Barnes Foundation: Irony, honor in Philly’s new mansion of old art

The Barnes Foundation, newly reopened on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

After a decade of political wrangling, court battles, protests and high-profile media productions detailing the long sordid affair, the Barnes Foundation saga ended yesterday with the opening of a new $150 million museum on the Ben Franklin Parkway.

“In making this great collection accessible to people of every age and background, every walk of life — and in doing so, keeping that collection intact — we honor the mission of Dr. Albert C. Barnes and the foundation he created,” said Derek Gillman, the executive director of the Barnes, while standing behind a podium in the ironically named Annenberg Court. (Legend has it that Walter Annenberg and other rich Philadelphians detested Barnes and lusted for his collection.)

After a few more speeches, the 15-foot-high doors swung open to reveal what is, perhaps, the most revered collection of 19th- and 20th-century art in the world, not to mention a breathtaking array of traditional African sculpture and Native American art.

The two main floors are modeled after the former Merion site, reflecting Dr. Barnes’ personal home and distinctive style; paintings, sculptures and textiles are eclectically clustered in 22 rooms, with no information posted on the walls. Instead, pamphlets are placed in each room for perusal. And there are hundreds of inspired works packed into these intimate spaces, including 181 by Renoir, 59 by Matisse, 46 by Picasso … the list goes on — for centuries. 

Meticulous care has been taken to reproduce these rooms according to Dr. Barnes esthetic. But, almost certainly, the local philanthropist and collector would not have approved of this new facility — or any move of his cherished collection for that matter.

Outside on 20th Street, Friends of the Barnes leader Evelyn Yaari stood amidst a half-dozen protesters. “The City of Philadelphia has the Barnes Foundation art collection, but it does not have the true gift that was Dr. Barnes’ legacy. They’ve been given a fake — a reproduction,” she said. “We want to bare witness to the true legacy, and make people aware of the history of what has gone on here.”

‘It’s like a dog pissing on your property’

“The Art of the Steal” is a popular 2009 documentary by Don Argott about the political struggle over the Barnes Collection. Argott was outside the event, along with Nick Tinari, a lawyer who worked with Friends of the Barnes.

Tinari was incensed to learn of Annenberg Court. “You just knew they were going to do that,” he said. “It’s like a dog pissing on your property. That’s how this feels.”  

What we saw

Here’s three paintings that particularly wowed Metro’s reporter yesterday.

1. “The Dance,” by Henri Matisse
Uniquely fitted to the triple archway in Dr. Barnes’ Merion, Pa., home, the new archway is built into the main room of the collection.

2.  “The Joy of Life,” by Henri Matisse
Perhaps the most revered of Matisse’s works, this 1905 painting was, according to Dr. Barnes’ wishes, rarely reproduced in color. It has been given it’s own room in the museum, filled with a mix of natural and artificial light. 

3. “Models,” by George Seurat
Among six Seurat’s featured at the Barnes, this is largest and most striking. Adorning the west wall of the main room, Seurat depicts three female figures posing in front of his earlier masterpiece, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette.”



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