This spring, the Barnes Foundation, a private art collection of unrivaled magnitude, depth, and value will add something new to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The grand boulevard, which cuts diagonally across the grid from City Hall toward scenic Fairmount Park, has long been dominated by the hulking Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Barnes Foundation, however, will be its first addition in 60 years—and what an addition it is: After decades of struggle, this astounding collection of artwork will constitute a major coup for Philadelphia’s version of the Champs-Élysées. Despite this cultural gain for the city, some believe that the Parkway is the last place Dr. Alfred C. Barnes’s eccentric pastiche of postimpressionist, tribal, and decorative arts should have ended up.
There are Monets, Modiglianis, and more Cézannes than in Parisian galleries.
Born in working-class Philadelphia in 1872, Barnes managed not only to earn a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania but also to develop a popular antiseptic. After selling his pharmaceutical business in the early-twentieth century for a staggering $6 million, he began collecting art, traveling often to Paris, and spending his new wealth on works by Cézanne, Picasso, van Gogh, and other luminaries.
By the 1920s, Barnes had developed an interest in African art; and by the 1940s, in early modernist American works as well as decorative objects. This amalgam of interests would prove essential to his aesthetic and educational ideals, espoused in the foundation he established in 1922 in the posh, leafy suburb of Merion. Rather than having works arranged according to chronology or artist, he had them installed in cozy "ensembles." French masterpieces were clustered, salon-style, with less significant pieces, native and decorative objects, peppered between—a methodology that testified to a worldview based on inclusion and universality of expression. On a 1930 visit, Matisse called the foundation "the only sane place to see art in America."
On a 1930 visit, Matisse called the foundation
"the only sane place to see art in America."
In 1920s Philadelphia, the vision failed to take hold. The collection was panned when first shown downtown in 1923, and it would take years for its incredible value—both artistic and monetary—to be understood.
Today that’s hard to believe. Featured in the collection are a whopping 181 Renoirs, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 7 van Goghs, and 6 Seurats. There are Monets, Modiglianis, and more Cézannes than in Parisian galleries, including The Card Players, a masterpiece so celebrated that the dealer Richard Feigen said in The Art of the Steal, "you’d need a nation to buy it."
Inevitably, local connoisseurs caught on to the collection’s value, with parties from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the wealthy Annenberg family (then owners of The Philadelphia Inquirer) eventually trying to get their hands on the trove, which many believed should be housed in the city itself.
Barnes insisted that the artworks stay put, situated on the 12-acre arboretum developed by his wife, Laura. In his will, he firmly stipulated that the works were to remain "in exactly the places they are." They were not to be loaned out, sold, or even rearranged. The board would have five trustees, four of whom would be named by Lincoln University, a historically black college—a move that’s been interpreted alternately as an expression of his democratic ideals and a snub to high-society Philadelphia.
The will, however, has been fiercely tested and tried since Barnes’s death in 1951, as board members, directors, neighbors, former students, and local politicians have all struggled with how to preserve, support, and present his amazing collection. For while the assemblage of works has been estimated at an overwhelming $30 billion, the restrictions Barnes laid out for their governance have left the collection subsisting on a meager budget for decades.
Situated proudly on the parkway, the Barnes Foundation brings a collection worthy of the chicest Paris boulevard.
In 2002, after a seemingly endless struggle plagued by money and power wars, racial politics, and scandal, the foundation announced that it would petition the courts to expand the board and relocate the collection to a more accessible site, in Philadelphia. The move has been hotly contested by a group called Friends of the Barnes Foundation, which argues that it goes against everything the collector stood for, but others believe that it’s the best way to keep the collection alive and thriving.
On May 19, the foundation will open its new home, a $100 million building designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects. Barnes’s original vision will be preserved insofar as the works will be arranged exactly as they were in Merion, in rooms replicating the scale, configuration, and proportion of the original galleries, but the building adds the trappings of a 21st-century museum: generous conservation facilities; state-of-the-art climate control; a café; a gift shop; and soaring, light-filled, handicap-accessible public spaces. The additional square footage and the extended opening hours mean that the foundation can greatly expand its reach; membership has already skyrocketed. Meanwhile, the Merion location will house archives and a library, and offer a horticulture program.
Whether the new campus will truly serve Barnes’s democratic ideals remains to be seen, but the boost to Philadelphia is undeniable. Situated proudly on the parkway, the Barnes Foundation brings a collection worthy of the chicest Paris boulevard.
Tickets to the new Barnes Foundation will become available to members on February 1 and to nonmembers in March.
Kris Wilton has written about art for Modern Painters, Art+Auction, ARTnews, and Artinfo.com, for which she was executive editor, and about other cultural topics for Slate, The Village Voice, and Entertainment Weekly. She is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.