I started going to the Barnes in the late 70’s and visited it at least 15 times in the following years but had yet to visit the new location. A certain amount of dread accompanied me as I recently took a group of students to the Barnes, now in downtown Philly. I had always looked forward to seeing this collection. In rooms almost empty and with all the time needed to linger and circle through the collection, seeking out old favorites and spending time with lesser-known works. It was never a problem booking times and the fact that one could be virtually alone within this great and eccentric array was in strong contrast to the evermore-crowded museum scene.
Before I went this year a friend mentioned a large Ellsworth Kelly painting he had seen inside the Barnes. I thought he must have been having a senior moment for I well knew that no such artwork was in the collection. However as we approached the new building there stood a two story high metal sculpture by Kelly near the entrance, heralding the changes to come! We then entered a fairly modest reception area that in turn leads to a gigantic lobby. The size of the lobby, or what they refer to as the central court, was all out of proportion to the modest size of the Barnes; it seemed bigger than the actual Barnes. Was this a space to hold parties, election celebrations … what?
Off this space was the Kelly exhibit, in a large white room that had the piece my friend described, as well as several other works. It was a great show, but why was this exhibit here and where was the Barnes? It felt like we were in an outpost of the Philly Museum. It was a while before we entered the actual Barnes Collection as my students and I were puzzled, disoriented actually, by the lobby and sat there for some time pondering the need for this vast space.
The original Barnes was a Beaux-Arts design by Paul Philippe Cret, who also worked on the Rodin Museum that the new Barnes now sits next to on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The exhibition rooms of the old Barnes were replicated and fitted inside a boxy building designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects. This “relocation” makes those spaces feel like the period rooms at the Met, as if the rooms are now on view as well. Of course the collection is laid out in all its eccentric glory, much the same, as before. Soutine, Renoir, van Gogh, Seurat, Picasso, door hinges? It is what it always was, a great collection presented in an unusual and unconventional manner that encourages looking. It makes you pause; it’s a slow read. But now the rooms are crowded. I don’t recall ever being told to step back from a work during previous visits. This time it happened four times in the span of an hour as I simply tried to maneuver around people.
The popularity of the new location is a problem. It dampens the unique qualities and experiences of the original Barnes. There is great art to be seen, for sure, but now it’s set in a more accessible location replete with the typical shortcomings of the current museum scene. Tourism, crowds, starchitecture and with the emphasis on including contemporary art the trappings of the art market loom, not far behind.
The Barnes is required viewing. It’s still a destination. But this destination has changed, forever.
Coming soon: the entire town of Marfa is moved to a mall in New Jersey!