I grew up 5 minutes away from the fabled Barnes Foundation in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, and I still needed detailed directions to find it when I visited for the first time several years ago. Making an appointment was tedious, and involved reserving weeks ahead, arriving at a specially appointed hour, and wearing carefully chosen clothing (no bulky jackets, and no shoes with heels smaller than two inches). But that was part of the experience. You got the feeling, walking through its generous rooms with tightly-packed walls of Renoirs and Cezannes, that you were part of a special club of people who had taken the pains of entry gladly, almost enjoying the draconian rules and regulations. Part of the wonder of the Barnes was that, despite the stipulations, you felt you were communing with the art in a way that would be impossible to do in a more traditional museum setting.
Studying abroad in Paris during college, I had an art teacher whose eyes grew wide when she learned where I was from. Not only did she express envy that I lived within such a short distance of such an incredible institution, she immediately wanted to know how to pronounce the town where it was housed: Bala Cynwyd. This was a woman who pronounced Van Gogh “Van Hock,” and took great pains to say and do everything correctly. So I told her, and I’ll tell you, it is pronounced Bala “Kin-wood,” though that’s hardly relevant anymore.
Against the wishes of Barnes’s will and his supporters, the collection is being moved to Philadelphia, an art world controversy that is the subject of the soon-to-be released documentary, The Art of the Steal. I haven’t even seen it yet. Maybe I’ll feel differently about the move once I know the whole story, but I do know that I feel lucky to have seen the collection as it was intended.
Check back next week for an interview with the film’s director.