Paging Dr. Barnes: New Downtown Philadelphia Foundation Works Overtime to Stay True to Its Founder's Vision

The new Barnes Foundation
(Photo © Ben Sutton)

PHILADELPHIA — "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead," Benjamin Franklin is said to have advised, "either write something worth reading or do things worth writing." The late Dr. Albert C. Barnes, whose namesake Foundation opens its new home on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia's Center City on Saturday, did many things that have been written about and penned at least one document — the Barnes Foundation's by-laws — that has been read and re-read countless times since 2002, when plans to displace his world-class collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings from suburban Lower Merion were first announced. "It was always about the collection," said Aileen Roberts, Foundation board member and chair of its building committee, during Wednesday's preview. "And Dr. Barnes — the phantom client."

Barnes's presence is much more than spectral, though; his wishes are honored throughout the museum's permanent collection galleries, and in many of its new features, which Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects have carefully kept (mostly) separate. "Our campus has been expertly conceived and developed to meet the needs of the 21st century," Barnes executive director and president Derek Gillman said Wednesday. Purists will bemoan the addition of requisite modern museum features like audio guides, a restaurant and coffee bar, and a gift shop, but the new Barnes's deep sensitivity to its founder's wishes makes it very difficult to remain focused on the past decade's legal turmoil.

The fight over Albert Barnes's will may have been lost, but both sides have emerged victorious. Our trophy is a museum that Roberts rightly described as "a jewel box." Visitors enter through a stepped garden — by landscape architects OLIN — passing the towering new Ellsworth Kelly sculpture "Barnes Totem" and a row of Japanese maples bordering a reflecting pool, before moving indoors through a giant doorway in the façade of hand-grooved limestone. Inside, passing the admissions desk, you emerge into the cathedral-like Annenberg Court, a kind of enclosed courtyard linking the half of the building housing offices, services, and a large gallery for temporary exhibitions with the wing designed to replicate the experience of Paul Philippe Cret's 1925 Merion building. The impressive — but never oppressive — verticality of the spaces and structures leading to the core of the Foundation only makes entering the smaller permanent collection galleries more surreal and transporting.

Leaving behind the familiar monumental scale of contemporary museum architecture, visitors enter a reverent recreation of the original Barnes in which the densely hung collection of paintings, drawings, sculptures, tapestries, furniture, and assorted metal knick-knacks literally shines. The high-tech lighting control system highlights the revolutionary palettes of Fauvist, Pointillist, and Expressionist paintings that many complained were dulled by the lackluster lights in Lower Merion.

The extremely faithful salon-style installations and cozy architectural proportions in these galleries resemble streamlined period rooms. And, as countless visitors and officials reiterated during the preview, the artworks have never looked better than they do in these sparkling surroundings. The first room, a double-height gallery crowned with Henri Matisse's Barnes-commissioned mural "The Dance" (1932-33), features enough famous canvases to sustain a small museum unto itself: a handful of works by Paul Cézanne includes "The Card Players" (1890-92); dozens of nudes and pastoral scenes by Pierre-Auguste Renoir; huge canvases by Georges Seurat and Pablo Picasso; and even a small Tintoretto ("Two Apostles," late-16th century).

All 23 rooms include a similar blend of the usual European Impressionist and Post-Impressionist suspects — what the inaugural temporary exhibition, "Ensemble: Alfred C. Barnes and the Experiment in Education," calls "The Four Core Artists," Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, and Renoir — along with unexpected treasures. The latter range from proto-Cubist African statues to colorful pottery that seems to have fallen right out of an adjacent still life, to surprising finds like Frans Hals's dark "Portrait of a Man Holding a Watch" (1643) — looking all the more gloomy flanked by luminescent Renoirs; a similarly intense Goya portrait; a bleak Bible scene painted by El Greco alongside Cézanne's "Still Life With Skull" (1896-98); or Horace Pippin's striking "Christ and the Woman of Samaria" (1940), with its glowing sky of hot pink.

The new Barnes Foundation sets the stage for such compelling contrasts, providential discoveries, and close observation marvelously, all the while sheathing the experience in a more conventional — and very successful on its own terms — contemporary art museum. "It had to work on a great civic scale," said Laurie Olin of OLIN. "But by the time you entered you had to be transported to a completely different — I'd say more domestic — space." Now that Dr. Barnes's priceless collection has been relocated in order to be more accessible, it's the visitors, sure to be more numerous than ever before, who will be transported by design to Merion.

Click the slide show to take a tour of the new Barnes Foundation.