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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Early Modern Art Collectors

The home of the Phillips Collection,
Washington, D.C.
Here's a trivia question for you. Name the first museum of modern art in this country. If your first response is the Museum of Modern Art in New York, you'd be wrong. The first museum dedicated solely to "modern" art, that being from the Impressionists through the first two-thirds of the 20th century (roughly 1870-1970), was upstairs in a private home in Washington, DC. It opened to the public in 1921, known then and now as the Phillips Collection. The MoMA in New York didn't open until the summer of 1929. In 1930, Duncan Phillips, the wealthy heir to the Jones and Laughlin Steel fortune moved from the traditional family home at 1600 21st Street NW, leaving the entire Georgian Revival mansion to be used as a public showcase to promote his passion for Modern art. The Collection began with some 230 works by such artists as Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Gauguin, Cézanne--a virtual "who's who" of nineteenth century modern art; and continued into the 20th century with work by Braque, Klee, Prendergast, O’Keeffe, Marin, Dove, and Hartley, to the point that when Phillips died in 1966, it had grown to more than 1,800 pieces.

Detroit Institute of Arts
Although he didn't start his own museum, in Detroit, about the same time, another collector, Robert H. Tannahill, was busy assembling his own collection of Modern art. His tastes were similar to those of Duncan Phillips and his pockets just as deep. He was heir to the J. L. Hudson department store fortune. During the 1920s, Tannahill began collecting works by Cézanne, van Gogh, Seurat, Brancussi, Matisse, Renoir, Degas, Picasso and Gauguin. There was some overlap, but some striking differences too. Tannahill seems to have much preferred the Post-Impressionists and had definite leanings toward the more abstract qualities of modern art than did Phillips. Rather than start his own museum, Tannahill adopted one, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and founded a group he called Friends of Modern Art which sought to spread his collecting fervor to his friends, all of whom were encouraged to donate at least one work of art per year to the Museum. Over his lifetime, Tannahill himself donated over 450 works to the museum. And when he died in 1969, he also left them most of his fortune along with  his entire private collection of 400 more pieces.

Portrait of Albert C. Barnes,
1926, Georgio de Chirico
If Tannahil was "museum friendly," such was definitely not the case with a wealthy young collector in the Philadelphia suburb of Lower Merian. That man was Dr. Albert C. Barnes. Around 1902, Dr. Barnes developed an antiseptic drug he called Argyrol used then in the treatment of gonorrheal blindness in babies. He never patented Argyrol, but nonetheless his company made a fortune from it in the days when new drugs were not as tightly regulated as today. Dr. Barnes passion was collecting art and like the collectors mentioned above, his tastes ran to contemporary Modern art. In 1923, he exhibited part of his collection including works by Soutine, Modigliani, Matisse, and others at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The local press hooted and hollered, calling the work "worthy of the insane." This angered Barnes, who went to war with virtually every cultural authority in his hometown of Philadelphia. In doing so, he founded the Barnes Foundation, taking on not just those individuals and institutions who despised Modern art, but some of the most basic fundamentals of art collecting itself. He refused to see art as entertainment for the wealthy, or as part of their interior decor. His art museum had no posted visiting hours and would have no part of any social gatherings. Instead, it was aimed squarely and exclusively at educating art students and the lower middle-class working public. After Barnes death in 1951, various financial crises brought the collection of some 2,500 works (valued today at $25 billion), including over 800 paintings, into the hands of new leadership. In May, 2012, the Barnes collection moved into a new, strikingly modern museum just down the street from Albert Barnes' old bitter enemy, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Today, Barnes must be spinning in his grave. These days, they even rent out their galleries for weddings and tea parties.
The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, so the Barnes foundation collection has actually moved now. I went to see it in its original incarnation about three years ago. I'm glad I had the chance then.