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Barnes Gallery Draws Art Lovers For One Last Look

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
July 1, 2011

This weekend, the world-class art collection belonging to the Barnes Foundation will be on display at its longtime home in the Philadelphia suburbs for the last time. Next summer, one of America’s great collections of modern and impressionist art will move to a new building in downtown Philadelphia.

So for a few final days, art lovers from around the country are paying their respects to the old gallery. Those who love the Barnes Foundation say that even though it includes hundreds of paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir and others, it’s more than just an art collection. For some, the place itself is a work of art.

Docent Linda Robinson leads a tour of the gallery at its leafy campus in Lower Merion, just outside Philadelphia. In front of the building, she points up at a pair of cubist sculptures above the front door, which founder Albert Barnes commissioned from the artist Jacques Lipchitz.

“So here is Barnes building this building in 1925 and having the insight — the instinct — to know that cubism is going to determine what happens to the art world in the 20th century,” Robinson tells her group. “It’s miraculous.”

Those Lipchitz sculptures are staying in Merion along with the rest of the building and 12 acres of gardens and arboretum. But after the doors close to the public Sunday, the foundation will start moving the art collection that has resided inside for decades the six miles to downtown Philadelphia.

The End Of A Long Battle

Whether separating the art from the building is a good idea depends on whom you ask. CEO Derek Gilman says the move offers the foundation a chance to move beyond the financial struggles of the past.

“I think it’s actually an extraordinarily positive time for the Barnes,” he says. “The mood of the institution for a long time has been about survival and whether survival was possible. And now there’s a very, very clear and bright future ahead.”

For many years, the Barnes Foundation didn’t need to worry about survival. Founder Albert Barnes made a fortune in pharmaceuticals. He spent his money collecting art, and built the gallery to house it. Barnes made it clear that his foundation would not be an ordinary museum but a school for art appreciation.

“The classes are conducted every day, are filled to capacity, and there is a waiting list of several hundred desirable applicants,” Barnes said in a radio address in 1942. “In short, the foundation is an educational institution, with a well-defined purpose and a very full program. And that is why it cannot be a public gallery.”

Before Barnes was killed in a car crash in 1951, he said the foundation should stay exactly as he left it. But in the early 2000s, foundation officials said they were going broke. They insisted that years of legal battles with the neighborhood over how many visitors the foundation could accommodate left its endowment depleted. They went to court to break Barnes’ trust indenture so they could move the collection to a new building in Philadelphia, to the dismay of longtime students like Carryl Platt.

“This whole situation is tragic,” Platt says. “It’ll be a complete forgery. It will not be as it was intended to be seen. This was never intended to be a museum.”

Barnes officials insist the new building in Philadelphia will help them carry out the foundation’s educational mission. They’ve promised to replicate the way Barnes laid out the galleries, and the way he hung masterpieces alongside everyday objects. Robinson, who also teaches, says the new building will have modern lighting and facilities that are badly needed.

“They now are going to equip a classroom on each floor so that we can be in the classroom, discuss, take notes, and then I can say, ‘Come on, let’s go out to Room 8 and look at the piece directly,’ ” she says.

A Last Look

The galleries at the Barnes have been packed lately with art lovers coming for a last look. There’s a range of feelings about the move here — even among people who come to see the galleries together.

Michael Korwin drove up from Washington, D.C., with his friend Steve Fesler, who used to live just a few miles away.

“I hate to see it move,” Korwin says. “I think it’s just a beautiful setting, just a whole comprehensive package.”

Fesler says he’s glad it’s moving.

“I lived in Haverford in the ’70s and I had no clue it was here,” he says. “So I’m glad it’s moving, because I think a lot of people have no clue it’s here.”

Many of the people in the galleries were visiting the Barnes for the first time, drawn by the controversy over the move and the recent documentary film about it, The Art of the Steal. But some longtime Barnes lovers are so distraught they can’t even bring themselves to go inside.

“It’s like a patient who you know is dying. It’s almost like, well you know what? I’m going to feel better when it’s over with, I think so,” says Nick Tinari, a former student at the Barnes who has done as much as anyone to fight the move. “I think about those Buddhas in Afghanistan [destroyed by the Taliban]. When I think about this, I think about the loss of a species. Maybe it sounds like too much, but that’s how I feel about this. It’s like mountaintop removal. You can’t put the mountain back once you do it.”

Opponents of the move to Philadelphia may have one last chance to stop it. The Pennsylvania judge who gave permission for the move back in 2004 will hold a hearing on the latest legal appeal in August. Barnes Foundation officials are moving forward with plans to open the new gallery in the spring. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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