Stephen Salisbury Inquirer Culture Writer March 11, 2012
It was not exactly a twist-and-shout moment when The Dance came off the wall at the Barnes Foundation in Merion.
Nearly two decades ago, amid incessant legal skirmishing, Matisse's 34-foot-wide triptych mural on canvas was maneuvered from the wall it had been made to fill, and traveled to Washington, Paris, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art for exhibition.
It was a tense, court-approved voyage, but The Dance waltzed through it, finally returning to its newly renovated Merion home in 1995.
Last year, amid even more legal skirmishing over plans to move the entire Barnes collection, The Dance again came down from its perch, this time permanently, and it has been reinstalled in its new home at the soon-to-open Barnes gallery on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Foundation officials decline to discuss the moving or reinstallation of the collection, citing security concerns.
Timed tickets to see The Dance and the rest of the Barnes Foundation's renowned collection of early modernist works go on sale Thursday to the general public.
The $150 million gallery officially opens May 19, and tickets have been moving briskly to Barnes members since Feb. 1. In fact, memberships, too, have been selling well, foundation officials say: In March 2009, membership totaled 390; today, there are about 15,000 members. Package prices begin at $90. Without membership, adult tickets are $18.
Because of the modest size of the foundation's gallery spaces - the Philadelphia gallery interiors mimic those in Merion - timed tickets are necessary. Gallery hours will be 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays, with Friday hours extended to 10. A maximum of 150 visitors will be admitted per hour.
During the last phase of its life in Merion, the Barnes was open six days a week, with a visitor limit of 450 per day (up from the previous limit of 400). Annual attendance never came close to 100,000, the foundation reported.
Barnes officials now expect a shade more than 200,000 visitors in 2012. In 2013, admissions should be roughly 350,000, said Peg Zminda, Barnes executive vice president and chief operating and financial officer.
Visitation will be driven, for a time, she said, by curiosity; numbers will likely dip in 2014.
The operating budget for 2013, the first full year at the new site, is projected at about $14 million, Zminda said. About 56 percent of that will come from earned income - admissions and other sales.
Endowment will provide about 13 percent of the budget, Zminda added, a portion that should rise as unpaid fund-raising pledges are converted into cash. The Barnes model calls for endowment to support about 20 percent of operations.
That so many people are eager to get inside the new galleries is obviously driven by many factors, including decades of high-profile legal wrangling.
But all the publicity and Sturm und Drang never would have materialized, in all probability, were it not for the foundation's core: an astonishing collection of art, rich in Cezannes, Renoirs, Soutines, Picassos.
The Barnes also has one of the world's most striking collections of works by Henri Matisse.
The enormous mural, The Dance, is a prime example. It was commissioned by Albert Barnes, the testy collector who established the foundation in the 1920s and had a keen eye for Matisse.
In 1930, Barnes invited the artist to Merion and implored him to create a mural for an enormous space in the three lunettes in the foundation building's main gallery.
Matisse eventually accepted the offer, although he said the space was "not very favorable." Unfortunately, when he had nearly finished the job, the painter learned he was working with the wrong dimensions for the irregular wall spaces. He rethought his design, completing The Dance in 1933.
His creative juices still bubbling, he executed a third version. (This and the first are now in the collection of the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.)
Art historian Jack Flam, of the City University of New York, argued persuasively in a 1993 essay that Matisse's work on The Dance turned his art decisively toward the epic cutouts of his later years.
"The Barnes murals were especially important," Flam wrote, refocusing Matisse on "the purity of his means of expression." In Matisse's words, the Barnes commission pointed him "to paradise."
Conservators worried back in the early 1990s that they would find mold spreading behind the mural's paradise once it was removed from the wall. That proved not to be the case; size was the major issue in taking it down and moving it around. (Contrary to common belief, the painting was not done on the wall, but on stretched canvas.)
Joseph J. Rishel, senior curator of European painting before 1900 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, well remembers the amazing effort to bring the mural into the Art Museum for exhibition in 1994.
"It had to be craned into our building through the front door," Rishel recalled. "There was an enormous crate dangling from one little rope."
The Matisse seemed to sweep in from the sky, he said.
Antic it may have seemed, but enormous care was taken, Rishel hastened to add. "There was no question of any damage by the move," he recalled. (Barnes legal opponents argued unpersuasively in court in 1993 that damage had occurred.)
Moving the mural last year "went very smoothly," said Barnes conservator Barbara Buckley. "Airborne grime" and a thin layer of varnish were cleaned from the canvas, she said.
Now the mural is ensconced in three lunettes in the new Barnes. A recessed alcove on a mezzanine across the room awaits installation of another Matisse masterpiece, Joy of Life (which formerly was installed in a stairwell).
The two paintings were together in Merion, and they will be together in Philadelphia. As it happens, over the summer, the Philadelphia Art Museum will be mounting an exhibition, Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia.
Barnes the collector loathed the Art Museum, its patrons, and its administrators. But the art at the two institutions will now conduct a civil discourse regarding the advent of modernity this summer.