5 Things I Learned at the Barnes Foundation

Architectural eyebrows are out; outsourcing is in.

By Katherine Rochester
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted May. 23, 2012

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If these walls could talk: Room 6 of the new Barnes Foundation building on the Parkway.

Since Philly has been saturated with Barnes controversy media coverage and because the Barnes Foundation is primarily an educational institution, here are five things you may not know but that I learned at the museum’s grand opening last week:

1 Albert Coombs Barnes was a man of letters—the short, cheeky kind that you might scrawl as a practical joke or mail to an errant dignitary. Which is exactly what he did. The inaugural special exhibition, Ensemble: Albert C. Barnes and the Experiment in Education , displays an impressive selection of Barnes’ personal correspondence, written—with especial relish, it seems—to hoity toity types who presumed to set up viewing appointments to see the art at the Merion location. He roundly denied them (but welcomed blue-collar workers and the underprivileged). His excuses were impressively impertinent: In one letter, he regretfully declined an eager businessman because he was otherwise engaged in attempting to break the world record in goldfish eating. In another, he rebuffed a wealthy patron by claiming he was attending to the urgent matter of listening to the birds sing. Barnes regularly took on other personas in his letters, including various lowly secretaries of “Dr. C. Barnes,” and even the canine voice of Fidèle, his dog.

Lesson: Flipping some rich asshole the bird is best done by pretending to be a dog.

2 While the Barnes holds one of the premiere collections of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings in the world, you may start to see some contemporary art in the galleries as well. That’s because in order to have amassed 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses and 46 Picassos Barnes had to buy them young and he had to buy them fresh. “Barnes was committed to contemporary art and we plan to show it here,” vows Judith F. Dolkart, deputy director of Art and Archival Collections and chief curator of the Gund family. But new art won’t be joining the original masterpieces where they currently hang. In acquiescence to the Indenture of Trust, which stipulates that “all paintings shall remain in exactly the places they are at the time of the death of the Donor and his said wife,” the size and layout of the original galleries from Merion have been meticulously replicated and painstakingly reproduced to reflect the display at the time of Barnes’ death in 1951. However, with the addition of a 4,300-square-foot special exhibition space, Dolkart sees the opportunity to revive Barnes’ flair for the artistically outré: “In presenting contemporary art, we are honoring Barnes’ vision.”

Lesson: Don’t be a philistine. What might look like a travesty today may later end up in a $200 million shrine.

3 Like the taught arch of a perfectly plucked brow, moldings (that’s architect-speak for a decorative border at the top of a wall) are essential for making whatever lies beneath them pop. But they haven’t been in architectural vogue for quite some time. “We’re modernists and molding isn’t our language,” says Billie Tsien, principle architect at Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, the firm that designed the new Barnes building. So the architects were delighted to find out that when it came to distaste for molding, they were in good company. Matisse didn’t like the molding beneath his site-specific mural at the Barnes, either. So, in an act of charitable reparation, the architects were only too happy to update its design. “Learning molding was like learning Portuguese,” jokes Tsien, who ultimately created a design based on African textiles of the sort that Matisse had avidly collected. “These defining lines give the art ensembles their integrity and definition. Getting rid of the molding would have been like shaving off your eyebrows.”

Lesson: As in architecture, so in life: Don’t shave your eyebrows. But you probably already knew that.

4 Does pursuing a LEED platinum certification mean lots of locally sourced materials? Not quite. “I often get asked if the plants are local,” says Laurie Olin, Partner at OLIN and landscape architect of the new Barnes campus. “In fact, very few are.” Like the paintings on the walls and the plants in the original arboretum in Merion, architectural and landscape elements at the new Barnes campus were collected from around the world. Red Japanese maples line the main walkway, Orsini tile from Italy glints on the outdoor fireplace, Ipe teak from Brazil covers portions of the floor and stairways, and limestone quarried in the Negev dessert in Israel wraps the building in a rich, golden skin. So if they’ve so lavishly outsourced, where do they score those environmental brownie points? A lot of it has to do with water reuse. An infiltration basin beneath the parking lot allows storm water to seep back into the ground, a rain tank releases water into the city storm system at a slow rate, and a cistern collects water and pumps it back through an on-site irrigation system. The architects begged for a solar parking lot canopy to reduce irradiated heat from the black asphalt, but apparently, $150 million can only buy you so much: “We lost some battles,” says Olin, “but in the end, we won the war.”

Lesson: Local may be practical, but when it comes to LEED certification, the grass is always greener on the outsourced side.

5 A successful $200 million capital campaign, several denied motions to challenge the court’s holding and reopen litigation, a membership roster that has now swelled past 20,000, and a stunning 93,000-square-foot building later, and you’d assume that the battle to keep the Barnes in Merion was, well, lost. Tell that to the three protesters from Friends of the Barnes Foundation who rallied outside the press preview last week. “You can’t escape us!” they taunted me good-naturedly, forking over a packet of anti-Barnes in the Parkway literature. One sheet featured a cartoon of Barnes Foundation Executive Director and President Derek Gillman oinking like a pig on all fours while snuffling up city and corporate money from the “Barnes Trough.” Less tongue-in-cheek was a succinct list of the Friends’ grievances and a promise that “the work of the Friends to educate the public about the history of this institution and struggle over its fate will continue.” But if the paltry group of protesters outside the press preview was any indication, the fight will now continue more out of loyalty than urgency. Although the Barnes staff slyly ushered the press from New York through a back entrance in order to skirt the Friends, a few local reporters noticed the modest rally. “The protesters keep dwindling,” remarked a man from a suburban paper. “They should!” his colleague chimed in. It seemed to be the prevailing opinion, as those who couldn’t care less about local politics queued up for a champagne tasting.

Lesson: Do not go silently into that good night. And get a good political caricaturist.

Barnes Foundation Memorial Weekend Celebration on the Parkway, Sat., May 26-Mon., May 28. Various times. Free, but must reserve tickets in advance. 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. barnesfoundation.org

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1. Anonymous said... on May 30, 2012 at 09:27AM

“Great article, and I will be flipping several rich assholes the bird by never stepping inside this dumbed-down version of a formerly great foundation.”

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