This was the reason for going to Philadelphia — to visit the Barnes Collection, particularly before it closes and moves to its new facility, across the river and down the road as you enter the city on the Philadelphia Parkway. You won’t be able to miss it and millions of people are expected to attend. At least, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is banking on it. It is the most extensive, impressive and diverse private art collection in the world, worth billions and probably priceless.
Our visit was prompted by the documentary that Peter and I watched over a year ago called, The Art of The Steal, a film by Don Argott of artistic merit in and of itself, having won several prestigious film awards, like the Toronto International, New York and AFI. It is clearly a biased, propaganda film in favor of Albert Barnes and his vision. Despite this fact, it is fascinating how the politics work in this film and it does a superb job of explaining how Dr. Barnes’ private art collection was stolen by the Philadelphia Museum of Art when he specifically wrote in his will that he did not, above anything else, want his collection to be viewed for profit and in the hands of the City. None of his artworks were to be bought, sold or moved from the walls where they currently hang as explicitly stated in his will. The film is highly convincing and makes you think twice about your own dying wishes and how they might be carried out.
We joined the Barnes Foundation as members so we could go again. They allow two visits / membership a year and other visits can be purchased for member rates. Regardless, being a member or not, you have to have to make reservations and they are staggered with members getting more available blocks of time. Doing all this in advance is helpful. Forget taking pictures. Once you park, you might as well leave your camera in the car because you have to walk around to the front of the building and cameras are strictly forbidden inside. It’s impossible when you drive out (not returning in front of the building) but on the side street with a right turn only and no stopping or standing on either side of Laches Lane. Since it is located in a residential neighborhood, the residents are pretty particular about this too, being understandably worried about logistics and parking once the Barnes opened their doors to the public. Originally it was only open to school groups and educators, for educational purposes and tours to teach about art. As an individual, if you wrote the Foundation expressing your interest, you may have been allowed entrance.
Unfortunately, we never took a picture here and there are not a lot of good ones online to show the breadth of the space and the quality of the artwork. There is no catalog online or in the gallery shop. There were some incredibly moving paintings there, one in particular by simply “A German Master” in the 1400′s of a highly realistic portrait of a man wearing a black hat and red robe with white cuffs set against a modern-like unusual chartreuse background with impressionistic brush strokes. This painting evoked two separate time periods and painting styles way before its time. I doubt I will ever be able to see it again with the same experience once it moves to the new location. Part of the Barnes experience is the intimacy with the artwork. This becomes secondary when the quantity of visitors to gain revenue becomes paramount. Already, because the residents of Merion County have now decided that they actually want the Barnes to stay put, they have opened its door to welcome more people in order to gain revenue to support the maintenance of the building and consequently the collection, but it’s too late. The Foundation, stacked with other interested parties, has other plans and the original viewing experience that Dr. Barnes intended has changed.
The artwork is hung in a Beaux Arts, Salon type style meant for dynamic viewing but even more than this, what struck me as pure artistic vision was that each wall was artistically composed by Barnes himself with a balance of similar theme paintings from same or different artists, flanking a central theme painting with escutcheons, locks, metal hinges and even ladles and forks and other decorative and useful tools interspersed. Some of these were designed to go with the paintings because of a similar shape that replicated itself in the painting or these pieces were part of his massive antique collection. The paintings are paired with furniture and other decorative accessories such as candlesticks that also repeat the shape in the paintings and show how paintings may be displayed in a home, rather than a museum. One Pennsylvania Dutch Chest that I saw was a gorgeous aged-cerulean, teal-blue with a pristinely finished top — reflecting both old and seemingly new simultaneously. I thought it was pure brilliance to display Modigliani and Picasso portraits with a glass case of African masks, showing universal quality in the design and artists’ expression. This was almost a philosophical declaration of how cultures and art are globally related and interconnected.
We were lucky to see it but we realize that it won’t be the same once it moves location. It truly is fascinating to understand the politics of how the will of an art visionary has been completely eradicated.
As reflection of this “steal,” hear’s Jane’s Addiction, “Been Caught Stealing” to Kick-Start the Weekend. (Great song but I never realized how scary 90′s the video was — back in the day). Click on the photo link, as embedding has been disabled.