The speaker was the current President of Lincoln University in Philadelphia and he was talking about the unique exhibiting style, restricted access and dysfunctional relationship with professional art museums of the Barnes Collection courtesy of its founder Dr Albert C Barnes. You can catch up with the full story of the Barnes Collection and its battle with the City of Philadelphia efforts to relocate it into a new space in the city centre here, or catch the excellent albeit Barnes-eyed documentary The art of the steal.
Barnes believed that once collectors have their mitts on great art they can do with it whatever they please. It pleased Dr Barnes to inform it with his eccentric views on education and hatred of the Philadelphia Art Museum. He also attempted to have his vision continue to direct the collection beyond the grave courtesy of an intricately fashioned will.
Not that Barnes stands alone in this take-it-or-leave attitude. At one seminar we attended a collector told participants that she had always kept one of her works by Colin McCahon in the back of a cupboard, and that it was no one’s business but her own. Further more, she added, she was entitled to reduce the work to a pile of ash it if she felt like it.
Fortunately not all collectors feel this way. Much of the work seen in public museums comes from private collections either as loans or gifts and private collectors are increasingly making their works available to the public in their own institutions. And of course many works from private collections end up as gifts to public ones. Meanwhile the marathon legal battle in Philadelphia continues as the judge overseeing the case has ordered yet another round of arguments over whether to re-open the case.