PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Barnes Foundation will open a new downtown home for its multibillion-dollar art collection on May 19, officials announced Thursday, even as a judge continued to weigh whether the masterpieces should be moved at all from their current suburban home to Philadelphia. Barnes officials insisted the hotly contested relocation of hundreds of paintings by artists including Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso will happen this spring despite a lawsuit challenging the $200 million venture.
"I can say proudly, boldly and forcefully we should be opening here on May the 19th, 2012," foundation President Derek Gillman said at a news conference.
The art collected by eccentric pharmaceutical magnate Albert Barnes includes 800 impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces that he displayed for decades in a limestone gallery in Lower Merion.
He meticulously grouped the paintings with antique ironwork, furniture and sculpture from other cultures to illustrate common aesthetic themes. When Barnes died in a car crash in 1951, his will stipulated that the works of art should "remain in exactly the places they are."
But the foundation later encountered crippling financial problems. In 2004, Montgomery County Orphans Court Judge Stanley Ott ruled that officials could break Barnes' will and move the art to a more accessible site in Philadelphia, about five miles away.
Foundation officials began construction on a building in 2009 and closed the Lower Merion gallery a few months ago. The Barnes is using $200 million in public and private money to pay for the new facility and establish an endowment.
However, a group opposed to the move alleged in a recent lawsuit that Ott didn't have all the evidence when he made his decision. The judge held a hearing in August but has not yet issued a ruling.
The opponents, known as the Friends of the Barnes Foundation, called Thursday's news conference "political theater." They noted that officials wore hard hats at the event on the grounds of the new building, which is still under construction.
"The hard hats are just perfect as the Barnes board tries to run a steamroller over the unique Barnes site in Merion that is revered around the world as a cultural pilgrimage site," spokeswoman Evelyn Yaari said in a statement.
Foundation officials also unveiled a new orange and white logo Thursday that combines the word "Barnes" with shapes suggesting the silhouettes of paintings on a wall.
Gillman called the geometric, symmetrical emblem a "bold new design" that "captures the heart of what Albert Barnes was trying to do." He said the Philadelphia building will maintain the original art groupings made by Barnes.
The foundation will offer free admission on several days of its inaugural year, as well as around-the- clock access over Memorial Day weekend, thanks to donations by PNC Bank and Comcast Corp., Gillman said.