Contested Barnes Foundation artworks open in new Philly location

After years of bitter court fights, The Barnes Foundation opened its doors Wednesday for a sneak peek at its new location on the museum-studded Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Visitors take in the main gallery at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia on Wednesday. After years of bitter court fights, a new venue hosting the acclaimed art collection will open to the public on Saturday. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

After years of bitter court fights, The Barnes Foundation opened its doors Wednesday for a sneak peek at its new location on the museum-studded Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The $150 million US modernist art palace, now home to the multibillion-dollar art collection of the late pharmaceutical magnate Dr. Albert Barnes, opens Saturday. Admission is free for the first 10 days, though all tickets are sold out. The $18 admission fee US ($15 for seniors, $10 for students and children) kicks in starting May 26.

Stephen Harmelin, a Barnes trustee and its treasurer, described efforts that began a decade earlier to secure what was "an embattled institution."

"There were financial challenges to be faced ... questions about how the foundation as it existed could go on with its mission, worries about the safety and integrity of the collection in the long run," he said.

"We were convinced that the only change that could save the Barnes was to redouble our commitment to its mission, to reach out more widely than ever before, to build, to expand and to move the collection to a more accessible location."

It was a difficult decision "but it brought us to where we are today," Hamelin told several hundred media and donors attending the reception.

Donor's wishes

Barnes, a pharmaceutical magnate who died in 1951, stipulated in a trust that his legendary trove of 800 impressionist and post-impressionist paintings forever "remain in exactly the places they are."

Foundation officials asked a judge's permission in 2002 to break Barnes' trust, allowing the collection to relocate near Philadelphia's museums and cultural attractions. The foundation said its endowment was exhausted and it would go bankrupt if required to keep the 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos and thousands of other objects in their suburban Merion home, which was subject to township zoning regulations restricting the number of visitors.

Three charitable organizations promised to help the Barnes raise $150 million for a new gallery and an endowment when the relocation was approved in 2004. Opponents called the move a power play by Philadelphia's elites to bring the renowned collection to the city against its late owner's wishes.

Protestors picket outside the new home of the Barnes Foundation art collection on Philadelphia's museum mile on Wednesday. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

The Barnes is officially not a museum but an educational institution keeping with its mission when Albert Barnes established it in 1922 to teach populist methods of appreciating and evaluating art. Its new home does have museum-like amenities like a cafeteria and gift shop, however, as well as discreet classroom and lecture space.

The art galleries replicate Barnes' own eccentric arrangement in Merion, with paintings grouped closely together and accompanied by furniture and ironwork, but hidden state-of-the-art lighting reveals "the true colors and vibrancy" of many paintings for the first time, Barnes president and executive director Derek Gillman said.

Ellsworth Kelly, who created a sculpture for the Barnes grounds, mistakenly thought one painting had been cleaned because it looked remarkably more vivid, Gillman said.

A handful of members from Friends of the Barnes Foundation, a citizens organization that unsuccessfully waged a legal fight for years to halt the move, protested near the entrance as visitors made their way inside.

"We had the real thing — it was successful, it was financially sustainable," said Evelyn Yaari, a group member who lives near the Barnes building in Merion. "This is a fake. The public is not getting the real thing."