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The Barnes Foundation: Beauty Surrounded by Controversy


The Barnes Foundation: Beauty Surrounded by Controversy

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.

Viewing gallery - Barnes Foundation

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.

Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia

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.

Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania

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

Barnes Foundation aborateum and garden

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.

Light Court, new Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

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

Light Box, new Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

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.

Rodin Museum, Philadelphia

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

Aerial view, new Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

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…”

Ed Voves is a freelance writer, based in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, the artist Anne Lloyd, and a swarm of cats who love curling up with good books. Mr. Voves graduated with a B.A. in History from LaSalle University in 1976 and a Masters in Information Science from Drexel University in 1989. After teaching for several years with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he worked in the news research department for "The Philadelphia Inquirer" and the "Philadelphia Daily News," 1985 to 2003. It was with the "Daily News," that he began his freelance writing, doing book reviews and author interviews with such notable figures as Umberto Eco, Maurice Sendak, and Peter O'Toole. For the "Inquirer," he specialized in reviews of major historical works. Following his time with the newspapers, he worked as an independent researcher for [email protected], the online journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the staff of the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2005 and is currently the branch manager of the Kingsessing Branch in southwest Philadelphia. In 2006, he began writing for the "California Literary Review."    History of Yoga



  1. Fortheloveofart

    August 30, 2010 at 4:11 am

    Did the story of King Kong not teach anyone about the ills of transferring assets, never meant to be moved? Opening Pandora’s box was never in the will. To destroy the art upon death would be horrible but the wishes of those living upon a dead man’s property is equally horrible. Perhaps the lawyers who drafted the will are to blame or the incompetent law makers of America who allow such back doors to remain open for vile agendas. I did see the Barnes exhibit whilst in Toronto. I admit I enjoyed the magnificent collection. I did not know the controversy though and am now a supporter of the current location. Leave it as is. Dr.Barnes’ soul IS NOT FOR SALE.

  2. Joe

    July 29, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    If his will had stated that the entire collection be destroyed immediately upon his death, his wishes might have carried out. Wishes for preservation, on the other hand, have an eternity to be fought against.

  3. Stan

    June 1, 2010 at 9:14 am

    We just returned from visiting the jaw-dropping Barnes Foundation collection. A $2.00 bus from downtown Philadelphia got us there in about 25 minutes. A shuttle from the Art Museum would take about 15. Add one more day open for visitors – though I do believe that crowd control and timed entry is essential in a site like this: the collection is astounding, but is mounted in a relatively small space, since works are grouped in what Barnes called “ensembles”. Admission to the gallery and grounds is reasonably priced at $15 and would still be fair at $20.

    So – I’d add the shuttle (you absolutely do not want to encourage more cars in this lovely and quiet residential area), the extra day, and the admission increase (and some signage by the local bus stop would be useful: there’s absolutely nothing, and it’s a short walk down a local street to the Barnes) – and leave it exactly where it is.

    Frankly, I don’t understand the complaints from some of the above posters. Any “working class” citizens who wish to view the collection can afford it and can easily, cheaply, and quickly get there from downtown. All they need to do is make a reservation like anyone else. As to whether it belongs in Philadelphia: it’s already there, to all intents and purposes. It’s like arguing that the Brooklyn Museum of Art belongs in Manhattan because it’s 30 minutes by subway from the Met.

  4. John

    May 4, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    I’m completely new to this controversy and don’t know anyone involved, but I’m hearing that parking is a major factor here(?) Please, oh PLEASE, can’t we stop the continuing horrible impacts that the damn automobile thrusts upon our quality of life? I’m sure a simple, clean, and quiet shuttle could be funded and operated from a nearby train station during museum hours thereby removing the impact of autos at the original Merion site. Or, about 400 other ideas would work well too. Why is it so difficult for us to learn to simply leave such beauty in tact? I’m donating to now. Please do the same to preserve Dr. Barnes’ creation. My friends, these are the easy decisions. Is there any hope of preserving this planet’s intense richness for our children to enjoy as we have? Please act now and give generously. “We want us all what we got now” -Woody Guthrie

  5. ron

    May 3, 2010 at 9:32 am

    Only goes to show…. if you wish to dispose of anything of value-concerning inheritance, dispose of it in a matter of years-say 10, and then perhaps you will get your wishes met.
    Otherwise, the legal system will completely F it up….

  6. Mathew

    April 18, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Isn’t there a certain snobbery or hubris on by Barnes? The common man , the uneducated are unable to appreciate the magnitude and meaning of the works in the collection. Shouldn’t art be for all to enjoy, admire, analyze, in the same way museums afford the all the opportunity?

    With that said, doesn’t Barnes have the right to do with his property as he wishes? His intentions were apparent in his will. It seems unlikely , those interests that disregard his expressed wishes are altruistic and motivated by the desire to share the art with all the world.

  7. Ned

    April 13, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    Dr. Barnes fears may be realized that great art will become the backdrop to opulent lavish soirees. The attendees can outbid each other to see which one gets that wonderful Renoir to hang in their home for a week. Smaller paintings can be used for party favors. Careful, don’t spill any wine on that Cezanne and please pass those cute little ears of corn.

  8. Jonathan

    March 8, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    One further thought: the Foundation’s financial difficulties could easily be addressed by the court allowing another set of tours of even just some of the collection. I can imagine lines around the block here in LA to see this magnificent collection and sales of books, posters, etc. would do a lot to improve the balance sheet. Also, seeing the art on tour would encourage art lovers everywhere to make a detour to Philadelphia and see the unique setting in Merion. The original building sounds like a gem in and of itself and must be preserved. And I am sure the arboretum is wonderful too.

  9. Jonathan

    March 8, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    While I have never had the fortune of visiting the Barnes, the combination of museum and gardens reminds me of the Huntington Library in San Marino and the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades. Both of the institutions are in wealthy suburban areas of Los Angeles with the typical zoning and parking restrictions but both are immeasurably enhanced by their surroundings and landscaping. Neither would ever leave their sites for newer buildings in Downtown LA. I would think the $150 million could be better spent by puchasing some of the property surrounding the Barnes original site and building underground parking and such to reduce the strain on the neighborhood. Then maybe putting up a much cheaper stunning modernist pavilion near the Rodin Museum showing a few of the items in the collection which would entice visitors to make the trek to Merion.

  10. Henry Papale

    January 24, 2010 at 9:33 am

    Baloney on all the naysayers. The Barnes collection belongs in Philadelphia and on the Franklin Pkwy. It will only add to the lustre of the city as a center of artistic excellence already on view in the city and make it possible for average or below average income people like myself and my family to enjoy and partake of the great Art which was formerly the province of those able to get into the Merion location.

  11. Tricia

    October 15, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Mr. Voves’ article recognizes the rich yet complicated and oftentimes conflicted history of the Barnes Foundation. The foundation in Merion – its collection, setting, and mission – is a cultural treasure and I am most encouraged by the issues and debate the pending move continues to generate. The public’s interest in the uniqueness of place and its concern for heritage, conservation and stewardship is admirable and encouraging.

    I am a professor of architecture with a research focus on relationships between design and context. In 2004-05 my architecture students examined the context of the Barnes Foundation – its physical place, as well as the social, cultural and historical dimensions central to its establishment and evolution. In the studio and research seminar, I asked students to specifically address the court’s mandate for replication – Is replication a valid, meaningful, or sufficient response to preserving cultural value, and if so, how? The hypothetical designs students generated reveal an approach to architecture as an evolving situation subject to economic, cultural and political conditions – and not simply the production of physical artifacts. The student proposals also demonstrated that the intended experience of a place, its qualities and history, are precious and fragile – and not best served by an inauthentic replica of the physical environment, especially if limited to the collection’s installation and rooms.

    Regardless whether one argues for or against relocation, I applaud Tsien Williams Architects and the Olin Partnerships efforts to translate the spirit of place cultivated by Dr. Barnes to house his collection and mission. And, I laud the public’s fierce sense of ownership about a place it values.

  12. Anne

    October 12, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    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?

    I’m guessing to be rented out for high power cocktail parties. That seems to be a huge focus of modern design .
    It seems to be about serving a certain social set
    rather than the art.

  13. nancy herman

    October 12, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    IT IS NOT TOO LATE TO SAVE THE BARNES IN MERION! Not enough money has been collected to build the proposed new museum. $30 million of the money pledged for the move is tax dollars which may very well never materialize as Pennsylvania is cutting all art funding to the bone. More and more people everyday are joining Friends of the Barnes (, an organization devoted to trying to keep the Barnes in its purpose built home. THE ART OF THE STEAL is revealing information never brought to the public eye because the Philadelphia Inquirer is a supporter of the move. People are beginning to speak out who never did before. Join FRIENDS OF THE BARNES today. [email protected]

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