When the Barnes Foundation originally opened in 1925 in Lower Merion, it wasn’t just the art that stood out. The gallery was designed by the renowned Paul Phillippe Cret and considered a work of art unto itself, designed specifically for the purpose of holding that priceless art, down to the woodwork and the color of the floors and ceilings.
It’s now a storage facility.
Three years after the Barnes Foundation’s controversial move from Merion to the Parkway, the estate that once held arguably the greatest collection of post-impressionist and early modern art goes largely unused. In addition to the gallery, Barnes’ former residence is now reserved for archives, classrooms for a horticulture program and an office space for Barnes employees. An arboretum surrounds the buildings, as it has for decades.
The murkier question is the property’s future. People who opposed the move to Philadelphia see in the lack of current use a harbinger for an attempt by the Barnes Foundation to rid itself of the one of the few remaining connections to its owner and its past.
“I’ve been saying for years they will petition the courts to sell that property,” said former Barnes student Jay Raymond, “because it’s a white elephant and it’s expensive to maintain and it produces no income whatsoever.”
A Barnes Foundation spokesperson declined Billy Penn’s request for a tour of the old gallery and house and also declined numerous attempts to discuss the Barnes’ current and future plans for the property. The spokesperson instead shared links to the Barnes’ own website via email and wrote there were plans being considered for future use of the property.
Nancy Herman, an artist and member of the former Friends of the Barnes group that tried to get the Foundation to stay in Merion, said she would like to see the Barnes open the former gallery to the public and have it be empty.
“Let people imagine what it was like,” Herman said.
She doubts Barnes Foundation leaders would ever let that happen, though.
The arboretum on the Merion property is open Friday through Sundays during spring, summer and fall months, and admission is $5. The Barnes Foundation has also continued a horticulture program that started in 1940. Herman lives across the street from the Merion Barnes estate and enjoys visiting the arboretum. But she worries not enough people are going, given its restricted hours, and certainly not enough to offset the property’s cost.
In 2003, when the process of moving Barnes’ paintings to Philadelphia was in its early stages, estimated annual maintenance costs for the Merion site were $3.6 million. The Barnes Foundation also owns Ker-feal, a former Barnes summer house in Chester County closed to the public. It contains a collection of German furniture and is also likely draining money from the Foundation’s coffers.
In Philadelphia, the Barnes certainly has been earning revenue. In 2013, according to the latest form 990 the Barnes must file as a nonprofit, it turned about $5.7 million in admission revenue and millions more in contributions. Though the Barnes is charted as a nonprofit educational institution, its revenues for education accounted for less than 4 percent of its overall revenue.
2013 was the Barnes’ first full year in Philadelphia. In the late ’90s, annual revenues from admissions, tuition and more totaled around $2 million. Despite the growth in revenue, the reality is the Barnes Foundation is paying for three major properties, and only the Philadelphia one is likely bringing in a significant amount of cash.
Raymond, the former student, says the way to make the old estate in Merion useful again is to restore its original purpose and bring back the art. But that battle was lost long ago. He sees a Foundation unsure of what it can do with the once-prominent property, except sell it for profit.
“They couldn’t possibly know what to do with it,” Raymond said. “They’re only thinking in terms of the dollar-generating capacity of their asset and that one has none whatsoever. I think they’re only waiting a suitable time.”