Barnes Foundation’s new Philadelphia museum, reviewed
By Philip Kennicott,
PHILADELPHIA — If you believe the dead linger and keep tabs on the living, then it’s safe to say that Albert Barnes is spinning in his grave. When the wealthy art collector was killed in a car crash in 1951, he left behind an enormously rich art collection, to be tended in perpetuity by a foundation he had set up in 1922. Among the many stipulations in the organization’s original bylaws was a strict prohibition on moving any of the art he had acquired from where it was placed in the private gallery designed by the great architect Paul Cret, in Merion, Pa., outside of Philadelphia.
He also forbade the exhibition of any art that wasn’t his, put a perpetual kibosh on “any society functions commonly designated receptions, tea parties, dinners, banquets, dances, musicales or similar affairs,” and refused to allow copies to be made of the works he had rapaciously collected from the greatest artists of his day.
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.
From the beginning, they were mandated to replicate the layout of the original Cret building, finished in 1925. That meant the likelihood of an architectural absurdity: a classically proportioned traditional suite of cramped galleries conjoined to something contemporary, like a man in coat and tie wearing 200-year-old knee breeches. But, perhaps inspired by the emerging tendency to a stripped-down classicism in Cret’s original building, the architects have managed to reproduce the distilled essence of the old spaces without them seeming dissonant with the new ones.
The building consists of a long, L-shaped pavilion (housing the cafe, temporary exhibition and office space), a central, extended rectangular court topped by a giant, glass-covered light box, and the galleries, which front onto the parkway. Visitors enter off a side street, through a gatehouse, and cross over a plane of water into the main pavilion. The central court, quietly animated by panels of limestone, sets the galleries apart and offers the long, uninterrupted vistas that Cret’s warren of small rooms refuses.
During a tour of the museum in February, the architects spoke of the temptation, ultimately resisted, to alter the proportions of the rooms. Given that the paintings have been re-hung in exactly the layout that Barnes left them, it wasn’t possible to squeeze in a little more room here or there without altering how the art relates to basic proportions of the room. But the architects did blow in some air by creating a light well and garden and inserting classroom space so that galleries that once connected directly to each other are now joined by short hallways. The garden well is a particularly welcome addition: Natural light is essential to resuscitating the over-taxed mind of the art lover.
Inside the galleries, Cret’s details have been whittled down to their essentials, rather like the architect was doing more generally in his work, circa 1925-’30. Molding around doorways has been simplified, and a carved frieze that ran around the double-height main gallery has been given a spare, modernist reinterpretation. In the upper galleries, eight new clerestories bring natural light into rooms that were once infamously tenebrous. In the old building, the art was protected from damaging sunlight with heavy curtains; light-filtering glass now allows ready visual access to the outside world, with external sunshades available when necessary. The result is a museum that maintains the scale and basic flow of the old space, and strictly honors Barnes’s eccentric and claustrophobic artistic juxtapositions, yet feels somehow larger and more open.
There are, of course, a few oddities. A large painting by Matisse, created for the arched spaces above the windows in the main gallery, has been reinstalled, with two strange gaps at either end where the old molding once was. There are plans to rectify that by fitting notched pieces into holes. In one gallery, there is a bit of empty space on the generally cluttered, burlap-covered walls, where once there was a fire extinguisher. Heating and cooling systems have been invisibly fitted in, so louvered panels no longer interrupt the heavy wooden baseboards.
And then there is the lovable or frustrating eccentricity — it is possible to hold both opinions simultaneously — of the Barnes Collection itself. Matisse is chockablock with folk art and French and Dutch landscapes, Gauguin and Seurat hem in a 15th-century religious painting, and second-rate Renoirs are scattered about as if Barnes wanted to pack his real treasures in cotton candy. Barnes was breaking now mostly forgotten rules and hierarchies in the hidebound world of art collecting and museum display, emphasizing formal relations without regard to a painting’s perceived status or value.
But it is exhausting after a while, and while the new catalogue carefully details the likely thinking in the quixotic display, it’s easy to conclude that Barnes was a crank, and susceptible to an over-clever preciousness. The stylistic dissonance may have been liberating when it was new — and artists such as Matisse admired Barnes’s vision — but today it feels like a congealed cacophony, and one room begins to feel very much like the next. It is a museum best dipped into and out of, sampled and digested rather than stuffed in whole.
In a century, visitors may wonder at the oddity of a building designed to be so faithful to the vision of long-forgotten art lover. By then, one hopes that the world will have given up the silly conceit that a collector’s whims are somehow equivalent to artistic creation, that in the words of a Barnes friend and early trustee, “the collector is the artist.” While there is historical interest in the cultural practice of collecting, elevating the collector’s arrangement of paintings to sacred status is mere flattery to over-flattered plutocracy.
And so it would have made more sense to be done with Barnes’s bizarre arrangement of his art and let it live and breathe in a new context. But that wasn’t gong to happen. There was too much rancor about the move itself, and the change to his foundation to entirely abandon the master’s curious imprint on the art. Given those limitations, it’s hard to imagine a better building to contain this lively jangling of new and old, and greatness and mediocrity. Sometimes form follows function, and sometimes it reflects the odd twists and turns of history.
2025 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy., Philadelphia. Opens Saturday. 215-278-7000. www.barnesfoundation.org. Timed admission $18; seniors $15; students $10; age 5 and younger free. Advance purchase recommended.