Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

The Barnes and the (new) purpose of art

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There is no question that the art at the Barnes Foundation is great.

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.

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  1. Mark says:

    Well said, the initial responses to the NEW Barnes were that the art was now free. I never thought it was ever captive – it now is. It’s so true that everything wonderful must now be branded, fear the quirky, the unpolished – we may truly learn something, discover on our own.

  2. LHOOQ says:

    How many bad, late Renoir’s can one blog-post include? Was this an intentional critique?

  3. lydia labat says:

    Is there a free evening or day for admission?

  4. clv says:

    just returned from the new barnes. I had no problem with the move. when i walked into the new old galleries, the crazy, wonderful combination of art and stuff that is what I call barnes-land had exactly the same mesmerizing effect it had when I saw it in Merion – quite frankly if you respond to it, it really does not matter where its container sits.

    I liked it so much I got a membership because it will be far easier for me to visit.

    As for the new wrapper for the collection, I completely agree with the silliness of what I call the old ‘get smart’ entry experiment and feel that the much praised use of materials becomes fussiness for fussiness sake. Could it have been improved upon, yes. Should there be a free morning, yes.

  5. lydia labat says:

    I’m glad that they kept the rooms just like the old Barnes. This way people get to experience the vision of Barnes.

    I know Barnes would have had a comment about the new container. I wonder if he knew the “new container” would have been the art’s fate. He was a smart man. I think he knew this would one day happen.

    He knew that good art grows on people and influences them and transforms them.

    He also knew how people behave when something is validated and how they behave when it is not. For this experience he had much resentment, but also I think a bit of fun.

    Controversy surrounded his collection from day one and he created events to add to this. He had a contrary streak, maybe the new art container is emblematic of this.

  6. Cate Conroy says:

    So, they finally moved the Barnes. The deed is done. The fat lady has sung, but she doesn’t sing to me. Sad.

  7. Don says:

    Very sad that the true owner of the Barnes Collection had his clear and expressed wishes in his Last Will and Testament violated by typical Philly politicians. Their actions show the following attitude: ‘If you don’t have the sense or talent to collect it yourself, why not take it from someone who does?’. As they now have this one of a kind ollection that has an estimated value of $ 25-30 billion at least they could make the collection free for the public to view. Tourism? Really? I pass.

  8. nick tinari says:

    My guess is that the empty space rooms that spread out the replica rooms were put there in reserve because there is no intention to keep the far-from-identical replica rooms intact. Why else would you separate rooms and paintings that Barnes clearly had referencing each other. For example, one can no longer see in one long pan through three rooms a Puvis, a Prenderagast and a Seurat. Further evidence that the plan is not to keep the collection together: the original petition to remove the Indenture of Trust restrictions on location also sought to remove the restriction on loans and sale of artwork. I’ll wager anyone that before the decade is out, that is where it will be, with the same excuse forged for Merion: we can’t make ends meet. See you in 2020.

  9. […] Knight reviewed the show here for the LAT. Russell reviewed the building here for Bloomberg. I wrote about the new Barnes here on MAN. […]

  10. […] Resnicks’ traditionally styles Beverly Hills home. Both reconstructions were viewed as weird (“a Twilight Zone-like experience” said Tyler Green of the […]

  11. […] when your apparent primary goal is to be a tourist attraction, maybe you think none of this […]

  12. Bill says:

    Anybody have any idea what the fate of the old building will be?

  13. Kate says:

    I’m unhappy about the Barnes’ relocation, but I have heard and read from numerous sources that the move was instigated because the museum was unsustainable. I believe this to be true because the museum seems to have been financially unstable for decades. Barnes’ will was first breached in the 1990’s when it began admitting visitors (for a fee), again allegedly legal because of the museum’s financial woes. The legality of this was determined by an nonpartisan judge (likewise with the recent move). The wealthy neighbors of the Barnes Museum complained about the increase of traffic when the museum was opened to the public, and the township responded by restricting access. Museum attendance plummeted, and the foundation was once again financially strapped. The foundation then squandered millions of dollars in a lawsuit against Lower Merion Township for imposing restrictions on transport to the museum, claiming that the restrictions were racially motivated. Perhaps if the museum had been under better management it could have remained in Merion, but it seems like in recent years the only way it could have afforded this is if it sold some of Barnes’ valuable collection. I am wondering – What information makes you believe the Barnes was sustainable?

  14. […] In the Philly Inky, Ed Sozanski understands that tourism, and not art, is motivating Philadelphia art institutions these days. (I agree.) […]

  15. michael vandy says:

    I agree mostly… but…

    Is it possible to find fault with the new Barnes without rhapsodizing the old. The Merion location was unquestionably less accessible, and the process for gaining admittance seemed intentionally obscured to discourage visitation. Once there, the process of parking and getting into the collection was overseen by a band of Blue-Hairs and Mainline types trying to substitute elocution and neat handwriting for efficient management.

    So puh-lease, don’t glorify the stodgy, dusty, old Barnes.

    Having said that, I do agree that the new Barnes is an uninspiring tourist attraction, created by the one-percenters as a feather in their civic caps. I too find the entrance confusing and oddly cramped behind the gigantic doors that have a very tight turning radius, thus requiring significant heft to open.

    It’s unfortunate that there is no “front door” onto the grand Benjamin Franklin Parkway, as a front door onto a grand boulevard would be in keeping with grand boulevard logic in general. Why put a museum on a grand boulevard, and have the entrance on a side street?

    I also agree that the museum should have just re-engineered the space to show the works in more conventional ways, so that I don’t have to crane my neck to see paintings that are 9 feet off the ground, simply because that was the best spot for it in the over-crowded mansion. There can be no doubt that the ensemble arrangements of Dr. Barnes… though thoughtful and educated in their conception… are not bigger than the works themselves, nor bigger than the alternate arrangements that scholars of future generations may require. The pompous, unquestioned regard for these arrangements is nauseating, and you have to hear it intoned repeatedly at the Barnes if you are unlucky enough to be within earshot of guided tours.

    Here’s a fun fact that supports the supposition that art museums are the playthings of rich, with simply lip service any deeper meanings. The fact is… you CANNOT DRAW or SKETCH in the Barnes galleries. This is an absurdity, especially considering that all of the artists in the collection would have regularly visited museums and drawn from the masters. To disallow it in the Barnes is to ignore the history of art education… and this from a supposed master of art education.

    A principle conceit of the Barnes is that they presume to have the authoritative approach to educating the public on how to view and understand the art in the collection. Having “A Way” to understand something is fine… the more the merrier… but to claim to have “The Way” is disturbing. It announces an institutional insularity that is inconsistent with the ongoing efforts of hundreds of other intellectuals and institutions.

    The only good thing about the Barnes Foundation is the art itself. The non-conformist Barnes (relatively speaking, for an industrial millionaire) imbued his foundation with an authoritarianism and exclusivity (albeit non-conformist exclusivity) that have cultivated (over time) a stale culture of maintaining the dream of a dead man, wherein the great art has been viewed an accessory to Dr. Barnes success in collecting it.

    Organizational ruin was inevitable given the stakes involved, and the resulting New Barnes tourist site is a fitting memorial to the money and power that usurps all other values in this society.

  16. […] The move of the Barnes’ Matisse Dance mural was one of the strangest art stories of 2012: The Barnes Foundation moved a mural Matisse made specifically for where it was sited in Merion, put it in its odd new tourists-oriented site in downtown Philadelphia — and seems to have hoped no one would notice or ask questions about its decision. When the questions came, the Barnes then refused to answer them. The result: An incomprehensible mistake (followed by dumb PR). Sadly, none of this was a surprise: The ‘new’ Barnes is about tourism, not art. […]

  17. Joyce says:

    The original Barnes Collection was in itself a work of art, made from each of the individual works that Barnes himself identified as “valuable” when all the phussy philadelphians decried those works as primitive, primal and just shy of despicable.

    The theft of the Barnes Collection from Merion to Philadelphia is a travesty that is no less devastating than a 12-alarm fire that could easily destroy the collection, no matter where it is housed.

    I am grateful to have experienced the collection before it received the unnecessary facelift-ing move to the Parkway, and poorly done at that.

    Just like my aversion of memorial viewings of dead relatives and friends, my visual memory of the Barnes collection will not be spoiled by a visit to the mausoleum where it now lies in wake.

  18. […] man who helmed the Barnes Foundation as it was effectively destroyed and then re-born as a pricey tourist destination, was getting when he agreed to sit for an exit-interview with NYTer Randy Kennedy, especially when […]

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