The Barnes is home to a remarkable collection of Cezanne — including the best Cezanne in America. The second-best Matisse is here too. And there’s more: Jaw-dropping Seurat, Courbet, Rousseau, Demuth, Gauguin, van Gogh, Picasso, Soutine, Monet, Modigliani, African sculpture and Pennsylvania German decorative arts.
But we already knew that. What was unclear before the new Barnes opened was this: Is the new Barnes, lifted against Dr. Barnes’ wishes from where it was doing just fine financially and otherwise, by latter-day Philadelphia’s one percenters, a good place to look at great art? I guess that depends on what you think art is for. [Renoir, Bather Gazing at Herself in the Water, c. 1910. Collection of the Barnes Foundation.]
First, the details: The Philly establishment’s installation of the art collection of the anti-establishmentarian Albert C. Barnes, a patent medicine mogul with a preference for French painting, is a near-facsimile of the Merion galleries that Barnes himself hung. (The evident exceptions to the current crew’s mimicry of Barnes’ installation include the installation of Matisse’s Le Bonheur de vivre in an upstairs semi-alcove and some changes to the plaster-work around Matisse’s The Dance mural.)
These replica gallery spaces effectively sit inside a big, expensive-looking box designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. The building feels more expensive than thoughtful. It includes one other exception to the Xerox approach: The galleries do not flow together in the same way that Dr. Barnes’ galleries did in Merion: Williams and Tsien have placed gaps between many of them for study centers or for short hallways with views of in-planted trees. These disjunctive intrusions seem to be crowd-control-and-flow measures. [Image: Renoir, After the Bath, 1910. Collection of the Barnes Foundation.]
The effect of this mix of mimicry and expansion is that the new Barnes emphasizes the experience of visiting A Place rather than the experience of art. That approach starts from the moment you enter the Barnes property (which was once the home of Philadelphia’s youth detention center, the former host to such notables as artist Zoe Strauss). Williams and Tsien, with some help from landscape architect Laurie Olin, have created a self-consciously theatrical entrance by which the walk from the city sidewalk to the galleries requires a dizzying number of turns: You enter the property by walking past a dreadful new Ellsworth Kelly, turn right, walk between a row of red maples, turn left, proceed over a rocky moat and into the building, turn, face the entrance desk, turn, continue past a Bertoia knockoff sculpture/chandelier designed by Williams and Tsien, turn, enter a cavernous atrium, turn, walk toward the galleries, through a pair of heavy, grandly ostentatious doors and, finally. into the first gallery of actual art. The Barnes’ architectural team has transformed the famed Beaux Arts staircase, which lifted visitors into the temple of culture, into a mannerist procession.
With this combination of old hang and new building, the new regime has tried to have its fake and bleed it too (admission is $18). Walking through the new Barnes is nothing short of a Twilight Zone-like experience, a weird bit of time travel during which everything seems just a little bit wrong: The garden isn’t quite what it was or where it was, the natural light is a bit off, the flow from gallery-to-gallery is different, and so on. By putting real art in a knock-off setting, the Barnes has cheapened the experience of seeing it. The Philly Barnes is slickly retrograde, Philadelphia’s power class’s belated, wincing admission that, you know, maybe, after all, there was some good in what it dismantled. [Renoir, Nude Woman Reclining, c.1917-19. Collection of the Barnes Foundation.]
The stage-managing of the art feels ridiculous, even kitschy. The fetishized mimicry of the Merion presentation reminds me of the way every Abercrombie or American Eagle store feels about the same in every shopping mall from Minnesota to Mississippi. For Big Retail, it is the brand that matters most. Here, too… because the new museum isn’t about the art, it’s about drawing tourists to the Barnes Foundation brand.
That’s too bad. Once the keepers of the Barnes found a way to pry the art away from its founder’s John Dewey-influenced vision of art-plus-installation-plus gardens-plus-education-program, a unified field, they should have devoted themselves to a smart, respectful, thoughtful and new presentation of great art, a place in which the art was The Thing. Instead, they have placed the emphasis not on the art, but on a Thomas Kinkadeian reminder of how it used to be-ish. Think of the team that brought you the new Barnes as the Administrators of Light. [Renoir, Nude from the Back, 1917. Collection of the Barnes Foundation.]
(Alas: While the Barnes has touted its lighting system has a vast improvement over Merion; it is not. The upstairs galleries are substantially lit by natural light from these rectangular ceiling-vaults, with the result that art in the corners of the galleries is in the dark, as it was in Merion. Furthermore, the light from those vaults extends only about a third of the way down the walls, leaving the lower two-thirds (where the art is!) less lit than the empty upper walls. Fortunately the lighting in the ground-floor galleries is better, but it’s still not at the level you’d expect from a top art museum. )
The Barnes’ decision to lean on its quirky past rather than the greatness of its art is the biggest problem with the new place: The Barnes was moved and re-built to be a tourist magnet that might boost the sagging economic fortunes of its city rather than to be a place where art lovers can enjoy and experience art. (Its companion tourist-magnet, an Alexander Calder museum, never made it out of the planning process.) As if to underscore the point, the Barnes has has priced itself just about on par with its tourist-destination peers, museums such as MoMA and SFMOMA: $56 for a family of four, plus another $15 for parking. At last week’s public unveiling of the Barnes, it sounded like some public-relations professional had begged every speaker to emphasize how the new Barnes was newly accessible to the people of Philadelphia. That’s snake oil. Civic-minded institutions such as the fantastic art museums in St. Louis, Kansas City, Cleveland, Indianapolis and beyond are free to the public. Even though 25 percent of the cost of the Barnes move was paid for by Pennsylvania taxpayers, the Barnes is not offering regular free or low-cost access to the very people who paid for it, to those it claims to most want to serve. [Renoir, Bather in Three-Quarter View, 1911. Collection of the Barnes Foundation.]
Ultimately, the new Barnes Foundation is a victory for those who think that great art’s primary purpose is ancillary or supplemental, that art is a resource that should be exploited to fuel business, development and tourism. For most of America’s history, going back to the establishment of America’s first great civic museums in New York, Boston and St. Louis, we believed that art should be shown, studied and celebrated because we have a lot to learn from our shared cultural history. That was the right and honorable idea, and it’s increasingly being abandoned. [Below: Renoir, Nude Study, Bust of a Woman, c. 1910. Collection of the Barnes Foundation.]
The new Barnes is part of an accelerating trend: Over the last generation, governments, private funders, philanthropies and administrators have increasingly pushed art and art collections out of contexts in which access to aesthetics, history and cultural knowledge are primary and into ‘civic service’ as rainmakers for tourism or development. There has been little concurrent examination — least of all in Philadelphia — of how or if art should be made most accessible. Instead the question has been how to use art to serve other goals. That’s how we got the new Barnes. That’s how we got the $25 art museum admission fee. That’s how we got art museums renting their art to Las Vegas casinos. And that’s how great art is becoming a hobby for the leisure class, something available to an increasingly narrower socioeconomic band of Americans, an enterprise in which dollars matter more than ideas, engagement or discourse. The biggest success of the new Barnes is that it draws those lines more starkly than any other museum in America.