Rendering of the planned Philly Barnes: Permanent collection galleries are the rectangle in the foreground; behind and above, the light box over a connecting courtyard; behind and wrapping around the light box, the L-shaped entry pavilion with temporary exhibition space on the right
During my recent conversation with architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien after their successful presentation to the Philadelphia Arts Commission of their plans for the Barnes Foundation’s new facility, I experienced one of those “did he really say that?” moments.
Williams told me:
We need the galleries to be in a way identical [to the originals in Merion], but we also need to lift them up. There are people—maybe you, even we [emphasis added]—who realize that there are issues with moving this collection. So when they move it, we want it to feel better and be better, and be everything we [not Dr. Barnes?] want it to be.
I did my internal double-take but let it pass, because had I questioned further, I likely would have gotten one of those unwelcome, retroactive “off-the-record” requests. I later checked my tape to make sure I heard it right.
So how will the maybe-it-shouldn’t-move Barnes Collection “be better”? For one thing, the layout will not be identical to that of the old Barnes, because each gallery floor will be interrupted by a classroom and an internal garden. Visitors will not move directly into the galleries, but through a large entry pavilion (behind the white light box shown in the photo above).
As for other differences, here are some excerpts from my conversation with the architects:
Williams: The lighting will be, I believe, dramatically better.
Tsien: The top floor will be naturally lit. We’re bringing in natural light to the galleries. I think that will be very transformative and very subtle.
Williams: I think the main gallery flooring is very badly done. I think it was handed off to a hack. There are three different stones on the main gallery floor….There’s a porphyry edge that runs up….
We’re hoping that the eyes will better focus on the art. I find it’s hard to see the paintings because of the lighting and because of stripes on the floor. To the extent that we can make it a more calming space, we think that you’ll be better able to see.
Rosenbaum: In what ways will the lighting be changed?
Williams: We will have windows that will enable you to look out. They will allow only 15 percent of the exterior light to come in. But that will emotionally connect you to the landscape that we don’t see in Merion. When I go into Merion, I’m looking at the paintings but I don’t feel the arboretum that I’m in. We will make you feel more that you’re in a lively, changing environment that, I guess, is the way he [Albert Barnes] had to intend it, since he put it in an arboretum and put windows in [now covered over].
Rosenbaum: Natural light makes it easier to see the art, but sometimes it can also harm the art.
Tsien: We’ll have very good filtering, in terms of the technology. On the top floor, there are only two galleries with skylights now, but all of the top-floor galleries will be skylighted
Williams: Most visitors don’t go up to the second level. They think the first level is it. So we want to make sure the second level feels atractive. Mostly the details we’re working on are to calm your experience.
Less calming is the busy-looking exterior, which Williams called “a kind of syncopation. We’re trying to make the exterior a kind of cloth—a tapestry of stone and hardware [the visible steel on which the limestone panels are hung]….
“While we had several other stones up there [on the construction site], they had no character from a distance and this has to be able to project itself. You have to be able to read it from the [Benjamin Franklin] Parkway….You’ll see [on the facade] a stone that protrudes, which is our idea of a vertical bar, to give some exterior relief. And you’ll also see a piece of bronze that’s there as a way to catch light when the sunlight hits it.”
Others have criticized the placement of the entrance for the facility. It’s not in the replacement for the Merion building, which faces the grand Benjamin Franklin Parkway (leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art), but in the new pavilion behind it, steps away from the Barnes’ 80-car parking lot and across from a Whole Foods store on Pennsylvania Avenue. Not long ago, this spot was the entry location for the juvenile detention facility, fronting on Pennsylvania, that formerly occupied the Barnes site.
Williams said that it would not have been possible to have the entrance on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and keep the southern orientation of the gallery windows that Barnes and Matisse had wanted.
As for the more fundamental criticism—that the gallery shouldn’t be moved at all—dealer and former Barnes art advisory committee member Richard Feigen (rebutted here by the Barnes’ new general counsel, Brett Miller) and LA Times art critic Christopher Knight have weighed in once again, spurred by the posting (click on “Transcript of Dr. Watson’s speech) of the speech delivered by Barnes chairman Bernard Watson at the Nov. 13 groundbreaking ceremony.
Like Miller, I don’t agree with characterizing the transfer to Philadelphia as a “theft.” I think that the Pennsylvania and Philadelphia powers-that-be understandably wanted to lure that valuable cultural resource to the big city. The Barnes board, to my mind, wrongly capitulated to that pressure. It was derelict in its own duty when it let the political and philanthropic movers-and-shakers have their way.
If it truly wanted to save the Merion Barnes, the board should have been far more proactive in taking steps (such as those that I outlined in my NY Times Op-Ed) that could have made it financially viable in the location where Barnes intended it to remain in perpetuity.
As Feigen (who had testified on the day when I attended the court hearings on whether the Barnes should be permitted to move) recently wrote in the Art Newspaper:
A small part, perhaps $25 million, of the vague financing plans, which include
$107 million earmarked [but not entirely allocated] from the state capital budget for the new building,
could easily provide an endowment for the Barnes in its historic
location. Insufficient effort has been made to tap private sources for
the old Barnes. Insufficient effort has been made to sell the redundant
real estate of Barnes’s valuable farm, its 19th-century American
pottery collection or unrestricted paintings in the offices, which have
been appraised at more than $30 million.
In Knight’s words:
In a nutshell he [Watson] says the board tried to keep the financially
strapped Barnes intact and in place, which proved to be impossible. So,
to save it they opted for the next best solution: moving.
I don’t believe it. I believe that boosting cultural tourism in
Philadelphia was always the goal, and the Barnes’ fabled art collection
was the key. (Watson also chaired the Pennsylvania Convention Center
Authority, a local tourism agency, and he once told the Inquirer the
Barnes “belongs” downtown.)
With the cultural tourism goal set, moving
all those paintings by Picasso, Matisse, van Gogh and the rest into the
city from suburban Merion, where they couldn’t be profitably maximized,
was the only answer.
In other words, the Barnes was too big not to fail in Merion. It had to be characterized as not saveable on Latch’s Lane, so that it could be transported to the Parkway. It wasn’t theft; it was surrender without a struggle. It was the path of least resistance for a board that has now aligned itself with the financial and political elite—the kind of people that Albert Barnes always said he had no use for.