Although the action was never announced, the foundation several years ago quietly dropped its requirement that all visitors make reservations. In recent months, the foundation has stopped accepting reservations, except for groups of 10 or more.
A 1960 court order had mandated that the foundation admit no more than 450 visitors a day, but now no visitors are turned away - even if the number exceeds that limit.
Until he died in 1951, Dr. Albert C. Barnes had admitted whom he pleased to his Merion galleries, and barred art historians, critics, museum officials and the public at large. After his death, the foundation remained one of the great mysteries of the art world; a small circle of followers continued to shroud operations of the foundation in secrecy.
The galleries exhibit Barnes' collection of more than 1,000 paintings, considered to be the world's leading collection of French postimpressionism, with holdings of 171 Renoirs, 57 Cezannes, eight van Goghs and 54 Matisses, and 19 Picassos.
Barnes' trust indenture gave Lincoln University, the historically black school in Chester County, the power to designate trustees to govern the foundation as the original trustees died or retired. In 1988, trustees nominated by Lincoln University became a majority for the first time, and by last summer accounted for four of the five members of the board.
Instead of continuing the foundation's tradition of deliberate - at times, hostile - isolation from the art world, the new trustees appear to have begun a rapprochement with the museum community, geared to instilling professional management at the foundation.
On April 27, Barnes trustees met in New York with representatives of four major American museums in the first of a series of meetings to solicit advice. Attending were Anne d'Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Tom L. Freudenheim, assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington; E. Roger Mandle, deputy director of the National Gallery in Washington, and Gary Tinterow, associate curator of European painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
"It was a steady, thoughtful review of procedures" that included many management issues about the art collection, d'Harnoncourt said. She and the others offered the services of their museums to the Barnes trustees, and have been in periodic informal consultation with them.
A 'GOOD ROAD MAP'
"What gave me great confidence was to see how right-minded the board was in the manner they are proceeding," said the Metropolitan's Tinterow. "It seems like the board is pursuing with great deliberation and intelligence - and with more than just open-mindedness, but with really a clear recognition of the problems and the situation, and with a very good road map to keep the Barnes functioning largely as it has been.
"They are examining questions of how to preserve its character as well as physical facilities, to make sure it survives the next 100 years."
Said Freudenheim, of the Smithsonian: "The Barnes is a very special place, and everyone in the museum field feels they would be glad to help if it needs help to mainstream itself to become part of the museum world of the late 20th century. . . . My feeling is that they (the Barnes trustees) are very savvy and smart, and they are asking a lot of questions - which is what smart people do in a situation like that."
Sudarkasa, the Lincoln University president, credited the board's open attitude to Franklin H. Williams, who, for the last year, had been chairman of the university's board of trustees and president of the Barnes Foundation. He died of lung cancer May 20. A former U.S. ambassador to Ghana, Williams was president of the Phelps-Stokes Fund in Manhattan, a foundation for minority education.
'THE MOVING FORCE'
"Ambassador Williams has been the moving force behind everything that has happened at the Barnes Foundation in the last year," Sudarkasa said. "He was of the opinion, with which I agree, that this was a national treasure - indeed, an international treasure. We wanted to make sure our colleagues in the museum world - although the Barnes is not a museum - were consulted." The foundation defines itself as an educational institution and not a museum, and conducts art-appreciation classes.
On June 2, Bernard E. Anderson, a Philadelphia economist, was elected by Lincoln trustees as its new chairman of the university's board. He and the Lincoln board plan to nominate someone to fill Williams' vacant seat on the Barnes board by September. The Barnes board also expects to elect a new president by then.
In the last year, Barnes trustees have focused on assessing the physical conditions of the foundation, such as the condition of paintings, proper climatic controls and security, according to Richard L. Feigen, a high-profile Manhattan art dealer and Lincoln University trustee who has advised the Barnes board on art matters. He said the condition of artwork was "excellent - nothing needs immediate attention."
REQUESTS FOR COOPERATION
Until now, the foundation has provided only black-and-white reproductions of art to scholars and refused to provide any historical or archival material. Now, however, the board is considering two requests for cooperation from scholars organizing major exhibits or books, Feigen said.
The trustees, he said, "are very eager to cooperate with their sister institutions . . . nothing is impossible."
Sudarkasa said Lincoln University was in the process of "developing a plan for short- and long-term enhancement of our art department."
"Obviously, we would like to have linkage with the Barnes Foundation," she said. "What precisely that will entail, we're not certain." Sudarkasa added that during the next year "in concert with the art world, we will come up with a plan which we will present to the Barnes trustees."
In addition to Feigen, Lincoln has added another art expert to the university's board, David Driskell, a professor of art history at the University of Maryland at College Park and a specialist in black American art.
Last year, trustees appointed Edward D. Frank 2d to oversee day-to-day operations at the Barnes Foundation. Frank is a history teacher at the Agnes Irwin School in Rosemont, and previously worked in the general counsel's office for former Gov. Dick Thornburgh. He is a graduate of New York University School of Law and holds a master's degree in international relations from the University of Pennsylvania.