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The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2012

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NOV 2012 Issue

The New Barnes Foundation Museum

Before MoMA was conceived, Albert Barnes (1872–1951) embarked upon an ambitious collecting program focused on Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Henri Matisse, and pre-Cubist Picasso. And he published formalist accounts of his artists. A great friend of John Dewey, who dedicated his treatise on aesthetics to him, Barnes was famously contentious. Only guests he personally vetted were allowed to view his collection. After his death, expensive lawsuits opened his foundation to the public, but depleted its endowment. And so now his collection has been moved from suburban Merion to central Philadelphia. Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, architects of the handsome new building, replicate the former’s curatorial hanging, opening up the original ground plan on either side of the central gallery by inserting glass-walled rooms. An additional large courtyard, displays telling Barnes’s story, seminar rooms, an auditorium, a restaurant, and a shop complete the new structure. You come under a canopy, go past Ellsworth Kelly’s majestic 40 foot tall “The Barnes Totem” (2012), and enter walking alongside a reflecting pool. Once inside the galleries, you can almost imagine being back in the original museum, at least so long as you don’t look up or out of the windows. 

Formerly, the Barnes’s dense hangings inspired focus on the total work of art—the ensemble of paintings and sculptures he amassed. Because there were no wall labels in the original design, you looked for associations of color and form, as if groups of paintings were one large work of art. And the ironworks between paintings suggested the relationship of fine art to craft. Barnes’s suggestive, sometimes perverse groupings of artworks showed he had a real personal style, like the artists he collected. Now his paintings are easier to see. And yet, I regret that their old setting was not preserved, for like the art it contains, a museum too can be a work of art. And the Barnes was an important monument to a period style, not unlike the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston or the Wallace Collection in London. 

Since the former C.E.O. of the Barnes Foundation says that she was lying when she claimed that her institution was broke, it seems impossible to know the true story of this move. Merion is a short trip by public transportation from central Philadelphia, so it’s absurd to pretend, as defenders of the new building have said, that it was inaccessible. Would it not have been cheaper, then, to repair the Merion museum rather than construct this new edifice? Now, of course, more tourists will visit, for the Barnes is a short walk away from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. No one would propose that a painting be improved by being repainted. Why then did Barnes’s museum not inspire the same respect? 

Barnes had a love-hate relation with his collection, loving the art, but working hard to alienate almost everyone who might have supported him.  Like an artist who works with materials destined to decay, he created an institution that could not survive. And so the fate of his museum is sad but neither unexpected nor entirely undeserved. If it had to be moved, it should have been pruned, with the masterpieces displayed in traditional museum format, and the minor works put in reserve. But of course that would have destroyed Barnes’s museum completely. As it is, the new building is an unhappy compromise, revealing the resentment that he inspired.


    This account builds upon David Carrier’s Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries (Duke University Press, 2006). David B. Brownlee, The Barnes Foundation: Two Buildings, One Mission (Skira/Rizzoli, 2012) describes the new building. On the finances see


David Carrier

David Carrier is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2012

All Issues