A wall in the new Barnes Foundation museum describes Albert Barnes' educational philosophy (Photo by M. Edlow for GPTMC courtesy Visit Philly)

 

A New Museum Mile?

Rush hour is still two hours away, but a swarm of cars is buzzing by me on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. As I parallel park in front of the new Barnes Foundation museum and feed money into the parking kiosk, an over-sized tour bus, only a quarter full, is herding tourists down the divided highway. The overly enthusiastic guide shouts through the crackly loudspeaker like an annoying uncle belting through a cardboard, wrapping-paper tube at Christmas.

The mile-long, landscaped, auto-friendly Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which connects Philadelphia’s City Hall to Fairmount Park, is one of the earliest examples of urban renewal in the United States. Designed by French urban planner Jacques Gréber in 1917 the boulevard was modeled after the Champs-Élysées in Paris. As Ken Finkel observes, “planners envisioned the Parkway cutting across the city’s northwest quadrant to accommodate schools, hospitals, libraries, museums, cathedrals, courthouses, administrative headquarters for schools and agencies, and even a hall for conventions. If it served the public, it belonged on the Parkway.”

This month the controversial new Barnes Foundation museum opened its doors, taking its place beside the Philadelphia Free Library and Rodin Museum on this historic road.

 

The view of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

The new Barnes was a rare opportunity to engage the city's foot traffic. Unfortunately, the architects failed to put down the welcome mat. (Photo © Michael Moran courtesy of Architectural Record)

 

 

Paul Gauguin, "Mr. Loulou (Louis Le Ray), 1890. Oil on canvas, 21 3/4 x 18 1/4 in. (55.2 x 46.4 cm). (Photo © 2012 The Barnes Foundation)

Back in 1917, while the city was busy knocking down houses and constructing a highway for the common good, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, who made his fortune by co-developing an early anti-gonorrhea drug, had his hands full assembling one of the world’s most important collections of post-impressionist and early modern paintings. In his lifetime, Barnes grew his collection to include 69 Cézannes—more than in all the museums in Paris—44 Picassos, 60 Matisses, and an astonishing 181 Renoirs. The 2,500 items in the collection include major works by Modigliani, Soutine, Gaughin, Seurat, Degas, Rousseau, and van Gogh, Asian prints, African sculpture, medieval manuscripts, decorative metalwork, as well as Old Master paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, El Greco, and Titian.

A self-made man who put himself through college by tutoring, boxing, and playing semi-professional baseball, Barnes despised the art establishment and old Philadelphia money. His hatred of the establishment was partly the result of a 1923 show at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts featuring 75 paintings from Barnes’ collection. The work was too avant-garde for prevailing tastes, and art critics ridiculed the works, calling them “trash,” “incomprehensible masses of paint, and an “infectious scourge.”

Barnes wrote a series of fiery letters in reply. He said the Philadelphia Museum of Art was a “house of artistic and intellectual prostitution” and claimed that the main function of museums “has been to serve as a pedestal upon which a clique of socialites pose as patrons of the arts.” As James Panero of Philanthropy magazine observes, “Barnes was a conflicted figure, a man of titanic intelligence, unflinching will, and self-destructive pride.”

 

During his lifetime, Barnes maintained tight control over access to the collection, requiring visitors to write and request appointments and giving preference to students and the working class over members of Philadelphia society. Writers James A. Michener and T.S. Eliot were among the visitors personally rejected by Barnes. (Photo courtesy The Barnes Foundation)

 

 

The original Barnes Foundation building in Merion sits seven minutes away from the new Barnes museum.

In 1925, the same year that the Insurance Company of North America opened its headquarters at 16th and the Parkway, Albert Barnes dedicated a new home for his collection designed by Philadelphia-based French architect Paul Cret in nearby Merion. It’s mission, “the promotion of the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts.” Eager to avoid the city’s cultural elite, Barnes built his innovative school, called the Barnes Foundation, seven minutes from downtown on a twelve-acre arboretum insulated from the new parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Barnes’ primary passion was educating the underprivileged. As Panero details, Barnes was “deeply impressed by John Dewey’s Democracy and Education” andbelieved that the development of cognitive skills, rather than the memorization of facts, was the key to education…In arranging his art on the wall, Barnes…dispensed with labels, period rooms, chronological order, and the solemnity of your typical white-walled gallery. Instead, with his art hanging floor to ceiling, Barnes let the harmony of shapes and forms sing for itself. He wanted his collection to enliven the eye, not confound it with facts. He believed his students would be able to see the visual connections between disparate works, styles, and periods, and learn from those associations without the benefit of words.”

 

"In arranging his art on the wall, Barnes...dispensed with labels, period rooms, chronological order, and the solemnity of your typical white-walled gallery." (Photo: Room 18, east wall © 2012 The Barnes Foundation)

 

 

When the Philadelphia art establishment ridiculed Barnes' collection, he wrote a series of fiery letters in reply. Barnes wrote that the Philadelphia Museum of Art was a “house of artistic and intellectual prostitution” and claimed that the main function of museums “has been to serve as a pedestal upon which a clique of socialites pose as patrons of the arts.” (Photo © The Barnes Foundation)

During his lifetime, Barnes maintained tight control over access to the collection, requiring visitors to write and request appointments and giving preference to students and the working class over members of Philadelphia society. Writers James A. Michener and T.S. Eliot were among the visitors personally rejected by Barnes. In 1928, The New Yorker noted, “In order to get the honest reaction of a simple mind to art…[Barnes] called in a negro truck-driver who was delivering coal, plumped him down in front of a Cézanne, and asked for an opinion.”

Barnes had witnessed the Philadelphia Museum of Art take control of the collection of his late lawyer, John Johnson, and tried to prevent the same from happening to his own collection. The Foundation’s Indenture of Trust and other documents stated that the Barnes Foundation was to remain an educational institution, open to the public only two to three days a week. His art collection was to stay on the walls of the foundation in exactly the places the works were at the time of his death and could never be loaned or sold.

Until the very end, Barnes was true to his stubborn, self-destructive reputation. Panero vividly describes Barnes’ unexpected death:

“It was sunny and hot on July 24, 1951, and Barnes seemed distracted after his Sunday dinner at Ker-Feal, his country farm. Barnes decided to return to Merion. He loaded his dog, Fidèle, into his Packard and began the 25-mile drive. There was a stop sign on Route 29, near Phoenixville—Barnes had objected to its installation and refused to observe it. He blasted through the intersection and barreled directly into a 10-ton trailer truck. The 79-year-old’s body was thrown 40 feet from the car. Fidèle, near dead herself, would not allow state troopers near her crumpled master. She had to be shot.”

According to Panero, although Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were much wealthier than Albert Barnes during their lifetimes, today the value of the art assets of the Barnes Foundation are 10 to 20 times greater than either the Carnegie Corporation or the Rockefeller Corporation.

Now, sixty-one years after Barnes’ death, Philadelphia’s politicians are once again banking on the Parkway to revive the city’s reputation and economy. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway, originally named the Fairmount Parkway, is now being dubbed the “Museum Mile,” and the 25-billion dollar Barnes collection–the very collection Barnes insisted remain in Merion–is the latest bait.

 

One cannot simply plunk a new building along a parkway and expect it to turn a bland strip into a dynamic destination capable of rejuvenating Philadelphia's creative economy. (Aerial view from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 20th Street. Photo by Tom Crane © The Barnes Foundation)

 

 

You’ll forgive me if I remain skeptical of the hyperbolic PR spin surrounding the Barnes. Everything about this project reeks of commercial repackaging–of the unfortunate trend of “museum as theme park.” (Looking south east at the new Barnes Foundation. Photo © 2012 Tom Crane)

 

Art for the People

During the collection’s controversial move to the Parkway, the city and foundation’s PR machine has been quick to emphasize the egalitarianism of moving the Barnes seven minutes down the road to the “Museum Mile.” Art for the people has been the ongoing mantra. Art for the people is a cause that is easy to rally behind, though no one involved in this controversial project has been able to agree on the best way to realize this goal. Is it through educational classes like the ones taught for decades in Merion? Is it through increased access and public programming? Do you bring the people to the art or the art to the people?

If you wade through the hyperbole—the political rhetoric, the rants of angry citizens and neighbors unhappy about the collection’s relocation, the foundation’s PR spin, and the conspiracy theories proposed in the fascinating documentary The Art of the Steal—if you can ignore this hype, certain things are clear.

The foundation could have been revitalized in its original location if the right people had been so inclined. There were valuable paintings in Barnes’ personal collection (not the foundation’s) that could have raised much needed funds for building repairs, new programming, and the endowment. And there are plenty of examples of outlying architectural and cultural gems who manage to serve their missions without taking the radical step of dismantling a collection or relocating. It’s true that Barnes’ restrictions needed to be loosened in some capacity, but to move the collection in its entirely was to take the most radical step of all.

Why not partner with a nearby institution, like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and shuttle visitors from one museum to the other? During the short ride, visitors could be educated about Barnes, his collection, the architecture, and his educational philosophy. I’m sure plenty of museum visitors would have welcomed the fresh air and gardens of Merion. One day, as we all become increasingly overwhelmed by the constant assault of noise, commercialism, and technology, I suspect that the cloistered retreat offered by the foundation’s original location in Merion will be in high demand. Unfortunately, the foundation has traded one of its most valuable resources–the refuge and uniqueness of its collection set amongst historic grounds, buildings, and gardens–for the glamor of a $150 million dollar building and the almighty cultural tourist dollar.

 

 

 

The Barnes Foundation has traded one of its most valuable resources--the refuge and uniqueness of its collection set amongst historic grounds, buildings, and gardens--for the glamor of a $150 million dollar building and the almighty cultural tourist dollar. (Photo: Barnes protest sign courtesy outofordermag.com)

 

 

This 1926 painting of Albert C. Barnes by Giorgio de Chirico was on display in the special exhibit area of the new museum.

I won’t recount the entire controversy here (you can watch The Art of the Steal). Long story short, certain politicians and cultural institutions saw that the Barnes Foundation was floundering and took advantage of the opportunity. The foundation’s neighbors in Merion exacerbated the situation by complaining about noise and traffic, but quickly changed their minds when their community gem was at risk of being dismantled. They didn’t want the Barnes, but then they did. By the time they changed their minds and launched a SAVE THE BARNES campaign, it was too late. By then, the cultural machine had a well-crafted narrative ready. Liberate the art and bring it to the people! It was the perfect propaganda, for even Barnes himself believed in education and access first and foremost.

Perusing the Barnes Foundation’s PR materials reveals a carefully orchestrated narrative:

“Dr. Barnes’s Last Will and Testament makes no stipulations about the installation of the Collection in Merion. Among its provisions, it simply restates Dr. Barnes’s prior gift of the Collection to the Foundation. It also addresses the gift of Dr. Barnes’s country estate Ker-Feal and other real estate to the Foundation.”

Seriously? Then what has all of the fuss been about and why did the relocation of the collection require a petition to the Montgomery County Orphans’ Court? I made careful note of the fact that the relocation controversy didn’t even merit a mention in the special exhibit gallery, which details the history of the Barnes Foundation, Barnes the man, and his educational philosophy. The foundation’s new book The Barnes Foundation: Masterworks (2012), which was selling like hotcakes in the museum gift shop, also fails to mention the relocation controversy.

 

I made careful note of the fact that the relocation controversy didn't even merit a mention in the special exhibit gallery, which details the history of the Barnes Foundation, Barnes the man, and his educational philosophy. The foundation's new book "The Barnes Foundation: Masterworks," which was selling like hotcakes in the museum gift shop, also fails to mention the relocation controversy. (Photo © Roger Barone)

 

 

A defaced Barnes protest sign on a lawn in Merion (Photo by William Thomas Ternay courtesy Postcards from Philly)

 

 

(Photo by William Thomas Ternay courtesy Postcards from Philly)

For the most part, it appears the PR campaign has been successful. Major critics like Peter Schjeldahl and Roberta Smith have declared the museum a success, and while I was visiting the Barnes, an old man in his 80s in an U.S. Air Force ball cap leaned against his daughter as he explored the new building. In the main room on the first floor I overheard him telling a story about attending classes at the foundation as a young man. Exhausted, he parked himself on a bench next to me and gazed up at Matisse’s The Dance on the south wall. “Well I’m glad they finally brought the art here where everyone can see it,” he said proudly. “It’s all too beautiful to be hidden away.”

The truth is that everything about the Barnes collection has been askew from the very beginning. It started with Barnes and his desire to stick it to Philadelphia’s cultural elite. He did this by collecting controversial modern art, opening his own school, limiting who could attend, and giving precedent to the working and middle classes over the wealthy and the famous. A second twist of the knife came when Barnes left his collection to Lincoln University, an historically African-American college. Though Barnes was friends with Horace Mann Bond, the university’s first black president, he also knew good and well that handing his valuable collection over to Lincoln was a way of  depriving Philadelphia’s art establishment. Intention is everything and the ripples caused by Barnes’ project were poisoned with ill-will from the start.

In the main room on the first floor I overheard an old man in an U.S. Air Force ball cap telling his daughter a story about attending classes at the foundation as a young man. Exhausted, he parked himself on a bench next to me and gazed up at Matisse's "The Dance" on the south wall. "Well I'm glad they finally brought the art here where everyone can see it," he said proudly. "It's all too beautiful to be hidden away." (Photo © Michael Moran courtesy of Architectural Record)

 

 

From the second floor galleries, visitors get a marvelous look at Matisse's "The Dance," which was tucked away and difficult to see in the old space. (Photo by Rick Echelmeyer © 2012 Barnes Foundation)

 

How (Not) to Reinvent a Cultural Institution

No institution, no parkway or city surrounding it, is fixed. Places, even the most historic ones, are dynamic and changing and shouldn’t be mothballed and left to fade into obscurity. Dioramas will be refurbished as style (and insect damage) dictates, plumbing will be upgraded, new pieces will be bought, and old pieces sold, text panels will morph into screens, and screens into projections, and the words on the wall will also change as new research requires revision to the official narrative. And this is just as it should be.

From 2009-2012 the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, perhaps the Barnes’ closest equivalent in the U.S., took the radical and controversial step of building a Renzo Piano addition to the museum in an effort to revitalize attendance and programming. The addition was contentious and required a visit to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, but the central difference between the Gardner Museum and the Barnes Foundation is that Gardner’s original vision and legacy remained intact. It is hard to imagine city and museum officials deciding to relocate the Gardner collection elsewhere, while leaving its original home vacant. It would be unthinkable.

There are many ways for an institution to recreate itself–some better than others. To separate artwork from its context is the worst sacrilege of all, particularly for an idiosyncratic collection like Barnes’, which was meant to be seen in a specific setting. It’s true that the foundation needed to be reinvented in some capacity, as well as stabilized financially. It needed more transparency and quality leadership capable of establishing priorities and reinventing the institution. But the idea that the collection was being held hostage or needed to be rescued is hyperbolic adspeak. After all, this isn’t World War II. There were no art-rabid Nazis or destructive dictators at the Barnes’ doorstep–only powerful political figures who saw that the Barnes Foundation, in its weakened condition, was ripe for the picking.

 

The best art and architecture is by nature radical and unconventional in some respect---if not radical politically, then radical to the senses. Barnes' collection was the most radical art collection of its day and the building he created it for it was carefully designed to showcase this unique, original work. (Photo: Room 23, West Wall © 2012 The Barnes Foundation)

 

 

Henri Rousseau, "Woman Walking in an Exotic Forest (Femme se promenant dans un forêt exotique)," 1905. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 3/4 in. (100 x 80.6 cm). (Photo: © 2012 The Barnes Foundation)

Barnes’ restrictions handicapped the institution from the start. As Panero details, Barnes “limited the salaries of the foundation’s employees without mechanisms that could account for inflation. He restricted any changes to the collection or to the facility’s grounds. Perhaps most importantly, he restricted the investment of the foundation’s endowment, restrictions to which the Old Guard scrupulously adhered. During Barnes’ lifetime, the indenture granted that the endowment could be invested in ‘any good securities.’ After his death, however, the corpus could only be invested in federal, state, and municipal bonds. Over time, this restriction severely eroded the endowment.” The inflationary decades after Barnes’ death dealt a further blow to the endowment. According to Panero, by the early 1970s, says former Girard banker and Barnes trustee David Rawson, the endowment “had lost money.”

Here is Panero:

“Repeatedly, Rawson made recommendations for the foundation to file a petition in the Orphans’ Court of Pennsylvania to allow the endowment to be invested in a more diversified portfolio, including securities, rather than exclusively in public bonds. While this would be contrary to Barnes’ stated wishes, such a move, he maintained, was the only way the endowment could keep up with an inflationary climate that Barnes had not anticipated while crafting his indenture.

In retrospect, it may appear unfortunate for the foundation that the other trustees voted these motions down. According to this line of thinking, the board’s decision may have honored the letter of Barnes’ indenture, but it imperiled the collection by not allowing the endowment to keep pace with the foundation’s operational needs. The early trustees appear to have preserved the rules of the bylaws at the expense of the collection and the overall health of the foundation. It seems like a reversal of priorities.”

 

"During Barnes’ lifetime, the indenture granted that the endowment could be invested in 'any good securities.' After his death, however, the corpus could only be invested in federal, state, and municipal bonds. Over time, this restriction severely eroded the endowment." (Photo of Albert C. Barnes courtesy The Barnes Foundation)

 

 

The cultural machine had a well-crafted narrative ready. Liberate the art and bring it to the people! It was the perfect propaganda, for even Barnes himself believed in education and access first and foremost. (Photo: Room 6, East Wall. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. © 2012 Tom Crane courtesy The Barnes Foundation)

When the relocation of the Barnes collection finally reached the courts, the foundation’s future was placed in the hands of one man, Judge Stanley Ott.

The best art and architecture is by nature radical and unconventional in some respect—if not radical politically, then radical to the senses (think of Picasso’s Guernica, Matisse’s The Dance, or Frank Gehry’s museum in Bilbao.) Barnes’ collection was the most radical art collection of its day and the building he created it for it was carefully designed to showcase this unique, original work.

But with a simple court ruling, Judge Ott undermined Barnes’ singular  vision with something more pernicious than dismantling the collection or forever embalming it in Merion. Middle ground was Ott’s solution. A compromise that neither left Barnes’ legacy intact nor liberated it from its strictures. Judge Otto ruled that the collection could be moved but insisted that the layout and design of the original galleries, including Barnes’ eccentric ensembles, be recreated in Williams and Tsien’s new building. Otto’s decision has now saddled the city of Philadelphia with a recreation–a fake version of Merion’s original galleries tucked inside a modern shell. As Christopher Hawthorne writes in Architectural Record, “the galleries suggest a high-culture, painstaking version of Disneyfication.”

Architects Tsien and Williams were left with their hands tied. Their difficult challenge was to create something original and spectacular within the limitations set by the judge. Not an easy task. The architects were also publicly criticized for accepting the Barnes commission. “People made snide comments to us,” Tsien told the Inquirer. “There was a shocking amount of animosity.”

 

Le Bonheur de vivre Room. Tsien and Williams excel at architectural details like the flooring seen here. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. (Photo © 2012 Tom Crane courtesy The Barnes Foundation)

 

 

"The loveliest feature on the outside of the new building is the wooden, white-oak windows, modeled after the original building in Merion." (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

A Museum with No Front

As I cross the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and make my way to the sidewalk, I take in the front of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s new building. The loveliest feature is the wooden, white-oak windows, modeled after the original building in Merion, but the “front” of the new Barnes Museum is really a facade, for no one is going to be entering or exiting the new building from the Parkway. If city planners are still hoping to revitalize foot traffic by building shops, restaurants, and other small structures there, then the museum’s design is a blow against the idea. In Albert Barnes’ day, auto-friendly, landscaped parkways were in fashion, but we have since learned that multi-lane highways built for speed, no matter how attractive the landscaping, are not very inviting to pedestrians. The new Barnes was a rare opportunity to engage the city’s foot traffic. Unfortunately, the designers failed to put down the welcome mat.

The architects conceived of the building as having four sides rather than a traditional front and a back. To the south on the Parkway, the building is surrounded by landscaped gardens, which are still under construction. To the east, along 20th Street, an entry canopy allows drop-off by taxi, car, or shuttle. To the northeast, sits an entry gate and free-standing, glass ticket booth. The unattractive west side of the site is used for a loading dock and a central utility plant. Along the north is the vast parking lot, which Barnes Foundation trustees insisted be part of the design after facing so many parking controversies at the Merion location. The 76-car parking lot has 3 electric charging stations, 4 handicapped parking spaces, 5 carpooling spaces and 5 energy-efficient-vehicle parking spaces, but discourages pedestrian access from the street, detracts from the overall design, and cuts the new museum off from the city.

 

Along the north is the vast parking lot, which Barnes Foundation trustees insisted be part of the design after facing so many parking controversies at the Merion location. The 76-car parking lot has 3 electric charging stations, 4 handicapped parking spaces, 5 carpooling spaces and 5 energy-efficient-vehicle parking spaces, but discourages pedestrian access from the street, detracts from the overall design, and cuts the new museum off from the city. (Photo courtesy The Barnes Foundation Philadelphia. © 2012 Tom Crane)

 

 

The architects conceived of the building as having four sides rather than a traditional front and a back. I found that the prominent metal gates surrounding the building unwelcoming. (Photo © The Barnes Foundation)

The architects chose to place the replicated galleries in the same orientation as they were in Merion, meaning the new gallery windows would face south,  just like the original windows did. The architects argue that a four-sided building allowed them to move visitors through the galleries in the order that Barnes originally intended. “The decision seemed a blatant violation of Urban Planning 101,” writes architecture critic Inga Saffron. “Williams, however, defends the solution. ‘We wanted there to be a delay in the procession,’ he explained. ‘I’ll go down in flames on the rightness of the idea.'”

But a building without a front creates new challenges for visitors. While all of the entrances eventually lead to the reflecting pool and specially commissioned sculpture The Barnes Totem by Ellsworth Kelly standing at Neubauer Plaza, I suffered several moments of confusion when I spied the glass ticket booth partially hidden behind the plaza sign, wondering if it was necessary to leave the main courtyard and then return again.

 

A building without a front creates new challenges for visitors. While all of the entrances eventually lead to the reflecting pool and specially commissioned sculpture The Barnes Totem by Ellsworth Kelly standing at Neubauer Plaza, I suffered several moments of confusion when I spied the glass ticket booth partially hidden behind the plaza sign, wondering if it was necessary to leave the main courtyard and then return again. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

The museum's interior is stronger than the outside, which is mausoleum-like in appearance. The landscape design also left me unimpressed, though to be fair to Laurie Olin, the plants are young and the work isn't finished. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

The design of the museum’s interior is stronger than the outside, which is mausoleum-like in appearance. The patchwork of squares on the building’s exterior made of fossilized, Israeli limestone is meant to mimic the patterning found in African Kuba cloths, while the deep stainless steel recesses between the stone panels are reminiscent of the ornamental metal objects that Barnes included in his ensembles. The limestone, called Ramon Gray, is also a nod to Paul Phillipe Cret’s original material selection of a French limestone for the Merion Gallery. Each stone super-panel weighs approximately 4,800 pounds. It sounds good in theory, but unfortunately, the idea is better than reality.

The building is slated to achieve LEED Platinum certification from the United States Green Building Council (though 110 shipping containers were needed to bring the limestone across the Atlantic Ocean, a fact I doubt was factored into the building’s overall carbon footprint).

The landscape design also left me unimpressed, though to be fair to Laurie Olin, the plants are young and the work isn’t finished. The 140-foot-long tabletop fountain made from solid Canadian black granite was not completed during my visit, which left visitors with no outdoor seating or gathering space. I resorted to sitting awkwardly on the lawn and jotting down notes about the metal gates nearby. Like the parking lot, I found the proliferation of utilitarian-looking gates unwelcoming.

 

The patchwork of squares on the building's exterior made of fossilized, Israeli limestone is meant to mimic the patterning found in African Kuba cloths, while the deep stainless steel recesses between the stone panels are reminiscent of the ornamental metal objects that Barnes included in his ensembles. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

The 140-foot-long tabletop fountain made from solid Canadian black granite was not completed during my visit, which left visitors with no outdoor seating or gathering space. I resorted to sitting awkwardly on the lawn and jotting down notes about the metal gates nearby. (Fountain Rendering © 2012 The Barnes Foundation

As Inga Saffron points out in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “the hard truth is that the architects sacrificed the street for the collection. Olin’s entry garden, at 20th and the Parkway, is the Barnes’ attempt to compensate the city for the loss. The centerpiece will be an elevated water table dotted with water lilies where the public can sit. Two rows of lacy conifers already give the gentle climb up to the Callowhill entrance the feel of a mountain pilgrimage, with the old Granary looming above like a summit crag. Though lovely, it’s unlikely to become a locus of activity.” We’ll have to wait and see.

The 200-foot-long reflecting pool laid out behind Ellsworth Kelly’s bland sculpture is a lovely addition and contrasts nicely with the limestone and red maples lining the walkway. The pool is approximately 6” deep and covered in gray, polished Mexican beach pebbles that give the surface a dark luminous. This water feature is interrupted at two points, first at a “bridge” that leads visitors to the front doors and again when it tucks beneath a cantilevered concrete wall to flow into the sheltered restaurant garden. The pool fools the eye and appears to be at the same level as the sidewalk. It is a skillful touch–one that gave me the sense that I was floating as I entered the museum.

The 200-foot-long reflecting pool laid out behind Ellsworth Kelly's bland sculpture is a lovely addition and contrasts nicely with the limestone and red maples lining the walkway. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

The pool is approximately 6” deep and covered in gray, polished Mexican beach pebbles that give the surface a dark luminous. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

The pool is interrupted at a “bridge” that leads visitors to the front doors of museum. The pool fools the eye and appears to be at the same level as the sidewalk. It is a skillful touch--one that gave me the sense that I was floating as I entered the museum. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

Interior Details that Sing

Once inside, the design improves. Williams and Tsien excel at the use of textures. The floors in the Barnes are particularly striking. The nearly 200-foot-long ipe wood “rug” in the massive light court is laid in a herringbone pattern from reclaimed boards taken from the renovation of Coney Island Boardwalks in Brooklyn, New York. I also loved the glimpses of the outdoor pool through a number of well-placed windows. One of the best examples is a small, horizontal window that appears at floor-level in the corner of the special exhibition gallery. The window and water view were so compelling that I immediately walked over to it, momentarily forgetting the art and photographs on the wall.

Williams and Tsien have followed the court’s order and duplicated the Merion galleries inside the new structure. But the architects have made a brilliant addition–small, glass-lined rooms that provide glimpses of a miniature garden while passing from one gallery to the next. Albert Barnes’ ensembles are so spectacular and overwhelming that this visual break offers a much-needed respite for the eyes. The architects’ idea to create “gallery in a garden, garden in a gallery” is entirely successful from an interior perspective. Adding education classrooms between galleries is also a useful design element.

 

Williams and Tsien have followed the court's order and duplicated the Merion galleries inside the new structure. But the architects have made a brilliant addition--small, glass-lined rooms that provide glimpses of a miniature garden while passing from one gallery to the next. (Photo The Barnes Foundation © 2012 Tom Crane)

 

 

The floors in the Barnes are particularly striking. The nearly 200-foot-long ipe wood “rug” in the massive light court is laid in a herringbone pattern from reclaimed boards taken from the renovation of Coney Island Boardwalks in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo: The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. © 2012 Tom Crane)

 

 

Williams and Tsien excel at the use of textures. I also loved the glimpses of the outdoor pool through a number of well-placed windows. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

The architects' idea to create “gallery in a garden, garden in a gallery” is entirely successful from an interior perspective. (Photo: Looking into the Gallery Garden and Library. The Barnes Foundation © 2012 Tom Crane)

With a few exceptions, the transitions the architects create when moving from room to room and space to space are memorable and show Williams and Tsien’s remarkable attention to detail. From the second floor galleries, visitors get a marvelous look at Matisse’s The Dance, which was tucked away and difficult to see in the old space. One notable exception…Several visitors, myself included, became disoriented on the mezzanine, which divides the first flight of stairs, leading to the second floor, from the second flight. The landing is filled with art and draws museum-goers away from the steps and to the platform. Somehow the second flight of stairs, which is dark and unassuming, becomes invisible in this process of looking at the art.

A group of us wandered back and forth trying to determine if there really was a second floor to the museum or not, and if so, how to get to it. I finally realized that the staircase had been hiding behind our backs all along. Curious if my group was alone in its confusion, I stood on the landing for a while watching new visitors arrive. One group of women climbed the first flight of steps, perused the art on the mezzanine, then turned around and headed back down the same stairwell. “Well, I guess that’s it,” one woman said as she headed back to the first floor.

 

Several visitors, myself included, became disoriented on the mezzanine, which divides the first flight of stairs, leading to the second floor, from the second flight. One group of women climbed the first flight of steps, perused the art on the mezzanine, then turned around and headed back down the same stairwell. "Well, I guess that's it," one woman said as she headed back to the first floor. (Photo courtesy Visit Philly)

 

 

The controlled, natural light that illuminates the upstairs rooms and massive light court makes the building's interior glow. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

"While the oversized light court offered me another needed break from the busy, cluttered galleries overflowing with breathtaking art, I felt adrift inside of it." (Photo © 2012 The Barnes Foundation)

Much has been written about the improved lighting in the new galleries, which is thoughtfully done. The controlled, natural light that illuminates the upstairs rooms and massive light court makes the building’s interior glow. While the oversized light court offered me another needed break from the busy, cluttered galleries overflowing with breathtaking art, I felt adrift inside of it. Sitting in the atrium, I imagined that this was how shipbuilders felt when working inside the empty hull of a massive luxury liner. But unlike a shipyard, the well-heeled passengers were already on-board at the Barnes. By the end of my visit, the light court had been transformed into a party scene, with a bar, live band, frilly orange table cloths and well-dressed men and women sipping wine and gin and tonics.

Now that the parties are over and the white, event tents have disappeared from the museum’s new lawn, critics like Lee Rosenbaum are beginning to question the new museum’s income-producing capabilities:

“Derek Gillman, the Barnes’ president and executive director, told me that his institution’s financial model calls for it to raise a hefty 60 percent of its estimated $14-million annual operating budget through attendance-dependent earned income—admissions, retail and restaurant sales, parking fees, etc. And while it wants to raise $100 million in endowment, it only had (as of May 16) some $30 million in hand, with another $30 million in pledges. This looks uncomfortably like a familiar but worrisome post-construction gambit: ‘If we build it, they’ll fund.'”

I sense a post-party hangover developing.

 

Sitting in the atrium, I imagined that this was how shipbuilders felt when working inside the empty hull of a massive luxury liner. But unlike a shipyard, the well-heeled passengers were already on-board at the Barnes. By the end of my visit, the light court had been transformed into a party scene, with a bar, live band, frilly orange table cloths and well-dressed men and women sipping wine and gin and tonics. (Photo: A cocktail reception in the Annenberg Court © 2012 The Barnes Foundation)

 

 

There is no denying that the Barnes Foundation collection is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. (Photo: Vincent van Gogh, "The Postman (Joseph-Étienne Roulin)," 1889. Oil on canvas, 25 7/8 x 21 3/4 in. (65.7 x 55.2 cm). © 2012 The Barnes Foundation)

 

A Multi-Million-Dollar Jewel Box

There is no denying that the Barnes Foundation collection is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. (I”ll be writing more about the collection itself in an upcoming post). In this age of massive installations and art-as-spectacle, the Barnes collection is a reminder that art can still be a personal, intimate experience. I can’t remember having such a deep and moving encounter with art in my lifetime. It’s not only the Cezannes, Modrians, and Matisses that will take your breath away, but also smaller works by lesser known artists like Horace Pippin, Kaldis, Settani, and Ortega.

It’s true that Barnes’ ensembles can be overwhelming to the eye and don’t always work as a whole, but one of the advantages to his arrangement is the lack of text panels. Their absence means that museum-goers actually take the time to look at the art itself, instead of heading straight for the explanation. I spent many enjoyable hours sitting on Stephen Lino’s walnut benches studying various paintings. The Benches double as housing for information cards for each gallery. In the first floor gallery classroom, a massive 13-foot-long walnut table, made from one sheet of wood, serves students and visitors who wish to pause and explore the collection catalogs or discuss the experience of viewing the collection. But more about the Barnes collection in my next post.

 

I spent many enjoyable hours sitting on Stephen Lino's walnut benches studying various paintings. The Benches double as housing for information cards for each gallery. (Photo: Room 18, north west view. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. © 2012 Tom Crane)

 

 

 

In this age of massive installations and art-as-spectacle, the Barnes collection is a reminder that art can still be a personal, intimate experience. I can’t remember having such a deep and moving encounter with art in my lifetime. (Photo: Amedeo Modigliani, "Redheaded Girl in Evening Dress (Jeune fille rousse en robe de soir)," 1918. Oil on canvas, 45 3/4 x 28 3/4 in. © 2012 The Barnes Foundation)

While the city of Philadelphia has gained a multimillion dollar jewel-box on its Parkway, it has lost an historic art institution, one with a unique blend of art, horticulture, and architecture.

The construction of an expensive, new museum may attract tourists who are willing to spend $18 on admission, but it is unlikely to be a magnet for artists, particularly with the Parkway’s lack of smaller shops, restaurants, and affordable housing. One cannot simply plunk a new building along a parkway and expect it to turn a bland strip into a dynamic destination capable of rejuvenating Philadelphia’s creative economy.

To create a remarkable and dynamic neighborhood requires an organic mix of creative individuals from various social classes. It requires affordable living and studio space, accessible events, restaurants with varying price points, gallery space for established and emerging artists, small businesses, and a true sense of community. Consider the difference between midtown Manhattan and neighborhoods like the West Village, Lower East Side, or Bushwick and you see a striking example of what kind of organic diversity is needed to build a lively creative economy.

Just next door, the Free Library of Philadelphia is offering one of the best reading and lecture series in the country (its podcast is available for free). If the Barnes Foundation can follow suit and reach out to the community by providing free and affordable concerts, classes, outreach events, lectures, etc. it has a better chance of having a lasting impact on the cultural landscape in Philadelphia.

And let me be clear–by “community” I mean a diverse segment of Philadelphia’s population–one that encompasses both racial and income diversity. After all, this was the whole point of Barnes establishing his foundation in the first place. He would be horrified to learn that his collection had become the hip, new venue on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The very idea of a “Museum Mile” is against everything Barnes stood for. The city, the media, and the Barnes Foundation’s PR machine will continue to tout the new museum’s accessibility. But at $18 a ticket, accessible to whom? Art for the people? Which people?

You’ll forgive me if I remain skeptical of the hyperbolic PR spin surrounding the Barnes. Everything about this project reeks of commercial repackaging–of the unfortunate trend of “museum as theme park.” In the process of relocating this stunning collection of artwork to fake period rooms, the re-branded Barnes Foundation has not only become a shell of its former self, but it has lost something valuable it’s unlikely to ever regain: its authenticity.

 

The very idea of a "Museum Mile" is against everything Barnes stood for. The city, the media, and the Barnes Foundation's PR machine will continue to tout the new museum's accessibility. But at $18 a ticket, accessible to whom? Art for the people? Which people? (Photo courtesy The Barnes Foundation)

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