A $30 Billion Art Collection Opens On Museum Row
During the spring of 2012, the world-renowned Barnes Foundation Collection will open its doors to the public in a specially designed facility on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Perhaps you are aware of the controversy surrounding the relocation of the Barnes Collection from its original home in Merion to the Parkway. The history of the collection and its creator are as interesting as the art itself.
Born in Philadelphia in 1872, Dr. Albert C. Barnes was a physician who, with a chemist, developed a solution to prevent gonorrheal blindness in newborns. The doctor was a good businessman, became a millionaire, and was able to pursue the study of art.
In 1911, Dr. Barnes sent his longtime friend, William Glackens to Paris with $20,000 to buy some “modern” French paintings, and thus began a collection that grew to 2,500 works.
Paul Cézanne (French), 1839-1906
Bathers at Rest (Baigneurs au repos)1876-1877
Oil on canvas
The Barnes Collection contains 69 Cezannes — more than all the museums in Paris, as well as an astonishing 181 Renoirs, 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, and seven van Goghs plus works by Rousseau, Modigliani, Soutine, Seurat, Degas and Demuth.
Dr. Barnes was also interested in African sculpture, Native American art, and Pennsylvania Dutch decorative arts. He created his collection to benefit students, and began his foundation as an educational institution rather than a museum.
Insight Into The Barnes Collection
Here are some interesting facts I’ll share with you about the Barnes Collection. Typically in art museums you see art grouped according to period and medium, for instance, “Renaissance Paintings, Early American Furniture, 20th Century Art,” etc.
Be prepared for an entirely different experience when you visit the Barnes. Nowhere else in the world does a collection such as the Barnes Collection exist. Here you will find paintings by Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist masters, displayed for their educational value.
If you were fortunate enough to own an original Renoir, likely you would place it in just the right spot, in order to display it to its best advantage. Now, imagine that you have over a hundred masterpieces to hang in your home. This was the happy dilemma faced by Dr. Albert Barnes.
When you visit the Barnes Collection in its new location you’ll see a faithful recreation of the groupings selected by Dr. Barnes to display his incredible collection.
The doctor dedicated his time studying the pieces, deciding how he wished to group them. As a result, don’t expect to see a bunch of Renoirs, then a wall full of Monets. Rather, paintings are arranged in ”ensembles” that Barnes felt worked well together, or share some common value or element.
His “ensembles” include other elements such as hardware, tools and furnishings. For example, you might see a hinge juxtaposed between two paintings because it shares a common style element or line, or a table placed below a work because Barnes felt it “completed” the painting.
Doctor Barnes Allowed Only Limited Access
Because he created his collection to benefit students, his foundation opened as an educational institution rather than a museum. Access was limited, with potential visitors needing to make appointments. While living, Dr. Barnes decided who would be granted access, turning down the likes of James Michener and T.S. Elliott in favor of the common people.
Following his death in 1951, the Foundation leadership continued Dr. Barnes’ policy of limited access.
When I visited the original Barnes estate in Lower Merion last year, appointments were still required, but with the purpose of limiting traffic to the residential area and assuring visitors had ample room to view the art.
A New Beginning
With such limited accessibility, the Foundation’s board found itself teetering on the brink of bankruptcy; to save the collection, they sought to break the doctor’s trust, which would have kept the work in Merion. Right or wrong, the trust was broken and beginning on May 19, 2012 the collection opened to a wider audience on the Parkway.
Dr. Barnes had definite theories about light and color and, taking this into account, grouped artworks in ways that he felt showed relationships between them. In moving the collection to its new building, these arrangements are carefully preserved.
The new Barnes Foundation Museum replicates the garden setting of the doctor’s Merion home, while a 150-seat auditorium and classrooms fulfill his mission of art education.
In the new facility on the Parkway, Dr. Barnes’ incredible collection is safely preserved and accessible to art lovers, while faithfully replicating Dr. Barnes’ ensembles ensuring that his opinions regarding the relationships between those works endure.
The Barnes collection is estimated to be worth between $20 and $30 billion. Although John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were vastly wealthier than Albert Barnes, the Barnes Foundation has assets 10 to 20 times greater than either the Carnegie Corporation or the Rockefeller Corporation, and it all began in Philadelphia with a $20,000 initial investment.
Be sure the Barnes Collection on the Parkway is on your bucket list.
It is truly one of the world’s finest exhibitions of world-class art.
The Barnes Foundation
2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Philadelphia, PA 19130
In the next issue we’ll focus on the Rodin Museum in this series about the arts on Philadelphia’s Museum Row.
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