The Barnes Foundation: Two Buildings, One Mission

by David B. Brownlee
Skira/Rizzoli, 80 pp., $12.95
Michael Moran/OTTO
The Main Room of the new Barnes Foundation gallery in Philadelphia, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien to allow for the collection to be arranged exactly as it was in its original Lower Merion location. On the far wall, Seurat’s Poseuses hangs above Cézanne’s The Card Players; along the top of the wall at left is Matisse’s mural The Dance.


Nothing less than a latter-day miracle—a wholly unexpected and an unbelievably lucky one at that—has occurred in Philadelphia, where the most acrimonious and protracted power struggle in the recent history of art collecting has finally come to a glorious and uplifting conclusion. The opening this spring of the long-anticipated new gallery of the Barnes Foundation Collection, the finest concentration of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting in the Western Hemisphere, has been a triumph for all concerned. The combined talents of the New York–based husband-and-wife architectural team of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, their senior associate Philip Ryan, and the landscape architect Laurie Olin have resulted in a wholly sympathetic and virtually unimprovable setting for a superabundance of treasures by such modern masters as Cézanne, Van Gogh, Seurat, Matisse, and Picasso, miscellaneous Old Masters, and many unnamed African tribal artists.

How such a fortuitous outcome could have emerged from a tortuous tangle of circumstances unequaled in the annals of modern art is a question that will surely fascinate analysts of the museum industry for years to come. But there is no doubt about who the big winner is: the general public, which now can enjoy unprecedented access to a peerless cultural patrimony long fettered by restrictions imposed by the high-minded, visionary, yet maniacally controlling Albert Coombs Barnes (1872–1951).

Barnes’s fierce determination to manipulate his enviable legacy from beyond the grave nearly caused his beloved possessions to be sold off by his designated legatee, Lincoln University, a traditionally black college in southeastern Pennsylvania, to which he left stewardship of his foundation, many believed, as a rebuke to the Philadelphia elite that had long snubbed him. As one cultivated doyen of Philadelphia high society dryly remarked years later of this self-made pharmaceutical tycoon and perpetually embittered outsider, “Perhaps we ought to have invited Barnes to our parties.”

Thanks to a coalition of concerned institutions and individuals that banded together early in the new millennium—including the Pew Charitable Trust, the Annenberg and Lenfest foundations, along with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Getty, Luce, and Mellon foundations, among others, as well as numerous private benefactors—the impending dissolution of this stupendous hoard was staved off and a huge cultural calamity thereby averted. A malign and melodramatic documentary film opposed to the new Barnes, Don Argott’s The Art of the Steal (2009), attempted to portray the institution’s relocation to Philadelphia’s Museum Mile from its original home in the Main Line suburb of Lower Merion as an act of naked…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.