Saving Dr. Barnes's Vision

Saving Dr. Barnes's Vision

Wall Street Journal

Eric Gibson
May 23, 2012

PHILADELPHIA—One of the longest and bitterest battles the art world has ever seen—the fight over the future of Philadelphia's storied Barnes Foundation collection—has, for now, anyway, come to an end with the opening of the superb new facility on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It is a win for both advocates and opponents of the move from the foundation's original location in suburban Merion.

Long in financial peril thanks to a sorry, two-decade-long record of mismanagement, the institution is at last on a sound footing. At the same time, the integrity of Albert C. Barnes's vision has been preserved. The new museum faithfully re-creates the experience of the original installation and makes Dr. Barnes himself present as never before.

Its successful outcome notwithstanding, this was a battle that needed to be joined. For at stake was the future of a one-of-a-kind collection and an important episode in the history of American taste, a subject the general public knows too little about.

For Dr. Barnes was a collector like no other, a man whose contributions to the art life of this country were unprecedented in his time and have been unmatched since. Unlike today's Fashion-Victim Medicis, he didn't chase after the latest hot thing but bought what moved him; didn't regard art collecting as a means of social advancement but as an all-absorbing intellectual and spiritual quest; built a permanent home for his collection as an educational institution, not as a monument to himself.

Central to this didactic purpose were the installations, the so-called "ensembles," nonchronological groupings of objects that mixed media, periods and styles, cultures, fine and decorative arts. Dr. Barnes's aim was twofold: The point of the ensembles was to show the continuity of all art. In particular, Dr. Barnes wanted to show that modern artists were indebted to, rather than dismissive of, the traditions of the past. And in his teachings and writings, Dr. Barnes drew on his scientific background (as well as the writings of Henry James, John Dewey and George Santayana) to bring a new rigor to the criticism of art, replacing approaches he found intellectually flabby or simply beside the point. He emphasized the formal properties of painting—line, color, space and the like. Today his method might seem rather narrow. But it still has value, particularly as a way into a painting for someone with no prior knowledge—Dr. Barnes's intended audience. And it's a welcome antidote to the theory-drenched obscurantism that passes for art criticism today.

In the galleries, Dr. Barnes's curatorial outlook made for some pretty strange artistic bedfellows. One typically head-snapping juxtaposition places a proto-Cubist Picasso painting of a head near a 16th-century French wood sculpture of the crucified Christ—and those are just two objects among more than two dozen on that wall. The total effect of a single room and certainly of a whole visit could be both confusing and exhilarating. Indeed, one might speak of the Four Stages of the Barnes Experience: Bewilderment, Curiosity, Insight, Appreciation. Whether or not they ultimately "got" the Barnes, all visitors who entered left knowing they had partaken of an art experience of unparalleled richness and intensity. Hence the protracted uproar over the proposed move and earlier rescue plans going back some 20 years. People who know and love the Barnes felt something precious and irreplaceable was in danger of being lost.

The more so because the Barnes's future too often seemed to be hostage to other agendas. For example, it isn't entirely clear if the idea hatched in 2002 to move the Barnes downtown happened because it really was thought to be the only way to save the financially beleaguered institution, or because relocation would help then-Gov. Ed Rendell to realize his dream of turning Benjamin Franklin Parkway into a center of cultural tourism. (Around the same time, the state was also negotiating to establish an Alexander Calder museum on the parkway, an effort that ultimately came to naught.)

Still, there was only one relevant issue once the decision to move was made: Would the result be a Disneyfied simulacrum—the Barnes in quotation marks, as it were? Or would visitors have the same intimate, revelatory encounter with works of art in the new locale as in Merion?

Thanks to the architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, who understood from the beginning the delicate nature of their task, the Barnes experience today is identical to what it was previously. They have created a carefully staged entrance, ensuring that the hurly-burly of the everyday world is left behind so the visitor enters the collection in the proper frame of mind to absorb its riches. It's an arrangement that recalls Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with its new entrance pavilion by Renzo Piano, which now houses all the necessary but distracting museum functions such as ticketing and coat check to ensure that once inside the Venetian palazzo you are able to focus exclusively on art and taste.

Inside the Barnes's galleries the architects have made subtle enhancements, such as using a special glass in the windows to admit more daylight than was possible in Dr. Barnes's day, and reflecting artificial light off raised ceilings. The result is the best of both worlds: The works of art are more visible than previously, and yet the installation is so thoroughly and convincingly replicated that there are times you have to remind yourself that you're on the parkway, not in Merion.

Especially welcome is the new temporary-exhibition gallery that will be used for shows exploring Dr. Barnes's life and career in art. The inaugural exhibition, "Ensemble: Albert C. Barnes and the Experiment in Education," uses works of art and archival material to provide visitors with an excellent primer on Dr. Barnes, his collection and his aesthetic formation. There was nothing like this in Merion, and it is certain to go a long way to dispel the aura of strangeness that has long attached to Dr. Barnes, his vision and his method.

Not everything is perfect. The architects have broken the sequence by inserting an interior garden between two sets of lateral galleries at one end, and done the same thing at the other end with a classroom. It's a decision that orphans the outermost rooms, thus diminishing the overall effect of the installation. We also could have done without Ellsworth Kelly's banal geometric sculpture "Barnes Totem" gracing the forecourt. Talk about a downer.

Most perplexing of all, the large, day-lighted central atrium has been named in honor of Walter and Leonora Annenberg. Whatever his virtues as a collector and philanthropist, Annenberg was a longtime foe of Dr. Barnes. If any aspect of this new arrangement is likely to have Dr. Barnes fulminating in his grave, it's the presence of the Annenberg name on this new museum.

Those are, however, details. The fact is that after touring this new facility, you come away convinced that the Barnes Foundation is poised at the beginning of a bright new future—one that will allow its magnificent collection to become better known, Dr. Barnes's ideas to be more widely understood, and the man himself to be recognized as the generous, idealistic visionary he was instead of the eccentric curmudgeon of popular caricature. It's a future that could scarcely be imagined until now, and one that everyone, including those of us critical of the Barnes's stewards in the past, has a stake in seeing come to pass.

Mr. Gibson is the Journal's Leisure & Arts features editor.

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