After nearly 90 years in Merion, Albert Barnes’ world-renowned art collection is today down to its last month on Latches Lane.
For visitors these days, it’s clear that the end is near.
In the building’s first floor gallery, Barnes’ painstaking arrangements of Renoirs, Piccasos, Soutines and Cezannes are, in a number of locations, interrupted by sporadic sections of blank wall space. Small manila cards give the title of each missing piece—perhaps 20 in all, and most of them Renoirs—explaining that the paintings have been removed for renovation purposes.
These and other signs of the times—the closing of the second floor gallery, the move of several administrative offices to Philadelphia—remind visitors of the pieces’ imminent move to a new home on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The Barnes Foundation houses perhaps the most impressive private collection of French Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Early Modern art in the world, boasting over 800 paintings. The collection includes 181 works by Renoir, 69 by Cezanne, 59 by Matisse, 46 by Picasso, 21 by Soutine, 16 by Modigliani and 11 by Degas, among works by other well-known artists and some lesser-known. The collection is estimated to be worth $25 billion or more, and includes Van Gogh’s Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin and other iconic pieces that one might expect to be hanging in the Louvre, rather than on a sleepy street in Merion.
That’s always been part of the collection’s charm. Collector Dr. Albert Barnes founded the organization in 1922 as an educational institution, with the philosophy of making art accessible to ordinary people. He requested that his collection never be moved, toured, or even rearranged.
But as most are well aware, Barnes’ art collection is moving. July 3 is the last day to visit the Barnes in Merion before the gallery moves to the Parkway, where it is slated to open to the public in 2012.
Adieu, for now
In the past few months, many visits to the Barnes have been farewell trips.
Louie Asher has lived directly across from the Barnes on Latches Lane for the past 20 years. Her children grew up in and around the Barnes grounds, where she often brought them in strollers after preschool, she said.
“We all kind of grew up with this beautiful and special institution,” Asher said. “We’re all making our last visits—our farewell visits.”
Asher, a member of the group Friends of the Barnes, has been a student of the institution since moving to Merion. Her first teacher was one of the original Foundation teachers, and her last course finished just two weeks ago.
“Every time I walked in and looked around I just had this feeling of devastation—that something irreplaceable was going to be dismantled,” Asher said. “It was going to be rearranged elsewhere, but would never be the same.”
Dr. Barnes saw his galleries as teaching tools. Soft, romantic Renoirs neighbor early Cubist pieces by Picasso, Cezanne’s landscapes and fruits, and abstract works by Miró. Some walls house more than 20 paintings. The arrangements might seem curious, but there was a method to the millionaire’s madness. The groupings teach form, line and color, as students find connections between the seemingly disparate pieces.
The Barnes Foundation states on its website that the Parkway location will maintain Dr. Barnes’ original arrangement of the pieces, and galleries will be scaled to replicate the intimate feel of the gallery in Merion. Each floor of the galleries will also include a classroom, and the building will contain an auditorium and a rotating exhibition gallery.
Asher said she believes the Parkway “will probably be a wonderful museum” and perhaps make improvements in some aspects, but repeated that the Merion experience simply cannot be replicated.
“The collection was very carefully organized to promote educational principles, but it was also a unique place in which the whole was much greater than its parts,” she explained.
Everything about the building—the color of the stone, the sculpture embedded in the walls, the tile work at the front entrance, the ironwork on the railings—was painstakingly designed.
“The interior and exterior, the gardens, the grounds, [were] all a comprehensive whole, … designed to create this unique institution and unique environment to study art and horticulture,” Asher said. “So of course, we’re all devastated it’s … being torn out of its home. It’s a unique place in the world and won’t be replaced.”
Lee Ferguson, who studied art history in the University of Pennsylvania’s doctoral program, recognizes the uniqueness of the Barnes experience, but also believes the art can be enjoyed by more people once it moves to the Parkway.
“I don’t think the majority of people know about [the Barnes],” said Ferguson, who has since moved back to her native Tennessee. “Outside of Philadelphia, its an unknown, tiny place.”
Ferguson recalled her first experience at the Barnes Foundation. “I love the Barnes where it is, because I love the experience you get when you walk in and there are 50 pictures in one room, with one wall. … It’s overwhelming.
“The first time I saw it, I just walked through the rooms with an open mouth and had to go back again; it’s just incredible to see so much coming at you at once.”
Ferguson looks forward to the Parkway move because of the new audience that will be able to enjoy the art. At the same time, she recognizes the change the move will bring. “Even if they moved to the new building and painted the walls the same way, you’re never going to get that same experience.”
Honoring Barnes With the New
Others see it differently, of course, arguing that Barnes’ legacy will be enhanced and broadened with the move. The new space will preserve the experience of the existing galleries “while also providing space to focus on the Foundation’s core ideals of education and connection to the landscape,” said architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, in an October 2009 statement.
The two-story, 93,000-square-foot building will house the Barnes art amid 12,000 square feet of exhibition space, with the promise of the identical scale, proportion and configuration of the original Merion galleries. Classrooms on each floor, an internal garden, state-of-the-art lighting, a 150-seat auditorium and modern facilities for painting conservation are part of the new site (along with the obligatory café and gift shop).
Williams and Tsien also collaborated with landscape architect Laurie Olin to design what they call a “gallery in a garden,” aimed at honoring the horticultural experience of the Barnes’ Merion grounds and creating “contemplative” outdoor experience.
Those who have come to witness the last days of the Barnes in Merion differ in their responses to these changes. Some, like Ferguson, are excited for the new attention the artwork will receive on the Parkway. Others are boycotting the Foundation after the move.
And some are still resisting.
Last month, the Friends of the Barnes filed a brief in the district court through attorney Samuel Stretton, asking that the Barnes hearings be reopened. The May 18 brief, following a February petition, states that there was “serious misconduct on the part of former Pennsylvania Attorney General Michael Fisher that posed an ‘absolute conflict of interest’ never revealed to Montgomery County Orphans’ Court.” Used as evidence are statements Fisher makes in the film “The Art of the Steal” regarding his dealings with Lincoln University.
“We are still waiting for Judge Ott to set the date for Oral Arguments,” Friends of the Barnes member Evelyn Yaari said. “After they take place, Judge Ott will decide whether or not to re-open hearings.”
Yaari has lived in Bala Cynwyd for 27 years and began working with the Friends of the Barnes in the past few years, she said.
“My perspective is one of a citizen, not of an art person, seeing something in my community that seems to be obviously unjust, unfair and wrong,” Yaari said. “[It] really captured my thinking.”
“It is not an art collection ... the whole thing is a work of art. [Barnes was the] architect of it, the curator of it, his entire adult life went into putting it together in very special way. [That’s] a message that is completely lost or lied about if it’s removed and put on Parkway in a box. If you think you’re seeing what he made, you’re not. You’re seeing paintings. Dr. Barnes left a legacy to everybody.”
South Philadelphia resident Chris Latshaw, who grew up in Wynnewood, has visited the Barnes twice in the past month and a half. He made his final trip two weeks ago.
“What was so fantastic about the Barnes was that—obviously, the arrangements were unique—but they were personal,” said Latshaw, who said he won’t visit the Barnes when it moves to the Parkway.
“The works of art at the [Philadelphia Museum of Art] and the Met are so static and sanctimonious. But art isn’t sacred—it’s humane. At the Barnes, you don’t have [the pieces] arranged in a straight line on a blank wall. You have them arranged the way a man who loved art arranged them, in all different layouts and mixed together with other things he saw as appropriate.”
Dennis Harney, also a South Philly resident, recently made his second trip out to the Barnes.
“I'm not an art expert by any means, but I did want to see it in its original location before it moved to the Parkway,” Harney said.
“I’m amazed by the number of pieces that Dr. Barnes was able to collect, and it makes me wonder if he in his own way somewhat induced the demand for that art ... it fascinates me.”
He added: “There is definitely a certain charm in making the trek to Merion and experiencing the collection in a unique location, but I think for as much as the collection itself has become so valuable it seems to have transcended the location.”
Latshaw said he will especially miss the works of Chaim Soutine, a painter he grew to appreciate largely because of the Barnes.
“I’m probably never going to see those works again, and saying goodbye to those pieces, especially the Soutines, was a particularly profound sensation,” he said. He lingered in the gallery until closing time on his final visit, reluctant to say goodbye.
In some ways, Latshaw said, this is an appropriate end for the Barnes.
“To me, so much of the art in the Barnes is about the beauty of transience and the passing of things,” he said.
That is a philosophy where both camps—proponents of the move who consider the new building the sweetest possible addition to a world-class destination for art, and activists still bitter about the decision—might find solace amid the ongoing rancor.
Combined, those conflicting views can be summed up in one feeling: bittersweet.
It’s an emotion that has already started to overwhelm visitors to the unique Latches Lane galleries, as their final month in Merion commences.
Remaining dates and times for Barnes Foundation gallery admission are listed on the Foundation’s website, though available tickets are dwindling. The gallery shuts its doors on July 3, but the grounds of the Barnes will remain open to the public, according to the Barnes.