“Those who maintain that modern art was started by mental cases would seem to be right,” admitted Clement Greenberg in 1946, less than a decade after the Nazis’ notorious exhibition of Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art). Only “mental impulses so strong and so disconnected from the actual environment” as those that plagued Van Gogh, Cézanne and Rousseau, he offered, could have allowed them the courage or naïveté to venture so far into the unknown; and only after them could cooler, cannier figures like Matisse and Picasso begin exploring this new terrain in full consciousness of the consequences. Writing just after the war, Greenberg could have had no inkling that such a pursuit might one day at least promise to become a normal profession with a clear career path and, for some, a fat paycheck, pretty much like law or dentistry.
But if in the beginning the pursuit required, at minimum, “an extreme eccentric” who could “shut his eyes with Cézanne’s tenacity to the established examples before and around him,” how much more maladjustment or nonconformity must it have taken for the early collectors of this art, even coming as they did a generation or more later, to bet their fortunes on its future? It’s hard to remember now, when any prudent portfolio of investments includes contemporary art—and the more extreme, the better—that buying the works of avant-garde artists once seemed even madder than making it, and this long after the deaths of pioneers like Van Gogh and Rousseau. Albert Barnes was one of those extreme eccentrics, and he discovered just how naïve he was in 1923 when he exhibited part of his collection—works by Soutine, Modigliani, Matisse and others—at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. The local papers deemed it a scandal, and medical authorities thought the art worthy of the insane. From then on, Barnes was at war with almost any person or institution that claimed cultural authority in his hometown.
In any case, having already chartered an educational foundation to promote his ideas, Barnes was in the process of creating his own counterinstitution, and by 1925 it was operating in the Philadelphia suburb of Lower Merion. This wasn’t a typical museum: Barnes took seriously the idea that his was a place of instruction, so there was no welcome mat for idle visitors. Barnes’s “prime and unwavering contention has been that art is no trivial matter, no device for the entertainment of dilettantes, or upholstery for the houses of the wealthy,” and the Barnes Foundation’s bylaws specifically forbade “any society functions commonly designated receptions, tea parties, dinners, banquets, dances, musicales or similar affairs.” The foundation was to be a place where people came to be taught what art was, according to the philosophy Barnes had developed under the influence of John Dewey, and anyone not enrolled as a student had no reason to be there.
The nearly ninety-year history of the Barnes Foundation has been a tortuous and contentious one. It’s easy to ascribe this to Barnes’s contrary, self-contradictory personality. A boy from the wrong side of the tracks who made good, he studied medicine but didn’t take to its practice. Instead he became wealthy by inventing, with a collaborator, a medication that became widely used as a preventive against gonorrheal blindness in newborns. Barnes was a sharp operator in business, but he was nothing if not high-minded. At his factory, the workday included only six hours of ordinary labor—with the other two hours devoted to seminars on philosophy, often led by the boss himself. When Barnes maintained that his gallery would be for the use of “men and women who gain their livelihood by daily toil in shops, factories, schools, stores and similar places,” he wasn’t talking out of his hat. His aim was to wrest the monopoly on the understanding of art, as of philosophy, from the class that he had succeeded in joining, and endow it to the class he had been born into. Overcoming the divisions of class wasn’t his only cause. He happily described himself as “an addict to Negro camp-meetings, baptizings, revivals, and to seeking the company of individual Negroes.” He was an avid supporter of black artists and, for a time, a committed interlocutor of African-American intellectuals such as Alain Locke.