Thom Collins talks new strategies for the Barnes Foundation [Audio and Video]

The Block Museum’s ongoing speaker series, The Visual Vanguard is presenting conversations with innovative arts leaders from across the globe. To kick off the series, the Block hosted a talk with Northwestern alumnus Thom Collins, Executive Director and President of the Barnes Foundation,  on Wednesday, November 2.

Collins’ presentation included a detailed  outline of the Barnes’ past, present and future, and a timeline of the museum’s transition to Center City, Philadelphia, in 2012.

According to Collins, the museum’s founder, Dr. Albert Barnes, grew up with very little money in some of the roughest neighborhoods in Philadelphia. After graduating early from Central High School, he received an M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania at the age of 20. Dr. Barnes eventually made his fortune in the early pharmaceutical industry, becoming a millionaire by 33. Barnes started the Barnes Foundation in 1922 as a way to educate students about fine arts and horticulture via his own ideals, as well as to advance himself in Philadelphia society.  He enlisted the help of his childhood friend and well-known artist William Glackens to build a collection of post-impressionist and early modernist art. Interestingly, Barnes’ approach did not open the collection to the public. Students had to apply and be accepted into a three-year program in which for one half-day per week they would sit in his galleries and engage with him or other members of his faculty in a conversation about the works.

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Dr. Barnes died in 1951 in an automobile accident, leaving behind a highly detailed estate plan which called for the collection to be frozen in its configuration at the time of his death. Until 1988, the foundation was run by his wife, Laura Barnes, followed by his director of education, with little change.

By 1988 the foundation’s finances were in a deficit situation. Richard Glanton, president at the time, asked for permission to change some aspects of Dr. Barnes’ estate plan which were contributing in part to the foundation’s financial failure. Subsequently, in 2004 Glanton’s successor, Dr. Bernard Watson, gained permission to relocate the collection, building a new building and with it, a new audience.

The new Barnes building opened in 2012. Despite controversy over the negotiation of Dr. Barnes’ estate plan, the building was greatly embraced and began succeeding financially. This success took the shape of an increase in the foundation’s visitation from 30,000 people per year to 320,000, and an increase in its annual operating budget from $4.5 million per year at its height to $20 million per year.

Collin’s wrapped up by talking about the Barnes’ new strategic plan, discussing how the foundation needs to evolve into one with an innovative “interpretive paradigm.” The museum is seeking new ways to allows its audience to unpack the stories and ideas that characterize the works and bring them to their fullest potential.

“If we can figure out how to produce new knowledge around the collection…to translate that new knowledge for multiple audiences … and to disseminate those translated contents across multiple new platforms, then we will have really created the institution that this could be,” said Collins.

“While this seems like it’s all rather kind of basic, this is actually an enormous move, and I think that if we can do this properly, we can model new practices that will have a great impact throughout the field.”

-Contributed by Abigail Kamen, Communications Assistant (Medill 2018)

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Watch Highlights on Vimeo:

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