May 7, 2012
The move of the Barnes Foundation and its legendary art collection from its longtime home in Merion, Pennsylvania, to new quarters in downtown Philadelphia was a polarizing controversy because it went against the wishes of its late founder, Dr. Albert C. Barnes. A notorious eccentric who limited access to his treasures and sometimes answered visitation requests by signing the name of his dog, Fidèle, Barnes set up the foundation with the stipulation that the works never be moved from the Merion galleries.
Now, after a drawn-out legal battle and a pointed documentary called The Art of the Steal(which framed the move as a kind of cultural heist), the new building is two weeks away from opening to the public. Given the backstory, the stakes are high. Vogue got an exclusive early peek at the building—six years in the making and designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien—as finishing touches were being made on the installation of the more than 800 paintings plus many other objects collected by Barnes.
The collection still staggers. You can’t really argue with a whopping 69 Cézannes, including dozens of seminal pictures like The Card Players (1890-92), and 59 Matisses, including the famous mural The Dance (1932-33), made specifically for the interior of the Barnes. The good doctor toured the world, picking up Van Goghs, Modiglianis, and Picassos like some people buy postcards. He loved metalwork and African sculpture, too, not just lush canvases. Some have estimated the collection’s value at over a cool $25 billion—though that may be low, given the recent sale of Edvard Munch’s The Scream for $119.9 million.
Williams and Tsien had an unusual task: Their brief was to copy the sequence, room layout, and arrangement of all the works, but in a totally modern structure with new amenities attached. The Merion collection was famous for the packed, salon-style hanging of its treasures in dark rooms with the shades drawn—less than ideal for viewing, but precisely the elements that some felt gave the collection a personal, idiosyncratic touch.
“The first part was really hard,” says Tsien of wrapping her head around the assignment. “Replicating the hang was really difficult—we are modernist architects and we didn’t want to end up with period rooms.” The solution was to essentially make two structures—one recreated for the art à la Merion and one for modern needs—joined by an indoor, covered courtyard with a dramatically vaulted ceiling.
An allée of Japanese maples leads visitors to the first building, which houses offices, an auditorium, conservation labs, a gift shop, and a restaurant. Leaving that building and turning a sharp corner—the sequence is a bit of a tease on purpose—you are in the courtyard and looking into the windows of a separate “house” across the way. That’s the one that holds all the art—peeking out at you through the windows are rooms stuffed with El Grecos and Gaugins.
In this structure, where even the ceilings are the same height as they were in the original, there is one major change: the plan was slightly elongated so that each floor has two “interventions” to slow down the pace of viewing the densely concentrated works. A classroom for education (one of Barnes’s personal missions) and a small break room that looks onto a tree-filled atrium, offer a bit of respite from masterpiece fatigue.
There’s a warmth that permeates the design, owing in part to a palette of caramels, tans, and browns. The exterior of the new Barnes is paneled with polished Jerusalem limestone, which blends naturally into the museum-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Inside, thanks to intricate hand chiseling, the same stone looks dramatically different and rough. Oak and ipe wood—the latter, amazingly, are reclaimed timbers formerly part of the old Coney Island boardwalk—are used liberally, and silk and wool wall panels add texture into the non-gallery spaces, like the restaurant. “The foundation moved from the suburbs into the city,” says Williams of the fact that in total, the new Barnes is 93,000 square feet versus 20,000 for the original. “It’s a bigger world, and the building addresses that. It connects the past to the present to the future.”
Inside the actual galleries, burlap lines the walls under the paintings, mimicking the Merion treatment. The actual masterpieces haven’t changed, but they look different: The many rooms of the old Barnes were often lit only by one dim, hanging fixture. “The lighting is the radical change in this building,” says Barnes executive director and president Derek Gillman. “Now you can actually see the collection, and that’s partly because of technology.” The advanced glass in the windows filters out 86 percent of the art-harming daylight, but lets in enough to radically change perceptions of the works.
Colors now pop, especially the blues and greens in pieces like Picasso’s The Ascetic (1903). During a visit, none other than Ellsworth Kelly—the 89-year-old master who was commissioned to make a sculpture, The Barnes Totem, that now stands at the foundation’s entrance—commented to Gillman that clearly some of the works had been cleaned before the move. “I was so pleased,” says Gillman, who has a lot riding on the success of the $150 million building project. “I was able to tell him, ‘No, they’re just lit properly.’ ”
Now, of course, the critics will weigh in, and the diehards who opposed the move may never be pleased. But as of May 19, you’ll be able to judge the new Barnes for yourself.
Opening May 19; The Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia;barnesfoundation.org
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