Friday, October 9, 2009

First Look at Barnes Foundation Philadelphia Home

The residents of the Philadelphia region and the international art community got their first glimpse of what the new Barnes Foundation home will look like. The design by New York-based architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien did nothing to quell the long-brewing controversy of moving the foundation from its home in the upscale, suburban Merion neighborhood to downtown Philadelphia. But it did provide the first clear picture of how the new building will meld an institution that historically had a singular vision with a modern plan that will open its galleries to the world.

The plans for the 200,000-square-foot site on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway between 20th and 21st Streets, which can be seen here and here, were approved by the Philadelphia Art Commission in a unanimous vote on Oct. 7 (videos of the hearing can be found here). Construction could begin as early as November. The museum costs are estimated at $200 million, with much of the funding raised by local philanthropic organizations.

About 100 persons crammed into the Art Commission's meeting room to view the proposal. Here is a portion of the Oct. 7 presentation by the architects that I took with my video camera (Unfortunately, my position in the room didn't allow me to capture the architectural images and the crowd around me made it difficult for me to keep my camera still):

Not surprisingly, those against the move, hated the renderings, while those for the move found them inspiring. There appeared to be widespread concern over the building’s entrance, which doesn’t face the Parkway, and the open-surface parking lot.

One reason I was there was to hopefully capture some of the outrageous rhetoric among those who oppose the move. However, Moe Brooker of Moore College of Art and Design, who chaired the meeting, clamped down on the public comment, limiting the approximate 16 speakers to two minutes and limiting remarks to the building’s design, which after all was the sole responsibility of the commission.

A couple of the speakers illustrate the range of emotion caused by the move, follows:

About 90 percent of the hearing, including 14 of the 16 comments, can be found here.

In addition, here are links to reviews of the new design in The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times.

A brief, rudimentary description of the Barnes Foundation Controversy

The Barnes Foundation seems to have been surrounded by controversy ever since Albert C. Barnes first created the foundation in 1922 as an “educational art institute” on a large piece of property that would eventually become his home. After his death, the already uneasy relations between the foundation and its neighbors erupted in the 1990s when the foundation attempted to break the will of its founder by increasing the public viewing of the famed private collection in order to raise much-needed funds.

Barnes, an inventor, amassed a fortune from his development of the antiseptic drug Argyrol. In 1910, he began collecting art, amassing a collection that is considered to be one of the most valuable private collections in the world. It is particularly strong in the Impressionist and Modernist masters.

The son of butcher who grew up in a middle class household in Philadelphia, Barnes dedicated the foundation to the teaching of art to the underprivileged working class. He gave administration control of the foundation to Lincoln University, an historically black college. He also had a personal view of how art should be displayed and taught and dedicated his foundation to teaching his personal philosophy. In addition, the collection was open only two days per week and those wishing to see it had to do so in writing, and many in high social standing were rejected.

His approach to teaching the working and lower classes, including African-Americans; housing the Foundation in the upscale neighborhood; and his unique views about art, created an antagonistic relationship with art critics and historians as well as his neighbors. By most accounts, Barnes was more than willing to fuel this hostility.

Barnes, who died in 1951, set in his will a number of strict guidelines that included:

*Limiting public admission to two days a week;

*Prohibiting the lending of works in the collection, touring the collection, and presenting touring exhibitions; and

*Keeping the Barnes in its Merion location.

However, maintaining the foundation proved difficult. Funds were insufficient to meet expenses. The restrictions in allowing people to view the art made it difficult to raise funds. Attempts to keep the museum open for more days or longer hours drew hostile protests from the neighbors and the devotees of the Barnes Foundation who wanted the will to be honored at all costs. A 1999 audit revealed that the Barnes Foundation was nearly bankrupt.

In 2004, the foundation won a two-year court battle to break the will. Two years after that, the foundation announced that it raised $150 million for the relocation of the Barnes to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Since then, it has raised another $50 million.

Somewhat ironically, the neighbors who were against any attempts by the Barnes Foundation to open the museum to more people are also vehemently opposed to moving the museum. An organization called “Friends of the Barnes” was formed that is fighting the move in the courts and public forums. So far they’ve lost all their battles.

Some of the speakers at the Art Commission hearing said that Barnes would be rolling over in his grave to learn what has happened to his Foundation. I think that maybe he would be dancing in his grave to see that the move has frustrated many of the same people he spent half his life antagonizing.

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