By Charles Kessler
|The Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania (photo by Dmadeo)
|Interior of the Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania.
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.
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.
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).
|A view of Room 6 in the new Barnes Foundation — a replica of the original. (Tom Crane/The Barnes Foundation via Bloomberg).
|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.
|Henri Matisse, The Dance, 1932 - 1933, oil on canvas, as seen from a balcony.
|Henri Matisse, Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life), 1906, oil on canvas, 69 ½ x 94 ¾ inches.
|Detail: Henri Matisse, Le Bonheur de Vivre. Click to enlarge.
|Edo peoples, Nigeria, Standing Male Figure, copper alloy, 22 x 9 x 9 inches.
|My own "ensemble" of Gustave Courbet's Woman with White Stockings, 1864, flanked by Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Caryatids, c. 1910.
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.
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.
And the ride back was enjoyable too. Here's what I saw on the train ride home: