Illuminating the Barnes – Friend or Faux?

I have now spent countless hours (thanks to Steve Miller,a mentor and dear friend’s e-mails and the clickable nature of the internet) reading reviews about the “new Barnes Foundation“. People seem to like it or they don’t. I am of the latter group. For a VERY brief review of the history of the Barnes you can read my last post. What makes the Barnes so unique are the seemingly (though they are not) random ensembles of master paintings, metal work, and furniture. Below is an example of one of Barnes’ ensembles, image from The Barnes Foundation Collection Gallery Guide I.

As I know not all of my readers are museum or legal professionals, I want to begin by explaining a little bit about the Indenture of Trust which Barnes created for his Foundation. The Indenture of Trust, along with the Bylaws, set forth the Foundation’s purposes, rules of governance, Board structure, etc. The Indenture included the following condition verbatim, “[a]ll paintings shall remain in exactly the places the are at the time of the death of Donor and his said wife.” (Information taken from the Fact Sheet I received at the May 10th press preview.) Pretty straight forward. BUT, just as Barnes had so much money he could buy many of the world’s most renowned paintings and hang them as he wished, the current Board and its funding corporations had enough money ($200,000,000) to ignore the Indenture and do as they wished for their own interests. Indenture denied.

First and foremost I find it ridiculous to let a group of corporations and private foundations pay for something that they did not fundamentally support in its original 12,000 sq. ft.  location, but if they can move it into Philadelphia and smatter their names all over it, sure they can spare a few million each. A mere 6 miles from its original home, the “Barnes in Philadelphia” touts the names of the Mellons, the Annenbergs, and corporate moguls such as PNC and Comcast. The building itself, a 93,000 sq. ft. bunker like block of hand-tooled Negev limestone, fitted on top with an as equally unappealing glass box, is home to the new faux Barnes. Several of the articles/reviews I read pointed out that what was once a structure dedicated to authenticity, where making copies of the art was strictly forbidden, a mere copy of the original exists; never to be the authentic historic Barnes again.

It’s hard to even know where to start, the new Barnes decimates almost everything the founder ever wanted for his carefully created collection.

Cut and dried, the issues with the new location:

  1. He wanted to keep his prized masterpieces out of Philadelphia and away from the likes of what Barnes referred to as “aesthetic whorehouses of art,” e.g. The Philadelphia Museum of Art.
  2. He wanted to remain an educational center with an amazing art collection instead of an art museum with art courses.
  3. He wished to maintain the integrity of his collection by keeping it housed within the 1922 historical gem designed by Paul Cret.
  4. I highly doubt he would appreciate having one of the largest areas in the structure named after Annenberg, somebody who during his life he experienced an extreme distaste for.

    ‘The Light Court’ which bears the Annenberg name.

  5. Two classrooms have been inserted within the galleries for teaching. Barnes strongly believed the galleries were the classrooms and that all education should happen while surrounded by the artworks themselves.
  6. Matisse’s The Joy of Life has been removed from its location in the stairwell to a room in the floor plan that was originally used for Board meetings.

The Joy of Life, no longer in the stairwell.

Barnes created a masterpiece in his own right, separate from the stigma that is the white-walled, singularly hung art gallery of today.The Foundation’s 23 galleries provided a maze of aesthetic pleasure and study, a maze which is now dis-harmoniously interrupted by limestone and glass hallways with a view of the “garden in the gallery”. Other than this change in the gallery layout, most everything remains the same; the galleries are the same size, masterpieces and metal works hung the same. Minor changes have been made in the molding, window frames, windows and in the heights of the galleries to allow for clerestory lighting on the second floor.  So, all this trouble to exactly replicate the galleries and only gain a little bit of lighting? Why not enhance the original Barnes?

And, what is all of this about INCREASED ACCESSIBILITY? Gallery visitation is still being limited to 150 visitors at a time in the main galleries and there are only an additional 30 parking spaces provided. More so, the Barnes originated as an educational tool for “the common man”. What common man will be able to easily afford a date out with his family at $18 a head? For college students that’s at least three meals (or a WHOLE LOT of Ramen) they will be sacrificing for just one day’s entrance into the new Barnes.

Now I can’t  blame Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects for my not having a taste for modern architecture. A more in depth slideshow of the building is available at Philly.com. I also do not understand the randomness that is the “Barnes Totem” by Ellsworth Kelly at the entrance to the property. It appears to be a 40 ft. high stainless steel lightning rod shooting up from the ground and in no way visibly pays homage to the man who made the place possible. What ever happened to a good bronze likeness? However, during the press preview I fortunately had the opportunity of meeting, speaking, and touring with the architects, including landscape designer OLIN, around the building.  Though I don’t agree with the project, and don’t particularly enjoy the architecture, I appreciated many of the things they had to say about working on the project.

The exterior of the Barnes and the ‘Barnes Totem’.

Me and architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams

Interesting notes from the architects:

  1. They do not consider themselves to be ‘starchitects’, the architects who do whatever they wish with a building so that it screams their name. They felt they were there simply to interpret the Barnes and the visions of the Board.
  2. A common question asked by many is the obvious why didn’t they expand the galleries, make them bigger and brighter? Williams explained with an interesting analogy, that if a face gets fatter, the features (e.g. eyes, mouth, lips, etc) do not also grow but stay the same size. So you end up with a tiny little face within a big fat head.  Even if the gallery were to be expanded the artworks do not grow, and in order to be hung similarly you would end up with too much random open space.
  3. The architects REALLY enjoy being able to do everything with extreme exactitude, just like Barnes… So much that they even talked the Barnes into taking them over to Jerusalem to pick out the limestone for the building. I wonder why they didn’t choose the Indiana limestone? Regardless, it is beautiful and is presented in three distinct, hand-tooled patterns of varying colors, including a cuneiform pattern which resembles writing.

    Hand-tooled cuneiform Negev limestone.

  4. In addition to the aforementioned point, the architects were able to emphasize one level of quality; the bathrooms are the same as the galleries. Indeed, at least for the women each stall is actually like its own little suite with an individual sink and mirror. I daresay that if they would have built standard, yet elegant restrooms, they could have almost endowed a fellow small museum.
  5. I asked what the architects felt their biggest challenge was in completing the project. Due to the controversial nature of the project, Billie Tsien answered that she was entirely unaware of how many extremely vituperative people there are in the world who lashed out at them for having taken the project. Tsien mentioned, however, that the organization (the Board of the Barnes) protected them as best they could.

Though I in no way support the move of the Barnes, I greatly enjoyed my trip and the opportunity to attend the press preview, compliments of one Steven Miller. Look for his upcoming article in Museum Magazine, published by AAM.  Though we agree to disagree about the Barnes, I’m sure you’ll find his article witty and optimistic about the future of the Barnes.  He much less grouchy than I. Side note: I send a BIG thank you his way for his continued efforts in stowing me away to events I would otherwise be unable to attend, for his witicisms, and his continuing support.

Enjoying the Barnes Foundation.

In conclusion, I feel we have lost an important piece of American history. Philadelphians. and citizens of Merion, should be disappointed in themselves as they, especially, have allowed an important story in their ancestry to be permanently deleted; the story of industry and the uprising of art appreciation in Philly, now encased within a limestone and glass box mausoleum.

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2 responses to “Illuminating the Barnes – Friend or Faux?

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