Next weekend, the Barnes Foundation officially opens a new museum on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The art has moved into a new home, where there is space for temporary and traveling exhibitions. There is a very fine new catalogue with reproductions of many of the foundation’s most important works, and there will be parties galore.
Barnes, a curmudgeon and a misanthrope who fancied himself a great arts educator, would be livid. But the rest of the world can breathe a sigh of relief. The inestimably valuable Barnes Collection, with its dozens of Matisses, Cezannes and Picassos, has reached a happy end after a long saga, now safely installed in well-lighted galleries, in an appealing new building and surrounded by gardens that integrate it lovingly into Philadelphia’s showplace avenue. Up the hill is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and next door is the small but exquisite Rodin Museum, making the parkway one of the great art destinations in the world. (The old Barnes campus will be used for the foundation’s horticulture program, offices, archives and the renowned Barnes Arboretum, which reopens to the public later this summer.)
The story of the Barnes Foundation has been told in books, on the news, and in a well-traveled but tendentious 2009 documentary, “The Art of the Steal.” It has been the subject of court cases and legal wrangling, and remains for a core group of supporters who wanted the collection to remain in Merion a subject of bitter lamentation. The short version is a sad tale: Over the years, the Barnes Foundation suffered neglect and mismanagement, was hampered by the limitations of its indenture, was unable to sustain itself financially and needed an infusion of funds; that money came from large Philadelphia foundations on the condition that the collection be made more accessible to the public, which necessitated its move to a new facility.
Old-time Barnes supporters, especially the lucky few who had ready access to the collection in its previous home, see this as a power play, or naked theft. Others see it as a necessary evolution of the foundation, which for decades focused exclusively on its students and maintained strict limits on the number of outside visitors it allowed in. The new Barnes, they argue, remains still largely true to the founder’s desire to further “the promotion of the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts.”
From a purely architectural point of view, visitors will be happier seeing the art in its new home. Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, a New York-based husband-and-wife team whose refined and crafted work is renowned for coaxing new power out of the old planes and boxes of minimalism, have solved the biggest design challenge: how to reproduce the same scale and flow of galleries from the old Barnes within a modern museum replete with the usual amenities, including a cafe, classrooms, offices, a theater and conservation space.