There was a lot of art world muttering when the Barnes Foundation moved its collection from Merion, PA to the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia—a lot of muttering I figured was over until I read The New Republic’s “The Barnes Foundation’s Disastrous New Home,” available online as of a month ago. I have no qualms with the piece itself, as it is well-written and presents its argument clearly, but… oh, do you not know the story? A self-made billionaire, very particular showing rules, an eccentric gallery style, more particular posthumous showing rules, and much pushing and pulling from certain groups has led to this, the relocation of Dr. Albert Barnes’ incredible art collection, from a nice town off US-1 to Philadelphia’s broken attempt at the Champs-Elysée. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway leads to the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, and the Rodin Museum and the Franklin Institute pop up on either side of the wide vehicle lanes and pedestrian walkways. My first thought upon learning that the Barnes was moving in was, ‘oh cool, I can see two museums in one day.’
I never went to the Barnes while it was in Merion—it was difficult to get tickets and always one of those ‘next weekend’-type activities. I say this up front to dispel any presumptions about the gallery, any emotion involved in its move, any grudge before walking through the doors.
Because what all of the essays I’ve read on the move of the Barnes has missed is exactly what makes the Barnes special. You can only read ‘eclectic showing style’ and ‘grouping together disparate paintings’ so many times before it means nothing to you. When I walked into the Barnes, I was overwhelmed. I was shocked. And not in the way modern art is shocking, but to-my-toes awed by the collection itself and yes, how it was displayed.
It reminded me of the walls of my college dorm. They are twelve feet high and painted a sickening baby-yellow-eggshell, so to ignore this fact I tape up anything I think looks cool. New Yorker covers, postcards people send me and from places I’ve been myself, a New York Times Style Magazine spread, cartoons, fortune cookie fortunes, posters for events on campus I snuck into my backpack, actual posters, and a fistful of art postcards. They are arranged side-by-side and, although this year I did dedicate a portion of a wall to ‘travel,’ have no theme beyond color similarity and ‘thought it’d look nice here.’
Can you see it? Now imagine I had given the groupings a lot more thought but not any more system, that every art postcard is the masterpiece itself, and every fortune cookie paper is a piece of metalwork.
I spent a total of three hours in this house.
I wondered what it would have been like in Merion, what would have been different. One of the best points in the New Republic piece is that the mural “The Dance,” by Matisse, was painted specifically for the location of Merion- to be above the windows of that green space, to be seen from the floor level as well as the balcony of that house. Is Matisse’s vision lost in the move? I can’t say, and won’t hypothesize; what struck me more was that a place like the Barnes could exist, anywhere. That a room where an El Greco, a van Gogh, and a tiny Native American metal piece all share a wall space, their similarity only a small recurring motif or shade of color.
Should you be walking down the Ben Franklin parkway, on your way from the Philadelphia Free Library to the Art Museum, talk a right up an alley before the Rodin, by the Whole Foods. Tucked in there you’ll find shallow rectangular pools of pebbles and sea salt and a modern-looking building that might house any number of unique art collections inside. Go inside anyway. It will be one of the most eye-opening, mind-expanding, theory-questioning art collections you will experience today.