Barnes combines art, arboretum Moving the collection would alter a fundamental part of its founder's vision.

Posted: December 15, 2003

In the legal battle over the future of the Barnes Foundation and its renowned art collection, this critical issue has been overlooked: the fate of the arboretum and its horticulture program.

Dr. Albert Barnes originally considered creating his art gallery in Center City, but he changed his plans when land owned by Capt. Joseph Lapsley Wilson - the beginnings of an arboretum - became available in Merion. Barnes bought the property in 1922, preserved the trees that Wilson had begun planting in the 1880s, and eventually expanded the collection to more than 3,000 species and varieties of woody plants.

The interrelationship of art and nature was central to Barnes' philosophy of beauty and creativity, and this is reflected in the three-year educational programs sponsored by his foundation in art appreciation and horticulture. If the art gallery moves to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, we are concerned that the link between the art and horticulture programs will be severed.

First-year horticulture students spend 25 percent of their class time in the art gallery because the principles underlying artistic compositions apply equally to landscape design. Conversely, art students use arboretum resources to further their understanding of artistic principles. It is a remarkable experience to sit in a room surrounded by masterpieces by Cezanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Picasso and Matisse, then to move outside to explore the expression of beauty and diversity in the natural world.

Gallery visitors, too, benefit from the arboretum. Being confronted with visual overload is a hallmark of the Barnes experience. As is necessary with any blockbuster exhibition, visitors can refresh themselves and catch their breath by looking - or stepping - outside into the arboretum.

This movement into and out of the gallery was central to the creation of the monumental mural in the main gallery. Matisse planned the mural with the consideration of the view outdoors. If the gallery moves, how can this most site-specific masterpiece be recreated?

We feel the arboretum is understaffed, underfunded and under-appreciated. If the gallery moves, the arboretum risks becoming orphaned and forgotten, along with Ker-Feal, the country estate that Barnes bought in Chester County in 1941. In public discussions of the estimated $150 million needed to build a new museum for Barnes' art, nothing was said about the financial future of the arboretum or Ker-Feal.

There is a longstanding truth about funding cultural institutions: It is much more exciting and glamorous to build a building or fund a special exhibition than to pay for mundane expenses such as light bulbs or staff salaries. If the Barnes gallery moves, will funding problems in 10 or 20 years require selling the arboretum or Ker-Feal to raise cash?

Thinking creatively, it may be possible to work within the spirit of Barnes' legacy rather than the letter of the trust agreement. Here are some suggestions:

Increase the entry fee and permit more visitors to the gallery and arboretum each week.

Reach an agreement with St. Joseph's University to buy some of the land at Episcopal Academy, which St. Joe's is buying. Construct a multi-use building and parking lot.

Encourage the Pew, Annenberg and Lenfest foundations to raise $150 million as proposed, but use the money for local cultural growth and renewal. Give $50 million to the Barnes and $100 million to Philadelphia-area cultural institutions so they can thrive.

Work with the City Avenue Special Services District to encourage the use of public transportation to the Barnes.

Build an access road to the Barnes that would divert traffic from Latches Lane.

We need to keep our focus on the Philadelphia region, not just the city. The Barnes Foundation, after all, is only 15 minutes from Center City, and foreign visitors have been finding their way there for decades, some making it their sole reason for visiting the United States.

The Barnes Foundation, in its entirety, is an institution worth preserving and nourishing. Injudicious pruning will diminish the integrity of the whole, violating the integrity of its creator and possibly leading to the destruction of its other parts.

Sandy Bressler of Philadelphia and Leslie Simon of Merion Station are first-year students in the Barnes Horticulture Program.

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