It’s the only Philadelphia area attraction listed in the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. It isn’t the Liberty Bell, the Rocky Steps or dear ol’ Penn. It’s The Barnes Foundation, a little-known art gallery in Merion, a Main Line suburb. Despite the Barnes’ auspicious place on this all-encompassing bucket list, it has remained an esoteric treasure trove of modernist art largely due to restrictions placed on the number of visitors the gallery can accommodate.
The collection consists of $6 billion (yes, billion) dollars worth of art. Among the pieces are 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 44 Picassos and an array of African masks and rustic door hinges. Albert Barnes, an early-20th-century rags-to-riches millionaire, served as collector and curator, arranging the pieces himself, bringing a palpable idiosyncratic spirit to the whole place. To this day, each painting, door hinge and sculpture is exactly the way Barnes left it.
In his founding charter, Barnes imagined the foundation as a vessel for teaching rather than as a museum. He limited public admission to two days per week, dedicating the rest of the week to student exploration — a noble declaration, but untenable in this day and age. Given the limit on visitors (now mandated by Lower Merion Township zoning restrictions), the current Foundation says it can only survive if it makes a controversial move to Philadelphia.
In 2004, a judge ruled that moving the foundation, while in direct violation of the Barnes’s founding charter, was the only way to save it from bankruptcy. At the time, three Philadelphia foundations pledged to fund the move. They raised the required $150 million in just two years, and are now aiming to collect another $50 million for an education endowment conceived in the spirit of Barnes’ original vision.
In bypassing its charter, the Foundation will lose a great deal of authenticity. I headed out there to experience Barnes’ whimsical vision before it was too late. And in light of my visit, I realize more than ever how significant Barnes’s arrangements are. Unlike contemporary galleries, which isolate each painting with a sea of white walls, at the Barnes, each wall is crammed with art. We can see Cezanne’s heavy hand against luminescent Renoirs which sit in contrast with ancient Egyptian bas-reliefs and medieval door hinges. The apparent chaos is actually the result of Barnes’ exacting classification system, which breaks each painting down in to color, light and form.
Yet my visit also revealed something that the protesters and media do not talk about — all of the care that goes in to protecting the collection. A citizen army of dedicated staff and volunteers is our insurance. Forgive the Allstate reference, but I trust that the Barnes is in good hands. Rather than burying the foundation in litigation, as a number of groups have, perhaps we could view the move a little more sympathetically.
I have faith in the newly chosen architects Tsien and Williams (their Skirkanich Hall is my favorite contemporary building in the city); and I take solace in the fact that the 2004 court ruling requires that the new galleries will replicate the scale, proportion and configuration of the original Merion galleries — a major design challenge, but one Tsien and Williams are certainly up to.
The new design will expand the Barnes educational endeavors with seminar and presentation rooms. Meanwhile, the historic home and arboretum in Merion will serve as research and administrative offices. Rather than diluting the Barnes, these changes will elevate the foundation from an underappreciated gallery to a world-class destination that will contribute to Philadelphia and the wider artistic community.
While I still urge everyone to make the short trip to Merion before the Barnes moves, I can’t in good conscience add my voice to the mob of naysayers. I understand these critics love the wonderfully quirky aspects of the current location. These aspects also captured my imagination. But in condemning the Foundation, we hinder it. And in times like these, when cultural institutions are closing doors and limiting hours, perhaps it is a good thing that the Barnes is opening its collection to a wider audience.
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