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The Art of the Repair: Imagining a Reparative Possibility for the University of the Arts, Lincoln University, and the Barnes Foundation

James Peterson

On May 31, news broke that the University of the Arts in Philadelphia would close its doors permanently June 7. The news stunned the U of Arts community, its alum – some of whom found out when the public did – and the city of Philadelphia which has prided itself as a hub for artistic patronage, world-class museums, and educational institutions dedicated to the arts. This abrupt closure of a Philadelphia Arts educational institution summons a complex history that haunts the art world at the center of fine arts, foundations, and historically Black colleges and universities.

On June 2, the Board of Trustees of the University of the Arts released the following statement:

“With deepest sadness, we must confirm that University of the Arts will close on June 7, 2024. The Board of Trustees formally voted on June 1 to approve the closure. Under extraordinary circumstances, we diligently assessed the urgent crisis presented and pathways to keep the insDr. James PetersonDr. James Petersontitution open. Despite our best efforts, we could not ultimately identify a viable path for the institution to remain open and in the service of its mission. With the priority of addressing the impact that our decision will have on the UArts community, as well as our home in the City of Philadelphia, we are committed to supporting our students, faculty, and staff through this heartbreaking transition.”

University of the Arts is no more. And although the lawsuits and the aftermath quarterbacking will continue for some time, the exercises that will imagine what could have been possible will be few and far between. Philadelphia’s University of the Arts is less than two miles from the current location of the Barnes Foundation. Two miles.

What if – in the sense of the alternate timeline variations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Philadelphia’s University of the Arts could be repurposed as an addition to Lincoln University’s institutional footprint in Philadelphia? The possibility will sound far-reaching, especially if the history of the Barnes Foundation and the physical transition of the Barnes collection of world-class art to the city of Philadelphia is unknown to you. For an in-depth primer on this controversy, which has been described as the greatest art heist in American history, please screen The Art of the Steal, an in-depth documentarian analysis of the legacy of Dr. Albert Barnes, his exceptional art collection, and the ultimate contest over his last will and testimony.

Dr. Albert Barnes (b. 1872/d. 1951) came from humble beginnings in the City of Brotherly Love. He attended Penn, became a chemist, and made his fortune by developing an antiseptic, marketed as Argyrol, a medication used to treat infant blindness. He made a fortune. He loved art. So, he began to acquire it. Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, and others. His eye for art was aesthetically ahead of his time, so he acquired hundreds of paintings from the masters before they were acknowledged as such. Expert pundits in The Art of the Steal suggest that Barnes’ art collection is worth upwards of 25 billion dollars.

No need to rehearse The Art of the Steal here but suffice it to say that Dr. Barnes’ wish (and command) was for his artistic legacy to live in a dedicated educational space outside of the clutches of the Philadelphia fine arts establishment. Some of this tension stems from Barnes’s prescient ability to collect valuable art before it matured in value – before the establishment in Philly could recognize it as such. And some of it stems from Dr. Barnes’s initial attempt to present his collection in Philadelphia. In 1923, Barnes presented his collection at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) and the Philadelphia arts establishment panned it calling it primitive – most notably by a critic in the Philadelphia Inquirer – the flagship paper of record for the City of Brotherly Love. Right then, over a century ago, Barnes vowed to never let the Philadelphia art establishment get its clutches on his precious collection.

Barnes felt no love from the city and through a series of political initiatives driven by wealthy elites, well-heeled foundations, and the Philadelphian political class, the Barnes Foundation and its collection were moved into the heart of Philadelphia’s fine arts world from the suburbs of Merion, Pennsylvania. What is too often overlooked in this art heist debacle is Dr. Barnes’ will to leave the collection under the direction and stewardship of Lincoln University. Dr. Barnes was progressive. Not only did he want his art to be used exclusively for instruction and education, but he also wanted the controlling organization of the Barnes Foundation to be situated within the leadership structure of Lincoln University.

Dr. Barnes was one of the foremost allies of the Harlem Renaissance (also known as the “New Negro Movement”). He supported the efforts of Alain Locke and contributed to Locke’s seminal work The New Negro with his essay, “Negro Art in America." His last will to have Lincoln University act as the steward of his foundation and custodian of its art collection was intentional and it was deliberately designed to rebuff the elites of the art world in Philadelphia in favor of Lincoln University — the first degree-granting historically Black college and university (HBCU) in the United States.

An excerpt from Dr. Barnes’s essay is instructive:

"The contributions of the American Negro to art are representative because they come from the hearts of the masses of a people held together by like yearnings and stirred by the same causes...It is a great art because it embodies the Negroes’ individual traits and reflects their suffering, aspirations, and joys during a long period of acute oppression and distress...The outstanding characteristics are his tremendous emotional endowment, his luxuriant and free imagination, and a truly great power of individual expression. He has in superlative measure that fire and light which, coming from within, bathes his whole world, colors his images, and impels him to expression. The Negro is a poet by birth." -- Dr. Albert C. Barnes from "Negro Art in America", The New Negro (1925).

Here is where the art of the repair might rival the art of the steal. Imagine, if the powers that be – the municipal government of Philadelphia, the Office of the Governor of Pennsylvania, and the leaders of the extraordinary foundations in the city of Philadelphia and the principles of the Philadelphia art world collaborated to restore what was plundered from Lincoln University. They certainly did as much to bring the Barnes Foundation to the center of the city of Philadelphia.

According to curator and gallery operator, Chris Norwood: “We are all saddened by the demise of the University of the Arts, but it could be an opportunity. The City of Philadelphia’s arts community and the State of Pennsylvania owe Lincoln University 25-Billion Dollars for the assets that they usurped from the HBCU, by watering down the Barnes Foundation board by a court order to break the express last will and estate of Dr. Barnes."

Norwood is the Founder and Curator of Hampton Art Lovers; he is also the guest curator of "Silhouettes: Image and Word in the Harlem Renaissance” at the Wolfsonian Museum - FIU in Miami Beach, Florida. His sense of the situation is insightful. The heist was made possible by expanding the Board of Trustees of the Barnes Foundation beyond the five seats gifted to Lincoln University by Dr. Barnes via his last will and testament.

Imagine if we could somehow repair and restore Lincoln University from one of its greatest losses as an institution and one of the greatest instances of artistic plunder in American history. Imagine the Lincoln University of the Arts presiding over the Barnes Foundation in the heart of Philadelphia. This would be the art of the repair.

Dr. James B. Peterson is founder of Hip Hop Scholars, an organization devoted to developing the educational potential of Hip Hop. He is the author of Hip Hop Headphones: A Scholar's Critical Playlist.

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