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The Barnes Foundation: Beauty Surrounded by Controversy

Posted By Ed Voves On October 12, 2009 @ 10:18 am In Architecture,Art,Art & Design | 13 Comments

Viewing gallery at the Barnes Foundaton, Merion, Pennsylvania

The Barnes Foundation, located in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion, PA, is by varying degrees a temple of art, an experiment in democratic education and a bit of paradise brought down to earth.

It is also a bone of legal contention, as indeed it has been since it was founded by the maverick art collector, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, in 1922. The courtroom skirmishes and culture wars of the past, however, are being eclipsed by controversy over the projected move to a new location which will affect the very nature of its mission.

A plan, approved by local government, nonprofit and cultural leaders, is well advanced and will move the Barnes Foundation five miles to a site near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Barnes’ new residence will be located along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Modeled after the boulevards of Paris, the Parkway is also home to the Rodin Museum, the Franklin Institute and the headquarters of the Free Library of Philadelphia. All of these institutions can boast impressive buildings designed in the neoclassical style, as is the present Barnes building in Merion. But the plans for the new Barnes, designed by a husband and wife architect team from New York City, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, is a paean to the “less is more” school of modernist architecture.

Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, future home of the Barnes Foundation. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is in the background, the Washington Monument, sculpted by Rudolf Siemering, is in the foreground.
[Photo by Ken Thomas]

If Mies van der Rohe might have approved of the design, one of America’s greatest living architects is not pleased. Robert Venturi, the renowned Philadelphia-born architect, wrote a letter on September 23, 2009 to the Friends of the Barnes, an advocacy group opposed to the move. Venturi’s remarks are a withering dismissal of the plan to move the Barnes Collection, and, by extension, of ill-considered notions that the Barnes Foundation can be transplanted from the site chosen by Dr. Barnes.

“The current building in Merion was designed specifically for the Barnes collection by Paul Cret with Dr. Barnes as owner/curator,” Venturi wrote. “The building and site design are an integral part of the collection and vice versa … In our current economic and financial climate, particularly here in Pennsylvania, the expenditure of $200-300 million for a new site and a new building seems an indiscrete and ridiculous waste of money…”

Adding to the outcry, a new documentary film about the relocation of the Barnes, The Art of the Steal, is being readied for national release and a powerfully expressed critique in the New York Times contended that the plans prepared by Williams and Tsien are “a convoluted design. Almost every detail seems to ache from the strain of trying to preserve the spirit of the original building in a very different context.”

No stranger to controversy, the Barnes Foundation is once again in the middle of a free-fire zone.

The Barnes Foundation is the testament to a remarkable man’s love of art and his willingness to use his checkbook to amass an awe-inspiring collection of Impressionist and Early Modern art. Born in 1872, Dr. Albert C. Barnes raised himself “up by the boot straps” from a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia to become one of America’s greatest collectors of art, as well as a major cultural scholar.

And what a treasure trove! By the time of his death in 1951, Barnes had purchased 181 works by Renoir, 69 by Cezanne, 7 Van Gogh paintings, 59 works by Matisse, 11 by Degas, 16 by Modigliani, 46 Picasso’s, with 4 apiece by Manet and Monet. He also collected modern American works by William Glackens, Charles Demuth and Maurice and Charles Prendergast. His eclectic tastes extended to African sculptures, European decorative art, American folk art and quirky curiosities like an American Civil War surgeon’s saw.

Barnes began collecting contemporary art in 1912 after meeting the avant garde art patrons, Gertrude and Leo Stein, at their salon in Paris. Barnes was also guided by his friend, William Glackens, one of the leaders of the iconoclastic “Ash Can” school of art. Ironically, Barnes’ first intention was to amass a collection of modern masterpieces and bequeath it to the city of Philadelphia.

The first objective of Dr. Barnes was achieved with a degree of success that is truly breath-taking. Using the profits from his pharmaceutical company, he spent liberally and wisely to a degree that will never be possible again. The second of his good intentions, cultivating the taste for modern art among the citizens of the City of Brotherly Love, did not go as planned.

Barnes soon changed his mind about the site for his collection, deciding upon Merion, an idyllic residential town on Philadelphia’s suburban Main Line, close to the western limits of the city and with a Pennsylvania Railroad station nearby. While his suburban gallery was being built, Barnes announced an exhibit of some of his art treasures for the edification of his fellow Philadelphians.

In April and May 1923, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, Barnes exhibited 75 paintings by School of Paris stalwarts including Modigliani, Soutine, Picasso and Matisse. Barnes asked for the paintings to be accorded “the simple justice of educated and unbiased attention.” When that fair hearing was denied to him, Barnes reacted like a scorned lover.

The Barnes Foundation opened its doors on March 19, 1925. It was decidedly not an occasion for the general public. The Foundation’s by-laws, written in 1922, even before the Pennsylvania Academy debacle, were highly selective about who would be granted entrance. Art students who subscribed to Dr. Barnes’ art theories and “men and women who gain their livelihood by daily toil in factories, shops and schools” were to be admitted.

Barnes hired the noted architect, Paul Philippe Cret, to help him realize his plan for creating democratic vistas of artistic and natural beauty. It was an inspired choice.

The French-born Cret was a professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. During the 1920′s, he was at the height of his powers, working on such diverse projects as Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Bridge, at the time the world’s longest single-span bridge, and the neoclassical Rodin Museum which is located near the projected site for the new Barnes. Cret also designed the layout of the park in Rittenhouse Square, an oasis of artfully contrived natural beauty set in one of downtown Philadelphia’s wealthiest and busiest enclaves.

Cret designed a similar realm in Merion for Dr. Barnes, who had purchased the 12 acre site with an arboretum founded by a Civil War veteran named Joseph Lapsley Wilson. Cret’s plan called for a Renaissance style building faced with white limestone. It would achieve the effect of a Palladian country house, set down amidst rare trees and plants, but also evoking twentieth century minimalism with an austere simplicity. Cret’s building is a masterpiece of understated classical style which allows the natural beauty without and the artistic treasures within to be fully appreciated.

The Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, designed by Paul Cret.
[Photo by Heather Houser]

The Arboretum at The Barnes Foundation
[Photo by Barry Dodge]

The art treasures of the Barnes included specially commissioned works, as well as the growing trove purchased by Dr. Barnes on his periodic spending sprees in Europe. Jacques Lipchitz carved seven bas-relief sculptures for the Gallery exterior. Ceramic tiles based on Barnes’ collection of African art were created by the Enfield Pottery and Tile Works for the Gallery vestibule. This eclectic mix of styles was further developed by Barnes’ innovative displaying techniques whereby paintings, sculptures and art objects were displayed by theme or similarity of style rather than by historic periods or national “schools.”

In an especially noteworthy move, Dr. Barnes commissioned Henri Matisse to paint a mural, The Dance II, for the Foundation. Matisse came to New York in 1930, where he served on the jury of art works for the Carnegie International Exposition. While in the U.S., he contacted Barnes, asking to visit the Foundation. Barnes was only too happy to honor his request. The visit was a success and Barnes commissioned Matisse to paint The Dance II, which was installed in three lunettes overlooking the Main Gallery.

All this makes the Barnes Foundation sound like a “demi-paradise.” In many ways it was, at least for those allowed through the gates. The location of the Barnes Foundation and the criterion for admittance, however, were extremely counterproductive. Very few daily wage earners could make the trek to Merion from their jobs in Philadelphia’s factories. And many talented and sincere students of art, who did not pass inspection by Dr. Barnes, did not get in.

Barnes died in a car accident in the summer of 1951. At first, little changed at the Foundation. Then legal skirmishes began, aiming to open the Barnes to the public. A 1958 suit, which reached all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, forced the issue. On December 19, 1960, the Foundation signed a consent decree allowing public visitation on Fridays and Saturdays. Visiting hours were extended to Sundays in 1967.

The contentious climate at the Barnes somewhat abated. But by the late 1980′s, Dr. Barnes’ ten million dollar endowment was dwindling. In 1990, a dynamic new president of the Barnes’ Board of Trustees, Richard Glanton, took the helm. In 1993, Glanton mounted an international exhibition of selected masterpieces aiming to generate publicity and revenue for the Foundation. Glanton also made ambitious plans to increase the number of visitors to 100,000 per year.

Anxious to preserve Merion’s quality of life, the local zoning commission blocked Glanton’s plans. A tangle of litigation ensued, draining the Foundation’s financial reserves. By the summer of 2002, the Barnes Foundation’s efforts to achieve solvency were foundering and it filed a petition to move to a site in Philadelphia.

On December 13, 2004, Judge Stanley R. Ott of the Montgomery County Orphans’ Court permitted the move of the Barnes Foundation to Philadelphia. Further contention ensued, as claims were made that the Barnes Foundation’s finances were in better shape than publicly stated. But the dramatic relocation of Dr. Barnes’s masterpieces now became a matter of who would be given the task of designing a new building for the Barnes and what the design would look like.

Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien present their plans for the new Barnes

The answer to the latter question came on October 5, 2009, when the Philadelphia Art Commission revealed the architectural plans of Williams and Tsien. The slickly designed 17-page presentation could not disguise serious flaws. Nor could it answer why a museum, four times the size of the present Barnes, set among neoclassical buildings on both sides of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, was so defiantly modernist in style.

To be fair, there are some praiseworthy elements to the design by Williams and Tsien. When viewing the plans at ground level, the long rectangular sweep of the building complements the skyward reach of the avenue of mature sycamore trees which extends parallel to it along the Parkway. The galleries, which likewise face the Parkway, are designed to evoke the atmosphere of those in the old Barnes.

However, major misjudgments were made in the enormous amount of space devoted to non-gallery areas and in positioning the main entrance to the rear of the building, overlooking the parking lot and an adjacent supermarket.

The new Barnes has two major components, the Galleries and the Pavilion. These are joined by a Special Exhibition Gallery to form a U-shaped structure around a central Court. The Pavilion houses an expansive entryway, a cafe and a large support area. The Special Exhibition Gallery is nearly half the size of the Galleries where the Barnes collection will be displayed. This is a very questionable apportionment of square footage, compounded by the sheer size of the Court. Enclosed by drab, slab-sided walls, the Court will be roofed by a “Light Box,” capable of being illuminated at night. The glow-in-the dark “Light Box” will presumably compensate for the overall monotony of the building’s design, but what that has to do with evoking an appropriate atmosphere for displaying Dr. Barnes collection is anyone’s guess.

The “Light Court” of the proposed new Barnes Foundation
[Design by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien]

The “Light Box” of the proposed new Barnes Foundation
[Design by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien]

No one should be so critical as to deny the need for a café in the new Barnes, as the surrounding neighborhood is largely devoid of restaurants. As mentioned, the main door at the rear will look directly on a supermarket and there is a nearby Starbucks, but Philadelphia’s major restaurants are located far from the site.

Of more significance is trying to determine the purpose of the Special Exhibition Galleries and the Support Center. If the intent is to display the collection according to Dr Barnes’s singular standards, why is a “special” gallery needed? With the Merion building available as an administrative office, what is the point of an oversized support area?

This prodigious waste of space forces the actual Galleries to be positioned too near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to allow for a formal entryway leading from this magnificent thoroughfare. The nearby Rodin Museum is approached by a grand entrance and formal gardens directly from the Parkway and the effect is inspirational.

Entryway to Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum, designed by Paul Cret.
[Photo by Bobak Ha'Eri]

Aerial view of the proposed new Barnes Foundation
(Rodin Museum is in the upper left corner)

[Design by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien]

The issue of correctly positioning formal entryways and other elements of classical architecture was treated in an enlightening essay by the contemporary British architect, Quinlan Terry. It is worth quoting at some length.

“It is said that in a democratic age, the greater or lesser importance of such a simple thing as a door is no longer relevant,” Terry writes. “Quite apart from the democracy question, every large municipal building has to serve different groups of people, and it is helpful if the main public entrance is easily distinguished from the office staff entrance or the door to the refuse collection…The old rules relating to relative importance (the hierarchy) of doors and their architraves still apply and fulfil an important function.”

Quinlan Terry is one of a growing number of architects, chiefly in Britain, who are trying to reinvigorate the lifeless, LEGO-like rules of modernist architecture with the still valid principals of the classical past. No attempt should be made to exactly replicate the old Barnes on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. However, to downplay the neoclassical elements or to ignore recent developments such as the work of classically inspired architects like Terry is to court design flaws that may never be repairable.

It is probably too late to prevent the move of the Barnes Foundation to downtown Philadelphia. But, hopefully, there is still time to rework the deeply flawed plans submitted by Williams and Tsien.

Controversy has bedeviled the Barnes Foundation from its very beginning, adding to its mystique as well as to the difficulties of achieving its educational mission. Whatever its form and location, this visionary art collection should be interpreted in the spirit of Ambroise Vollard’s comments after he visited the Foundation during the 1930’s. Vollard, one of the pivotal art dealers who promoted the careers of Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and other New Masters, declared “I am still under the spell of my visit to the Barnes Foundation, where I saw so many of the paintings which I knew, defended and loved…”


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