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The new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia
The new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia

BARNES FOUNDATION PREVIEW

Apr. 6, 2012

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The public-relations army behind the controversial new Barnes Foundation, which opens next month in a $100 million building in Philadelphia, was in full force during a preview luncheon at Manhattan’s Le Bernardin on Apr. 4, 2012.

For those unfamiliar with the saga, the cantankerous doctor Albert C. Barnes launched the foundation in Merion, Pa., in 1922 to showcase his superb collection of 800 post-Impressionist and modern artworks, estimated now to be worth some $25 billion. Barnes, ever the antiestablishmentarian, stipulated in his will that the collection never be loaned, rearranged, open to the public or moved from the building.

But, as documented in the movie The Art of the Steal (2009), a consortium of outside forces, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the city’s tourism board, came together to relocate the collection to the new building. The trouble began when a number of detractors saw this as a betrayal of the collector’s legacy. A self-styled group named Friends of the Barnes Foundation launched a lawsuit to keep the collection in the suburbs, but a judge ruled against them in 2005.

Thus, the events surrounding the opening of the new 93,000-square-foot “campus” -- Barnes considered his foundation a school first and foremost -- have been painstakingly cautious. The museum, now located on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, is replicating Barnes’ particular, bunched method of hanging the paintings -- in accord with the judge’s ruling -- and has already installed his specially commissioned mural Le Danse (1933) by Henri Matisse.

Masterpieces by the likes of Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Vincent van Gogh are supposedly being transported to the institution now, although details are so secretive that one guest at the event, a Philadelphia resident, said, “you’d think it was a nuclear battle site.” She’d been curiously watching for trucks but finally concluded that they must be coming at night or, she joked, via tunnels.

Few aspects of the homey, neoclassical Barnes building remain in the new modernist design. The architecture firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien imported limestone from Israel to build the blocky, neo-Brutalist two-story building, which includes an auditorium, a conservation lab, a library and a gift shop.

A 40-foot tall Ellsworth Kelly sculpture, The Barnes Totem, has been commissioned to stand at the end of a maple-lined walkway, and landscape architect Laurie Olin designed elaborate gardens both outside and in an interior courtyard. “The problem with Merion was that there wasn’t a strong relationship between the Impressionist art and the gardens,” even though the subject matter of the era was routinely inspired by these outdoor spaces, Olin said.

Another big difference is light. The old Barnes building was notoriously dim, so the architects wanted to make sunlight and outdoor views a central feature of the new museum. Now, Billie Tsien says that the first time she saw Matisse’s dancers in the new space, she cried. “I felt like the painting moved 20 feet closer to my eyes. It had never really been lit before,” she said. “It looks like the paintings have been cleaned. They haven’t really, you’re just able to see them now for the first time.”

To date the foundation has raised $50 million for its endowment. “We’re one of the largest membership organizations in the country,” said executive director and president Derek Gillman, adding, “We have enormous public support.”

The latter claim remains to be seen -- protestors have mobbed Barnes events before -- but time will tell come May 19, 2012, when the Barnes opens to the public for the first time.

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The original Barnes Foundation in Merion, Penn.
The original Barnes Foundation in Merion, Penn.