Philadelphia’s Hidden Art

You are running out of time to see the Barnes Foundation the way it was meant to be seen.  In a controversial move, the Foundation is moving its art collection from Mr. Barnes’ manor fifteen minutes from downtown Philadelphia to a new custom-built museum on Benjamin Franklin Parkway within Ryan Howard home run distance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Visiting the Barnes feels like a secret, which I guess it is.  You need to make an advance reservation, park somewhere down the street, for the street is too narrow, too tree-lined, and too exclusive for parking.  After walking up the hill to the guardhouse, they confirm your appointment (to keep away those renegade connoisseurs) before entering the museum.  There are no photographs permitted, even of the outside (seriously).  It feels like being invited to Mr. Boddy’s mansion in the movie Clue.

But fine art is already too snooty, too elitist, and making a reservation weeks in advance to walk through an art museum separates the works from those who would benefit most.  The average age of the visitors on the September Friday I toured could not have been under 60 (even after factoring in my thirty-something years), and judging by that, it is time to move the museum somewhere the average tourist (or Philadelphian, for that matter) may have a reasonable opportunity to actually see these works of art.  Local restrictions limit visitors to 1,200 per week, meaning that most of the visitors will be retirees, students, and those able to visit on weekdays.  Pardon me for hopping on my soapbox, but I am grateful that these works will be able to be appreciated by the masses.  The more I read arguments against the move, the more elitist they sound.  I begin to wonder how many of these critics have made the difficult trek to Merion, Pennsylvania to view the collection.

Frolicking Matisse style

The walls are intimidating, pictures hung in columns and rows, four high, six wide or more.  They are arranged thematically, by color or subject, the way Mr. Barnes wanted to show them.  It was not my favorite way to see the works, as the visitors are stacked on each others’ shoulders as much as the works are stacked upon each other.  But I respect Mr. Barnes’ unique vision.  The collection features over 50 works each by Renoir, Cezanne, and Matisse; a custom made Matisse mural; and, hanging above a stairwell landing, Matisse’s 1906 Le Bonheur de Vivre (the Joy of Life), which was, to me, the highlight of the collection, not just because of free spirits frolicking naked and playing flutes in a wild fauve park, but the unobtrusive way it was hung in the stairwell, as if it was a late purchase and there were already too many pictures in the parlor.

Barnes Foundation visitors tip: Skip the audio tour—a big disappointment.

Make your reservation now to see the Barnes collection, so you can say you saw it when. Then, after the shiny museum opens in downtown, you can go back to appreciate the collection, which is honestly difficult to do in the current cramped quarters.  Sure, it won’t be as intimate, but it will be much more accessible.  And, as our hyperconnected culture becomes more connected to our Blackberrys than to our art history, we cannot keep fine art tucked away in a reservations-only mansion in a leafy suburb and expect it to survive.

www.BarnesFoundation.org . $15. Reservations Required

Read more about the controversy surrounding the museum’s upcoming move in Jared Keller’s article “The Controversy Over Moving the World’s Best Art Collection You Haven’t Heard of” in Atlantic.

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