Barnes Foundation

Sharon Lorenzo reports on

The Barnes Foundation: A Centennial Celebration in a New Home,  June 2012

This week the director of the Barnes Foundation, Derek Gillman, opened the museum’s art collection in a new location on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in downtown Philadelphia. The Arboretum in Merion, PA remains open as a second campus for the foundation’s horticultural operations.

The concerns by art critics and news media anticipating the new space seem to have dissolved into a resounding accolade of praise for the final chapter as architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, delivered a building that glows with shimmering light and thoughtful design elements. No expense was spared on subtle details that highlight the best of the art collection.  Faithful to the letter of the law – as painstakingly written by federal judge John Stanley Ott, who gets a huge round of applause for listening to months of testimony from both sides on the debate about the relocation – the architects listened to his credo of compliance with the wishes of the donor that the art be kept in the installation that Barnes had crafted from the beginning.

Albert Barnes insisted that his fabulous assortment of pictures be hung with his witty collection of iron fastenings and andirons, Pennsylvania bridal chests and assorted African and American Indian artifacts.  While our modern aesthetic of “less is more” makes this way of seeing feel crowded, we put up with Barnes’ installation and can now see the masterworks in more light and sublime spaces graced with water elements, long manicured grass-ways, limestone walls, and Brazilian wood floors in their new home.

We also must give a round of applause to William Glackens, the classmate of Albert Barnes from Central High School in Philadelphia, who was sent to Europe in 1912 with $20,000 to buy some pictures. He returned with 33 paintings which began the Barnes collection. Known to most as a member of the New York Art School, Glackens was chosen to chair the selection committee in 1913 of the infamous Armory Show in New York which brought many of the artists he had purchased for Barnes to America for the first time.

Today the entire Barnes collection is rumored to be valued at $25 billion dollars in the art market, not a small piece of change for the investment made by the son of a butcher. Barnes’ vision was to buy pictures ahead of the collecting frenzy that would follow by other American magnates like Frick, Morgan, Havemeyer, the Cone Sisters and the Stein family.  Just as Barnes matched his invention, a product called Argyrol, with the new market demand for prescription drugs, he presented his paintings to a new demand for aesthetic pleasure then and now.   Remembering that the USA did not even have an income tax in 1912, Barnes took some of his money and invested in modern art.  The collection of pictures include 181 by  Renoir, 69  by Cezanne, 59 by  Matisse, 46  by Picasso, 11 by Degas, 7 by Van Gogh, and 6 by Seurat to mention just a few of the many stars in the total collection.

Legal scholar, Jonathan Goldman, published the definitive question,

“Is this what the Doctor ordered?” [1]  Would Albert Barnes be happy with his new building on the main boulevard in Philadelphia today? The vote seems to be that public access to his collection is the best use of his assets, and that little is lost by removing the restrictions of his former neighborhood in Merion, PA.  Art critic for the New York TimesRoberta Smith asked whether or not the Barnes staff can mount temporary exhibitions in the new space to move some masterworks into a broader context.[2] For example, removing the painting by Van Gogh of his postman and hanging it with loans of his four other paintings of the same sitter would allow scholars and the public to see the Barnes’ work with its peers.  Time will tell if the staff feels that they can do just that and enhance rather than hinder the life of the individual works of art in the collection.

In conclusion, the new Barnes Foundation will provide to each and every visitor a meaningful engagement with masterworks of art in this new space. The restaurant and bookstore are also a delight. Special classes for children are available upon reservation. A visit to the Barnes Foundation is lovely, relaxing, and a thrill for all.   Enjoy seeing what the Doctor ordered!

(See for details)


[1] Goldman, Jonathan. Just What the Doctor Ordered: The Doctrine of Deviation, the Case of the Barnes Trust and the Future Location of the Barnes Foundation, Real Property, Probate, and Trust Journal Winter, 2005.

[2] Smith, Roberta. The Barnes Foundation: From Suburb to City.  New York Times, May 17, 2012.