The re-opening of The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia has been one of the most talked about happenings in the international art world for many years. For the grand opening week, in mid-May, I was invited to the press preview to discover the new Barnes Foundation. A controversial relocation and redevelopment has divided critics, art lovers and locals, however, it was a pleasant surprise to see just how good the new campus looks.
The Barnes was founded in 1922 by Dr Albert C. Barnes, a chemist who made his money by co-developing a revolutionary drug, thus selling his company to pursue his passion for art. The institute was originally located in Merrion, a suburb of Philadelphia, with the view to ‘promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts and horticulture’.
The uncompromising Dr. Barnes had a profound distaste for the Philadelphia art establishment and rejected the typical ‘museum’ concept, from his unique presentation of artworks to limited access for visitors. Art and education were free and there for all to experience, but effort was required and rewarded.
In the 1990s, The Barnes hit operational difficulty, due to zoning restrictions, and the foundation went to court to overturn Dr. Barnes’ wishes for the collection to remain at Merrion. They succeeded and so began the $150 million transformation of The Barnes into an accessible new gallery in the heart of Philadelphia, on Benjamin Franklin Parkway (also known as ‘museum mile’). The Barnes is now in the close company of the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art, Franklin Institute, Academy of Natural Sciences, Please Touch Museum, Free Library of Philadelphia and the soon to re-open Rodin Museum.
The stunning new 93,000-square-foot Philadelphia campus was designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. The building features a textured grey and gold Negev limestone exterior on a stainless steel skin with bronze accents. It occupies a four-and-a-half-acre site with landscape design by OLIN. The red maple trees and shallow pools surrounding the walkway give it a sense of calm and tranquillity.
The Barnes is world renowned as having one of the finest collections of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist paintings. Dr. Barnes amassed an impressive number of paintings by the great European and American masters such as Matisse, Cézanne, Renoir, Picasso, Modigliani, Glackens and Pippin.
Also in the collection are ancient and African sculptures, Native American ceramics, jewellery and textiles and Pennsylvania German decorative arts (curated alongside the paintings with an admittedly bizarre sense of logic).
In contrast to the minimalist building, the presentation and order of the works has remained reverently untouched. The paintings are still scattered (almost like a Pinterest board) in Dr. Barnes’ meticulous manner on a beige background, rejecting the typical white wall and minimal spacing of a regular gallery. The only exception is that state of the art lighting has been used to bring out the true colours of the artworks, as though they have been cleaned.
The Barnes maintains its horticultural legacy by being a ‘gallery within a garden and a garden within a gallery’. Dr. Barnes believed in the strong interplay between art and nature, so glass-covered internal gardens break up the rooms, partly so that the art doesn’t become overwhelming.
It also continues its commitment to education with comfortable, well-equipped classrooms, seminar rooms, 150-seat auditorium and a library. Special exhibitions will soon feature and a summer programme of events, workshops, lectures and tours has been planned. A talk that caught my attention on 18 July is called “No Thanks!” Artwork That Dr. Barnes Chose Not to Buy or Keep – discussing why he rejected Van Gogh’s Starry Night and why at one time he wanted to trade away Matisse’s Seated Riffian.
In addition to this, Free First Sundays offers free admission to The Barnes every first Sunday of the month from 1pm-6pm (advance reservations are required).
Timed admissions will help to control the number of visitors and maintain The Barnes as a place of contemplation and uninterrupted study. Considering that the original Barnes allowed a maximum of 500 visitors for only two and a half days per week, with telephone reservations required at least two weeks in advance, this is a monumental development.
The Barnes has now developed a more social aspect with visitors being able to dine at The Garden Restaurant and The Coffee Bar and shop for arty gifts at The Barnes Shop. Barnes at Night also sees the gallery open until 10pm on a Friday evening with live music. This seems like the biggest blow to the wishes of Dr. Barnes, but at least the gallery will come alive and reflect the energy and vibrancy of Philadelphia.
The Merrion Campus continues to be home to the Foundation’s education programs and the Archives. The Barnes Arboretum, containing more than 2000 species/varieties of trees, is set to re-open to the public in autumn 2012, following extensive renovation.
Without having seen the original Barnes, it’s difficult to adopt a firm viewpoint on the transformation. It’s a question of whether the public interest and preservation of these historical artworks should outweigh the collector’s life-long wishes. Context aside, The Barnes Foundation is a spectacular building with an enviable art collection. It strengthens Philadelphia’s position as the ‘city of the moment’ for arts and culture.
For more information on Philadelphia’s arts and culture scene, please visit: www.philadelphiaUSA.travel
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