhibition of such quality, tied to a story line featuring an eccentric collector, couldn't miss. And it didn't.

When Glanton and his board applied the exhibition proceeds to the long-overdue refurbishing, they had the good sense not to change anything. They repaired and upgraded the structure and its mechanical systems, then put it back together exactly as it was before, just as responsible trustees would be expected to do.

But conserving the Barnes wasn't good enough. Glanton moved to transform the foundation from what it had always been - a collection that serviced an art-education program - into something more closely resembling a public museum. This meant more opening hours, and thousands more visitors annually.

The rationale for this betrayal - for this is emphatically not what Barnes intended - was to make the collection accessible to a larger audience. In the process, the Barnes would make more money, which would help it meet operating expenses that would inevitably increase because of the new role.

However, just because the Barnes could attract more visitors, it didn't necessarily follow that doing so was prudent or necessary. The museum role is inappropriate for the foundation. Its galleries are small, and the residential neighborhood in which it sits wasn't intended for large numbers of visitors.

As in any museum, but more so with the Barnes , crowds diminish the viewing experience and put the paintings at risk. Bringing in more people actually makes the collection less accessible, in the most meaningful application of that word.

Fortunately, the campaign to make the Barnes into a tour-bus stop has so far been thwarted by the foundation's neighbors and the township of Lower Merion. Glanton's sad legacy in this matter has been acrimony, needless lawsuits, and massive legal expenses.

The most serious betrayal, which Glatnon shares with the board, is the failure to honor Barnes ' intentions. He was passionately devoted to certain aesthetic ideas, and he propounded them in several books, most notably The Art in Painting.

He assembled his collection as a teaching tool. He wanted people to understand how paintings were composed and how they should be looked at. Above all, he wanted people to love art as he did.

Barnes' ideas about looking at art are limited in scope - they fail to consider social or historical contexts, for instance - but they're far from invalid. Many people claim to have profited from the Barnes art courses; I have yet to meet any former Barnes student who found them silly or worthless.

However, Glanton's priorities lay elsewhere. Obviously, a five-days-a-week museum, or whatever it is called, couldn't stand the inconvenience of allowing students to preempt the galleries from tour groups.

One can only hope that Glanton's successors will pay closer attention to their moral obligation to the founder and be more sensitive to the need to preserve and protect this unique collection. The Barnes experience isn't just the paintings on the walls but the sense of the whole. And, as Barnes insisted, exclusion of things extraneous to aesthetic concerns.

The Barnes collection is a precious part of American history as well as a major aesthetic achievement in itself. It shouldn't be exploited simply for its ability to generate tourist dollars.