The poor, the elite, the Barnes connection

by pkerkstra on May 1, 2012

This column originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

When Albert C. Barnes was calling the shots, the door to his incomparable hoard of modern masterpieces was relatively open to the poor, and closed to the privileged. James Michener, the author, figured this out only after he was denied entry on three occasions. The fourth time he posed as a barely literate Pittsburgh steelworker. Access granted.

Well, Barnes is long since dead, and now that the elites have his collection, the time apparently has come for the poor to get out. Instead of slumming it to get in, the city’s powerful are clearing the slums, lest the presence of homeless men and women offend patrons of the new and supposedly improved Barnes Foundation, set to open on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in May.

The official story is that the new ban Mayor Nutter announced last week on the outdoor feeding of homeless people has nothing to do with the Barnes. Mark McDonald, the mayor’s spokesman, said the foundation’s opening and the clampdown were operating on independent tracks, that one had nothing to do with the other, and that the Barnes never asked the city to put an end to outdoor feeding of the homeless.

It’s sheer coincidence, in other words, that the policy takes effect just a few weeks before the Barnes opens.

That would be hard to believe even if the Nutter administration hadn’t already admitted otherwise. But it did, back in November, when Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger told the Daily News that the city has to “find a reasonable balance between the kinds of things that go on behalf of the homeless and the ability of the city to market this great asset.”

The Nutter administration has gotten pretty good lately at calling a spade a diamond. First there was the $90 million increase in property-tax revenue in Nutter’s budget. This is not a tax hike, we’re told, merely a natural “capturing” of revenue.

Now we have the ban on outdoor food handouts on city parklands. The policy isn’t there to protect the Barnes, Team Nutter says, but rather because feeding the homeless is simply not proper use of city parklands – as though the strip of sidewalk outside the Barnes was Philadelphia’s Yellowstone or El Capitan.

Suspect motives aside, the city’s plan actually appears to be carefully thought out. And its end goal – to bring the feeding of homeless people inside – is admirable. Sister Mary Scullion, the city’s preeminent advocate for the homeless, has voiced her cautious and qualified support for the proposal, and for me that’s evidence enough that, done right, this could eventually benefit the long-term homeless.

Scullion, though, is not fooled about the plan’s purpose. “Of course it’s totally related to the Barnes,” Scullion told City Paper last week.

I suspect none of this would have surprised Albert Barnes. The Kensington-born art collector came from the working class and spent a lifetime spitting in the face of Philadelphia’s elite. Some of that hatred was born of petty resentment and hurt feelings from those years before the establishment recognized his collection for the world-beating marvel it is (cruelty came easily to Barnes, as evidenced by the abundance of gratuitously nasty correspondence he left behind). But some of it was rooted in real affection for the working class, and a sense that they were capable of establishing a genuine connection with art that the elites could not.

The indenture he left behind to govern the Barnes – the one so effectively shredded and burned by powerful people with a yen to see to the collection in Philadelphia – famously restricted access to the foundation. But exceptions were made for what Barnes called “the plain people, that is, men and women who gain their livelihood by daily toil in shops, factories, schools, stores and similar places.”

I have no idea what Barnes would have made of outdoor feedings of the homeless, but I feel certain he would have detested the thought that those poor men and women were being cleared out on account of his collection.

Which makes this latest episode just one more insult to the legacy of the man responsible for putting together what will soon be Philadelphia’s greatest cultural “asset.”

The greater insult, of course, is that the “asset” is in Philadelphia in the first place, exactly as Barnes never intended.

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