Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Barnes Foundation's New Facility

By Charles Kessler

The Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania (photo by Dmadeo)
In 1922 Dr. Albert Barnes, who made a fortune developing and selling Argyrol, an antiseptic silver compound used in the prevention of infant blindness, created a foundation to promote the appreciation of art, philosophy and horticulture. As an art collector he was far ahead of his time, and he managed to put together one of the best art collections in the world. Because he hated Philadelphia society, he built his museum and school in Merion Pennsylvania, a suburb about five miles outside of the city. To see his museum you needed to make a reservation months in advance because it was only open to a limited number of people, and only for two days a week. Going there felt like going on a pilgrimage to someplace rare and special.  (The New York Times has a virtual tour of the interior of the original building that gives you some idea of the place.)
Interior of the Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania. 
Barnes had a lot of eccentric ideas about art and the teaching of art. He arranged his collection into “ensembles” based on the formal characteristics of the work (space, line, color) rather than chronology, geography or style; and, in keeping with his egalitarian beliefs, he mixed hardware and metal ornaments in with the fine art. After he died in 1951, serious problems arose because Barnes’s trust cast these eccentric ideas in stone in perpetuity. Any changes to the arrangement of the collection or to the facility’s grounds — restrictions very like the Gardner's in Boston — were prohibited. And even worse, he put some unwise financial declarations in his will which, over time, shrank the endowment to the point that the foundation couldn’t maintain the building and collection.

In the face of raging opposition that still persists, the Barnes Foundation got court approval to move the collection from Merion to Philadelphia. In support of the move, local charitable foundations (some of which had been established by the very people Dr. Barnes hated with a passion) pledged millions of dollars to build a new space and create a substantial endowment. Last May the Foundation moved the collection to a new building — a building-within-a-building really. Inside a larger building, they constructed a detailed replica of the interior of the original Barnes museum with the collection installed exactly the same way it was in Merion with a very few changes. Surrounding this replica is a lobby, a large court, a bookstore, library, offices, and plentiful parking.
The new Barnes Foundation building as seen from Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 20th Street.
There are many good reasons why breaking the Barnes trust was a bad idea. An article in Philanthropy Roundtable claims, "These actions erode that sense of trust, to the detriment of future philanthropy;" and articles by Tyler Green and Christopher Knight make some persuasive points. But I find arguments in favor of the move more compelling. Why should a collector be able to control an important art collection or any other important cultural resource FOREVER? And for that matter, I don't see why people should have total control even during their lifetimes — they shouldn’t be allowed to destroy a cultural monument, for example. And while a case can be made that this type of installation is a cultural artifact worth preserving, there are other ways, short of wholesale preservation, to document it.

The bottom line is I LOVED the new Barnes. The lighting is soft and diffused, unlike the inconsistent lighting in Merion (and unlike the harsh, too-bright lighting in most contemporary wings of encyclopedic museums); it's open many more hours; and it's in a much more accessible location. And the new museum, even though it’s wildly popular and more accessible now, is no more crowded than Merion because the daily occupancy is still limited. In fact, for some reason, it feels less crowded than my memory of the old place. And the docents could not have been more helpful, especially Gabrielle Aruta who is eminently qualified (she went through the Barnes course and also taught the philosophy of John Dewey at St. Joseph’s University). I am grateful for all the time she spent talking with me.

For the most part, I found Barnes's eccentric “ensembles” engaging, if sometimes simple-minded (e.g. a group of paintings and metalwork all have a bluish tone, or they are all interlaced). But there certainly are some problems with his arrangements. Many of the smaller galleries upstairs, where there are works on paper and small sculptures, feel way too crowded. It felt disrespectful of the art (ironic given Barnes’s egalitarian views).
George Seurat, Poseuses (Models), 1886-1888, oil on canvas, 78 ¾ x 98 ⅜ inches.
I also think Seurat’s Models is hung way too high. Even though it's a large painting and can be seen from that distance, it needs to be seen up close for a viewer to experience Seurat's pointillist technique, and, equally important, it needs to be seen on our level so the figures in the painting can seem to inhabit the same space we do. And finally, I wonder if even the “ensembles” that I found engaging will eventually wear thin once they're no longer novel. Besides, Barnes himself continually rearranged his collection — why should it be set in stone now?

The new building has exquisitely refined detail and is filled with beautiful light and textures, but it does have some problems. For one thing, the building is shockingly hostile to the street — a potentially lively street at that. To rudely turn your back on it by placing a parking lot along it, and even worse a wall, is inexcusable.
View of the Barnes Foundation from the Whole Foods Market across the street.
(What is it with museums and walls? The Modern did the same thing to 54th Street. Do these architects  still believe that cities are a bad thing and that people want to get away from them? I understand there might be security issues, but come on, they don't have to build a fortress. Hopefully the new Whitney will be street-friendly — right now there’s a veritable moat around it!)

I also feel the entrance lobby is too stark and not all that welcoming; and the Annenberg Court is coldly formal, and uncomfortably tall and long relative to its width.
The Walter and Lenore Annenberg Court looking east. The entrance to the Barnes replica is on the right. (Tom Crane/The Barnes Foundation via Bloomberg).
But the biggest problem for me is I feel there's something ersatz about the whole thing. It's like an agglomeration of period rooms, a Disney version of an eccentric collector's art museum, or, as Tyler Green more strongly puts it: "The stage-managing of the art feels ridiculous, even kitschy."
A view of Room 6 in the new Barnes Foundation — a replica of the original. (Tom Crane/The Barnes Foundation via Bloomberg).
But all of these criticisms come to nothing when confronted with the art — it will make you weep with joy! They have 69 C├ęzannes—more than in all the museums in Paris —including some of the very best, like his Card Players and Portrait of a Woman (see below).
Paul Cezanne, Les Joueurs de Cartes (The Card Players), 1890 - 1892, oil on canvas, 53 ¼ x 71 ⅝  inches.

Paul Cezanne, Portrait de Femme (Portrait of a Woman), c. 1898, oil on canvas,  36 ¾ x 28 ⅞  inches.
They have 60 Matisse paintings including his best mural.
Henri Matisse, The Dance, 1932 - 1933, oil on canvas, as seen from a balcony.
And they have Matisse's Joy of Life which, along with Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignonis one of the landmarks of twentieth-century art. And now Joy of Life is in its own alcove instead of hanging in a stairway as in the old Barnes — and it looks fantastic! Much bigger than I remembered it in Merion. And it absolutely glows. The alcove is kept relatively dark in order to protect the fragile painting, but because of the low light, the colors aren't washed out. And for the first time I really experienced it as an idealized, even hallucinogenic, pastoral paradise, rather than a decorative design.
Henri Matisse, Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life), 1906, oil on canvas, 69 ½ x 94 ¾ inches. 
Here's a detail of the right side that just blows me away:
Detail: Henri Matisse, Le Bonheur de Vivre. Click to enlarge.
And there's a lot of great African art, which Barnes was one of the first to collect for aesthetic rather than ethnographic reasons.
Edo peoples, Nigeria, Standing Male Figure, copper alloy, 22 x 9 x 9 inches.
Altogether, there are 2,500 items in the collection including 44 Picassos, an astonishing 181 Renoirs (say what you will about how sickly sweet his work is, the guy could paint), and major works by Rousseau, Modigliani, Degas, van Gogh and many others. There are also Asian paintings; medieval manuscripts; and Old Master paintings including works by El Greco, Peter Paul Rubens and a lyrical, long (10 ⅞  x 50 ¼ inches) early Titian. And a lot of decorative metalwork.
My own "ensemble" of Gustave Courbet's Woman with White Stockings, 1864, flanked by Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Caryatids, c. 1910.
And finally, this time I noticed that eroticism is a major leitmotif at the Barnes, not only the Renoirs, as you'd expect, but Gustave Courbet's Woman with White Stockings and many other works — even Matisse's Joy of Life seems erotic in this context. It shouldn't be surprising; Barnes was famous for being a handsome lady’s man (to use the old-fashion expression) so that may be a factor; but mainly it was consistent with his philosophy — eroticism being something the common person can relate to.

Visiting the Barnes Foundation
General admission is a steep $18, but it’s $15 for seniors, only $10 for students, and it's free for children under 5. The first Sunday of every month is free, and all Friday night concerts and other events in the Annenberg Court are free and open to the public.

Hours: Daily, 9:30 - 6:00 except Friday when they're open until 10:00. They are closed on Tuesdays.
Since admission is limited and timed (although you can stay as long as you want once you're in), it's wise to get tickets in advance here, or by calling (866) 849-7056.

Getting there:
For just $10 - $15, a little more than the Chinatown bus would cost (and a lot safer and more comfortable), and about ¼ of what the cheapest Amtrak fare would be, you can take a New Jersey Transit train from either Penn Station New York or Penn Station Newark to Trenton, and easily transfer (usually within a few minutes, and on the same track) to SEPTA, the Philadelphia rail system, which will bring you to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. The trip takes about two hours (as compared to one hour via Amtrak).

From the 30th Street Station it's an easy and pleasant walk to the Barnes.
The 29th Street bridge over the Schuylkill River.
Leave the station through the 29th Street exit, cross the somewhat challenging street in front of the station, continue walking straight along a bridge over the beautiful Schuylkill river, and walk one long, tree-lined block until you get to 20th Street (about 5 minutes); turn left on 20th Street and walk past a beautiful historic block, past some ugly modern buildings and finally walk past the very grand Logan Square on your right and the Beaux Arts-style Science Museum on the left. When you cross Benjamin Franklin Parkway, another challenging intersection, the Barnes will be on the left. Altogether about a ten minute enjoyable walk.

And the ride back was enjoyable too. Here's what I saw on the train ride home:


Anonymous said...

FYI re: getting to Philly
Bolt and Megabus both have NYC-Phila routes. Book online and it's usually no more than $15 each way. Faster and more comfortable than NJT/Septa, and there's WiFi. Both drop off at 30th Street Station and pick up in the vicinity of Penn Station in NY. Bolt is more reliable and less crowded.

Anonymous said...

About visits to the Barnes the staff
is new and a bit confused: you must check everything larger than an 8 by10 piece of paper downstairs in the checkroom. The checkroom may give you a brown paper bag to carry stuff but the guards will not allow the bag inside galleries...they told me sketching wasn't allowed but no one said anything when I did sketch on a small pad. Skip the cafe and restaurant and go to whole foods behind the parking lot. Yes worth a trip even by Amtrak full price!