As Dr. Albert Barnes (1872-1951) was building his world class collection just outside the city of his birth, he always was inclusive of the African-American talent.
Barnes was born in Philadelphia to working-class parents. As a youngster, his devout Methodist mother would take Barnes to African-American camp meetings and revivals.
As an adult, Barnes' interests included what came to be called the Harlem Renaissance, and he followed its artists and writers.
In March 1925, Barnes wrote an essay, "Negro Art and America," published in the “Survey Graphic of Harlem,” which was edited by Alain Locke. He explained his admiration of what could be called “Black soul.” In the late 1940s Barnes met Horace Mann Bond, the first Black president of Lincoln University. They established a friendship that led to Barnes' inviting Lincoln students to view the collection. He also ensured by his will that officials of the university had a prominent role after his death in running his collection.
Bernard C. Watson, Ph.D., one of Philadelphia's most respected African-American educational, civic and business leaders, has also been largely responsible for restoring trust, financial accountability and respect for the Barnes Foundation and its board of trustees, for which he has served as president since 1999. The Foundation became embroiled in controversy due to a financial crisis in the 1990s, partially related to longstanding restrictions on public access resulting from its location in a residential neighborhood.
After a court challenge and resolution of legal issues, the gallery holdings have been controversally relocated from Lower Merion to a new building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
“We are carrying out Dr. Barnes wishes and having the art available for what he called 'the plain people'—and those are the people who get up everyday and go to work at businesses and offices in Philadelphia,” explained Watson during the Barnes Foundation Philadelphia media preview. “Those are his words, and we are delighted that we are here in this wonderful new facility and the art is replicated to the way he had it in Merion, which is what we promised when we went to court to get permission to move. The thing about art is the perception that you have to be an elite to see art, and appreciate it, and understand it. Let me tell you what Dr. Barnes did. Dr Barnes closed his factories where they were producing Argyrol, and he had his entire workforce and he paid them while they learned about the art and could view his private collection of art, which he made available for them.”
Barnes stipulated in a trust that his legendary trove of 800 impressionist and post-impressionist paintings forever "remain in exactly the places they are." According to Watson, the new location will provide access of this legendary trove of art to people from all walks of life.
“This foundation in this new facility will allow more people to visit the Barnes and appreciate the art and to see,” said Watson. “We will be open all week. We can set our own hours. We can set the time that people can come. We have a lot of the amenities and the privileges that we did not have in Merion—and could not have because of zoning restrictions. It will be available to people from all over the world who could not get into the Barnes at its other location because of the restrictions that was placed there. We know, for example, that the most requested venue of European visitors was to go to the Barnes and only a fraction of them could be accommodated. We see this as another way to carry out Dr. Barnes vision of what art was about—available for the people to understand and to appreciate—for ordinary people, not just the wealthy and well-educated.”
The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, located 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, will open with 10 days of free admission. It began Saturday will continue until ay 28. The inaugural week culminates with a Memorial Day festival weekend, offering round-the-clock free admission. The weekend features a variety of entertainment and programs from noon on May 26 through 6 p.m. on May 28. Tickets are required for all opening events and are available at www.barnesfoundation.org or by calling toll free (866) 849-7056 .