The Six Mile Move: The Barnes Foundation Relocation
Every day, museums, galleries, and private institutions pack and ship paintings across state and national borders without inciting public outcry. In May, however, a proposal to transport over 4,323 paintings a mere six miles was a notion met vehemently with protests from Philadelphia locals and art aficionados. After years of messy litigation, the verdict to move the Barnes Foundation collection from Marien to a new facility in Philadelphia was reached; however, it is still debated if the new location is up to snuff with the standards of the original owner.
The Barnes Foundation saga began just after the turn of the century with Albert C. Barnes: a physician and self-made millionaire with a penchant for collecting art. Showing a preference for big-name artists, Barnes quickly amassed a fantastic collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modernist paintings. In 1922, a mansion was commissioned to house his collection, where the works would be hung in accordance with Barnes’s instructions.
Barnes was an avid proponent of art’s educational value, but his eccentric tendencies emerged through the exhibition style of his collection. Rather than arranging the works in chronological order or grouping them by style, Barnes was constantly clustering and re-hanging different works in a cohesive display of line, color, and form. While the walls were decorated with works of Cézanne, Modigliani and Picasso, it was clear that some of the appeal of the original Barnes Foundation was the experience of viewing these masterpieces in such an unconventional space.
When Barnes passed away in 1951, it was no surprise that his will outlined a few less than ordinary stipulations pertaining to his art collection. The most constraining clause mandated that after Barnes’ death, the entire collection was to remain as-is, not to be moved or touched. As the years passed, it became apparent that while priceless works of Charles Demuth, Henri Matisse, and Claude Monet were nestled away in Marien, the institution was running precariously low on funds due to low attendance. Consequently, in 2002, the foundation’s board announced plans to build a new facility in Philadelphia’s that would be more accessible to the public.
Recently the relocation has been a hotly debated topic, but it seems clear that both sides wanted to retain the original feel of the Barnes. The architects of the Philadelphia location were careful in their attempts to retain the quirkiness found in Marien, down to the same mustard-colored burlap walls. Even so, the implemented design improvements and technological upgrades seemed to have been made with Albert C. Barnes in mind, and overall seem to improve the visitor’s experience.
Despite the controversial nature of the relocation, the Barnes Foundation is now located at a prime location in Philadelphia’s museum district. Aside from a heavy concentration of notable European artists, there is a significant American presence, with works by Arthur Bowen Davies, Mary Cassatt, William Glackens, Maurice Prendergast, and Charles Prendergast.
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