The New Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia

For years, I’ve wanted to visit the famous Barnes Foundation museum. It’s filled with major 20th century artworks, and yet it’s quirky and hard to get to (it’s in Merion, a suburb outside Philadelphia). For years, there’s been talk of relocating the museum from Merion to a more accessible location, and this month, it finally opened at its new location in Philadelphia, close to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Museum. Most professional art critics were nervous that the move would destroy the charm and authenticity of Barnes’ collection, but the critics love this new space:

  • Ada Louise Huxtable in the Wall Street Journal: “This is a beautiful building that does not compromise its contemporary convictions or upstage the treasure inside. And it isn’t alchemy. It’s architecture….I have been waiting a long time for a building like this…This is what architecture does, when it does it right.”
  • Eric Gibson in the Wall Street Journal: “Superb new facility…a win for both advocates and opponents of the move.”
  • Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker: “In this magazine, in 2004, I termed the proposed relocation ‘an aesthetic crime,’ because I couldn’t imagine that the integrity of the collection would survive…But it does, magnificently…The spectacular contemporary architecture cradles the modest graces of the Merion structure with an air of religious veneration.”

Alfred C. Barnes was born poor in 1872, got rich selling a medical treatment he invented, and established his art foundation in 1922. He used his wealth to purchase some of the most famous European modern painters (69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 181 Renoirs, 18 Rousseaus…) He rejected the art establishment, and instead drew on his friend, the famous American philosopher John Dewey, to help him figure out how to display the works in his home. When he died in 1951, at the age of 79, he left a will saying that every artwork had to remain exactly where it was at the time of his death.

I loved John Dewey’s book Art as Experience, and I first heard about Barnes in connection with Dewey. Dewey’s theory was that “art” was not the painting; “art” was the experience the viewer had when perceiving the painting. Artists were the people who could capture and represent an experience; each art work was designed to communicate an experience from artist to audience. So Barnes mounted his artworks in such a way as to immerse the viewer, to maximize the intensity of the experience. He grouped works from different periods, styles, and quality and mounted them close together into what he called “ensembles.” “Proper taste deemed Barnes weird for his fanatical orchestration of artistic stimuli” (Peter Schjeldahl). No other major museum looks like this.

Because it required a lot of effort, even for the most dedicated art lover, to make it out to the suburb of Merion, over the decades there were various efforts to move the collection to a more accessible location in the city center. But Barnes’ will was very clear: nothing could ever be moved or changed. A few years ago, after various legal decisions and financial calculations, the Barnes Foundation Board decided that it would be acceptable to move the collection to the city center, so long as the new building exactly replicated the gallery spaces of the old one, and all of the artworks remained positioned exactly as they had been. Now it’s ready, and I’m ready for “the experience.” Now that the museum is more accessible, I might actually have a chance to visit in this lifetime! Congratulations to the architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. And thank you to everyone who made this possible.

Ada Louise Huxtable, “The new Barnes shouldn’t work–but does.” Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2012, p. D4.

Eric Gibson, “Saving Dr. Barnes’ vision.” Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2012, p. D4.

Peter Schjeldahl, “Moving pictures.” The New Yorker, May 28, 2012, pp. 79-80.

One thought on “The New Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia

  1. And in this week’s New York Review of Books, Martin Filler raves about the new Barnes: “a latter-day miracle…a triumph for all concerned…wholly sympathetic and virtually unimprovable….hard for its architects to surpass.” And all of this, in a review titled, simply, “Victory!”

    Run to Philadelphia and see this amazing collection, the largest and most impressive collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art in the U.S. (And that includes the Chicago Art Institute, which is saying a lot.)

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