An Interactive Tour Through the Barnes FoundationBy RANDY KENNEDY
The Barnes Foundation, the stupendous collection of Impressionist and early modernist painting and sculpture amassed by Albert C. Barnes, a pharmaceutical tycoon, has been one of the strangest and most affecting art institutions in America since the day it opened in 1925 in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion. Much of what made it extraordinary was the idiosyncratic way Barnes displayed the art, in an antiquated-looking salon style that filled entire walls of its neo-Classical home with odd arrangements of paintings, organized to echo and rhyme their formal qualities and interspersed with decorative metalwork like ax heads and hinges.
Soon, though, the Barnes will become a lot more like other American museums. In 2004 a Pennsylvania judge’s ruling permitted the foundation, which had struggled financially, to bypass the rigid charter and bylaws laid out by Barnes, stipulating that no picture in the collection could be lent, sold or moved from the walls of the galleries he built. A new building for the collection in downtown Philadelphia is expected to open next May. Designed by the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, it will be four times the size of the original Barnes, which closed for good at the end of June.
For those who missed the collection in its final days in Merion, The New York Times has created a virtual tour of the galleries to convey at least a little of the flavor of the home Barnes built for his art.
His choice of Merion as a symbolic removal from the city was a reflection of his disdain for the pieties of the art establishment and his fiercely unconventional ideas about what good art was, inspired by the pragmatist philosophy of William James and John Dewey. He routinely rejected requests for casual visits and ran the collection less as a museum than as a place where students, many of them underprivileged, could attend classes to learn about art in depth.
It is difficult now, looking at the artists that Barnes collected — Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani, Seurat — to grasp how revolutionary such a collection was at the time he was building it, in the years just after the 1913 Armory Show in New York that shocked many Americans with the radical innovations of Cubism and Duchamp. A 1923 headline in The Philadelphia Inquirer, appearing as Barnes prepared to open the building that would house his collection, typified the view of many: “How a Pennsylvania millionaire is spending a fortune to prove the Futurists and Cubists not insane and teach us to admire their strange work as he does.”
Nearly all of this strange work soon ended up becoming canonical. But the way Barnes exhibited it kept the eccentricity of his vision front and center. It looked unlike almost anything else one could find in an American museum — a fact even more pronounced today.
Critics of the move argue that it will destroy the character of one of the last truly personal visions for what an art museum can be, putting the collection in a more conventional setting and surrounding it with the accoutrements of every other museum, like a cafe, a bookstore, an auditorium. But some supporters point out that the plan for the new building in some ways maintains the layout of the original. They add that the Barnes, like all great art collections, should not be preserved in amber, and will continue to live only if it is allowed to change.
Have you visited the Barnes? Share your memories of the collection in the comments field below.