I remember the first time I was ever drunk on art. Early in my college career, my Dad called. He was coming to Philadelphia by train and we were going to visit a mysterious place that a friend had told us about called the Barnes Foundation. He secured an appointment and I met him at the station in Merion, PA, about ten minutes outside of Philly on what is familiarly known as “the Mainline.”

To get to the Barnes, you must pass the kind of immense mansions and neatly manicured estates that inspired Agnes Nixon to create the people and places of soap operas like All My Children and One Life to Live.

“What the heck is inside this place, anyhow?” we wondered as we walked through the Doric portico decorated with tiles of clearly African motif. Inside? A treasure trove of not just African but Egyptian, Greek, and Navajo art, not to mention some 181 paintings by Renoir, 46 Picassos, 59 Matisses, and more Cezannes than I had ever seen in my entire life. It was like seeing hundreds of old friends — ones you’d known for years, but had never seen before. We had entered the playhouse of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, educator, art collector, and something of a cranky old codger.

That was back in the early nineties, shortly before the history of this mind-bogglingly priceless art collection took the tragic turn documented in Thomas Gibbons’ intriguing play Permanent Collection.

Loosely disguising the names of key players (the foundation becomes the Morris Collection here) Gibbons traces the nasty battles that occurred as the collection transitioned from the hands of the founder’s right-hand woman and into the control of the board of trustees of a local, primarily African-American university — the real-life Lincoln University. For Gibbons, the story of the Barnes Foundation becomes a complex entrée into a discussion of the larger, volatile topic of race relations in America.

As Sterling North — the thinly-veiled alter ego of the Barnes’ tempestuous and embattled black director Richard Glanton, who served as executive director in the 1990s — L. Peter Callender finds a brilliant and terrifying combination of slow burn and short fuse. Driven and autocratic, North rings true as a product of his time — a man possessed by every wrong that has been done him as an African American of a certain era, and consumed by a self-righteous tyranny. Glanton himself “played the race card” vehemently and often. In 1996, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit charging that he was a victim of prejudice and racist opposition at the hands of the Merion zoning board and the neighbors of the Barnes Foundation.

The vituperative accusations of racism were indeed the focus in the early years of the Barnes scandal, but for anyone who followed the fight, it became quickly clear that the real core of the issue had less to do with race than with money. How could it not be so when you’re talking about a collection currently valued at $25 billion (yes, that’s billion with a “B”)?

Like the real life Barnes, Morris leaves strict indentures in his will about how his artwork is to be handled after his death. A student of the works of Jung and Adler, as well as of the great educational theorist John Dewey, Barnes created the foundation not as a traditional museum, but rather a school for educating the public about the universal themes of art, in which the paintings were merely reference tools. Irascible and temperamental, he never forgot a grudge and tangled with the art “establishment,” disdaining to the end of his life the critics and museum administrators who rejected his theories and his collection — in his time, they were not even permitted to set foot inside the building.

His Barnes Foundation eschewed gift shops and corporate logos — for many years, there was not even a parking lot. Nothing in the way that the collection was exhibited was changed, none of his estimated 5,200 art objects ever left the building, none of the artwork was ever photographed in color, and only a limited number of visitors were permitted to make the appointment to see the works each week.

Given the collection’s mystique as well as its richness, perhaps it was inevitable that it would eventually become the focus of greed. Over the last decade, there has been an almost audible “cha-ching,” as dollar signs popped up in the eyes of the major players with every new round — and there were many rounds. As does Sterling North in the play, Glanton quickly racked up astronomical fees as a result of his lawsuits, as well as about $225,000 in “personal expenses,” easily running through the foundation’s $10 million endowment. To pay for the continuing costs, Glanton and his supporters dreamed up a blockbuster world tour featuring 81 of the collection’s most famous Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings — many of which had not been seen outside of the Barnes Foundation’s walls since their acquisition. Incurring more legal fees in the effort to break the will, they succeeded in staging a tour that went to Tokyo, Fort Worth, Ontario, as well as the National Gallery of Art, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The $17 million the tour raised for the Foundation — ostensibly to restore the endowment and make upgrades to the original building — was spent within a few years, leaving the Foundation again broke.

Gibbons’ refrain in Permanent Collection is “put yourself in my place.” It’s repeated by North, by the earnest Tim Kniffin as the foundation devotee Paul Barrow, but it is also silently echoed by the art collection itself, which becomes a seventh voiceless character in the play — the poor little rich child used as a pawn in an ugly divorce battle.

Richard Olmsted’s set elegantly sketches out the idiosyncratic layout of the Barnes Foundation, a vitrine of African objects against a wall that scatters Van Goghs, Renoirs, and Cezannes. Hanging from the catwalks around the space are more paintings, and in the center, worn benches for the actors to sink into as they contemplate the sense of being enveloped by art. Melissa Gray is suitably perky as Gillian Crane, the opportunistic reporter who sniffs out the story. And Karen Aldridge ably forms a stable core as Kanika Weaver, the representative of a more youthful generation frustrated by the intransigency of both North’s and Barrow’s views on race as well as art.

Nowadays, though, discussion of the real-life collection is scarcely about the quality of human endeavor. Art is big business. Just last May a Cubist Picasso portrait of Dora Maar sold for $95 million, and just weeks later, Ronald Lauder paid $135 million for a Gustav Klimt. To put this into some sort of perspective, $135 million also happens to be the exact amount that the US Government has pledged to fight malaria in Africa for the fiscal year 2007.

But the real questions that plague me about the Barnes Foundation go unanswered. An art history professor of mine once asked what our responsibility is to the life of a painting? Should the Sistine Chapel ceiling really be cleaned of centuries of dirt and “corrections”? Or is doing so like freshening the face of a fading starlet with plastic surgery — a way of trying to make a glorious moment permanent, of denying that the real life of someone or something might be embedded in the scrapes and scratches?

The biography of the Barnes Foundation now encompasses several grisly episodes. Do we try to deny the changes that will occur to the building, to the collection and to the founder’s vision? Lured by $150 million in grants, the foundation now plans to transplant the Barnes collection to downtown Philadelphia, where it can become the kind of tourist destination that Barnes never envisioned. It’s a travesty, but in a way, it’s a testament of its own — a silent witness to the story of human greed and fallibility.

Permanent Collection runs through July 23, 2006 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Tickets: 510-843-4822

Learn more about the Barnes Foundation (at barnesfoundation.org) and at Barnes Foundation Watch (at barneswatch.org), a group oppossed to the foundation’s relocation.

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