Barnes Art Thrives in $150 Million Philadelphia Home

Barnes Foundation
A view of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia from 21st Street. After years of controversy and $150 million, the Barnes collection reopens today in a monumental new home not far from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photographer: Tom Crane/The Barnes Foundation via Bloomberg

After years of controversy and $150 million, the Barnes collection reopens today in a monumental new home not far from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Founder Albert C. Barnes had housed it in an elegant classical villa in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion, where the display reflected his eccentric theories on art and penchant for buying in quantity: 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, and almost four dozen early Picassos.

He stipulated that it stay that way after his death, which came in 1951, but by the 1990s the Barnes Foundation was struggling to remain solvent and sought a shift to Philadelphia to increase financial support. Court approval came in 2004, allowing the move while requiring the new building to duplicate the form and layout of the Merion galleries and artworks.

Landscape architect Laurie Olin’s design leads visitors from the grandeur of the Beaux Arts Benjamin Franklin Parkway past a raised reflecting pool dotted with lilies and toward the brawny, 93,000-square-foot rectangular bulk of the new museum.

I strolled up an inclined walk between graceful cedars, past a silvery pylon commissioned from Ellsworth Kelly. I turned left, ambling between flaming red vine maples, then turned again to cross another reflecting pool into a high portal cut into the massive blocks of honey-colored limestone.

Passing through a soaring lobby I found myself in a cathedral-sized gathering space lined with stone chiseled in a pattern resembling cuneiform writing. Its pitched ceiling gently diffuses daylight from a long glass box that runs along the top of the building.

Robed Docents

I half expected robed docents swinging incense burners. The imposing architecture, by the Manhattan firm of Tod Williams Billie Tsien, is beautifully crafted, dignified, deferential.

Though I had visited the Barnes in Merion, that long entry procession did not prepare me for the exuberant information overload the collection lays on. The first gallery is its most spectacular: a high, vaulted salon in which 84 ornately framed paintings and whimsical pieces of hardware cram every surface.

Bathers suffused in violet light by Cezanne surmount a cheerful Renoir of the artist’s family. Barnes flanked this image of glowing health with sober prophets and apostles by 16th-century painters Bonifazio de’ Pitati and Tintoretto.

All 23 rooms are equally crowded and equally idiosyncratic in their juxtapositions. The Barnes has always charmed viewers by ignoring conventions of period, style and chronology as well as contrasting refined paintings with folk art and simple furniture.

Improved Lighting

Thankfully the new museum is much better than a hollow simulacrum of Barnes’s vision. Though the dingy mustard-color burlap wall covering Barnes liked still saps some works, hugely improved lighting transforms the experience. Fisher Marantz Stone, the lighting consultants, bounce electric light off plaster ceilings and mix it with carefully controlled daylight from windows and overhead clerestories.

The result is soft and diffuse, like an artist’s studio lit only by daylight. Marvelous textures and color subtleties emerge. In this most important way, the new Barnes is a worthy improvement.

Regrettably, the Barnes no longer feels like the private realm of a connoisseur. That’s partly because the new structure is so much larger, with the addition of full-scale museum trappings like 7,400 square feet of galleries for temporary exhibitions, a store, cafe, library and seminar rooms.

Holding Its Own

The architects hide the commercial elements, such as the shop and cafe, yet the new structure can’t help homogenizing what was once a unique experience.

The architecture elegantly insists on the Barnes’s importance as a civic institution, which helps it to hold its own on the parkway. But it made me think of other great museums built for collectors of singular vision -- like Renzo Piano’s Menil Collection in Houston or Louis Kahn’s Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth. They better balance a timeless expression of permanence with a scale inviting to the public.

Still, Barnes’s extraordinary eye and feisty approach triumph over the well-intentioned swaddling in stone, bronze and oak.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Lewis Lapham on history and Zinta Lundborg on weekend entertainment.

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