The new Barnes Foundation museum opened this May in downtown Philadelphia, a few miles away from its original home in the suburb of Merion. As Jeff Cain wrote last summer in this space, it was “cultural vandalism” to disregard Albert Barnes’s intention to preserve his art collection in the Merion gallery designed for it. That gallery, designed by architect Paul Cret under Barnes’s direction, was essential to the Barnes collection -- the Barnes collection was its art and its gallery.
Last month brought confirmation that the disregard of Albert Barnes’s bequest was entirely unnecessary. Kimberly Camp, president and CEO of the Barnes Foundation during years that trustees fought in court to have Albert Barnes’s wishes set aside on the pretext that the foundation was nearing bankruptcy, admitted:
Bankruptcy was not the reason we filed the petition to move the Foundation to the city. At the time the petition was filed, the Barnes Foundation had a cash surplus and we had no debt -- none. But, saying so made the rescue so much more gallant.
That “gallant” reason covered over the Barnes Foundation trustees’ wish to make the Barnes into something grander, more lucrative, and more convenient for Philadelphia’s elite denizens.
But what of the new Barnes Foundation museum? Can the trustees’ actions be in part redeemed if the new building offers a successful setting for Albert Barnes’s art? Williams College professor of art Michael Lewis takes up exactly this question in a review of the new gallery.
In his generous review, Lewis finds much to praise in the work of architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien: “an appealingly quiet sensuousness of materials” and “a generous but diffuse play of natural light” “which manages to respect the integrity of the original Barnes even as it presents a bold civic presence in its own right.” In the new Barnes galley, Lewis writes, the art
looks terrific. . . . In one case, the improvement is startling. Matisse’s great liberating work of 1906, Le Bonheur de vivre . . . can be seen as never before. Had it been given more prominence over the years, one wonders if it might have had something of the reputation of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon.
None of this makes any difference to the travesty of moving the Barnes, in Lewis’ view. Lewis writes:
One might simply move Stonehenge to the British Museum and be done with it . . . and perhaps lower the Sistine Chapel ceiling as well so that we might get a better look. Of course, the moment that the blocks of Stonehenge are disassembled, they are no longer Stonehenge. In much the same way, once the Barnes is moved, it is no longer the Barnes. Each painting may still sit in its precise relationship to each of its neighbors, but it no longer sits in its precise relationship to the world.
Ultimately, as Lewis writes, the new Barnes is merely a “simulacrum” of the old, now lost Barnes. Lewis concludes his review with this prediction:
When the Barnes hoopla subsides, buoyed aloft by novelty and the fear of offending the cultural funders, there will be a recognition that a cultural crime has been perpetuated, an irrevocable crime on the order of the demolition of Pennsylvania Station, and right under the noses of the city’s custodians. When that happens, there will be a widespread consensus that the move was a tragedy, even as everyone now knows to call it a triumph.
The Barnes Foundation’s trustees’ cavalier disregard for Albert Barnes’s vision for his collection is a travesty. It’s too late for the Barnes Foundation, but perhaps the new court filings will serve as a caution to other trustees who would disregard the wishes of their benefactors.