I saw this headline today and immediately felt like going to bed: “Controversial Barnes Foundation Passes Included in Philly’s New Hotel Promo.” It’s from a post on HotelChatter.com that describes an utterly non-controversial tourist package of hotel accommodations and museum passes. It’s perfect for art lovers who want to come for a couple nights, hit the Rodin, PMA and PAFA, and then go home. Oh, and the Barnes:
Are you familiar with the Barnes Foundation? If not, that in itself is a good excuse to cruise into town for an overnight from New York or Baltimore as the Barnes is, in addition to being an incredible display of art, drenched in controversy.
I’d like to call a moratorium on all mentions of Barnes controversy, and I enjoin my fellow Philadelphians to do the same. Whether you were in favor of the move from Merion or against it, it’s time to admit: The Barnes on the Parkway has won the day. Reviewing the museum for New York magazine last year, Jerry Saltz wrote: “Although the motives behind the move may have been all too human and therefore tragic, and those involved may look back in anger, the effect is epic.”
In other words, the past is past. Now let’s look at the art.
And what art! Saltz was a big fan of the original Barnes, but he was staggered by the new location:
Rooms that are no bigger seem bigger; time slows as gaggles of works unfurl into constellations of changing configurations and overlapping meanings. Color bursts forth. The blues of Cézanne, once indistinguishable from the greens, come crashing back. Schisms and rifts between things reappear. The lush brushwork of Soutine, Manet, Degas, and Courbet glows red-hot. The close-toned, backlit majesties of Rousseau rise and loom as never before. Matisse’s paintings return to being fiery impassioned tapestries.
Saltz was even moved enough to suggest Picasso’s Ascetic “may change the molecular structure of Philadelphia (I imagine the Phillies gathering in front of it, drawing mystic energies).” Keep imagining, Jerry.
New Yorker/Vanity Fair architecture critic Paul Goldberger also marveled at the way the paintings look in the new building compared to the old:
Suddenly now, the paintings, in all of their magnificent color, are visible in a whole new way. I would not be at all surprised if some people accused the Barnes curators of having cleaned the canvases as they brought them from Merion to Philadelphia. They look that different. …There is no question that the paintings are more visible in their new home; they look better in every way.”
What real art lover—Albert Barnes included—could say this change, which has brought so much revelation to the artwork, was for the worse?
Even the staunchest opponents of the move conceded they were wrong—chief among them, the late doyenne of architecture criticism Ada Louise Huxtable, who wrote, “How does it feel to have one’s core beliefs turned upside down? The ‘new’ Barnes that contains the ‘old’ Barnes shouldn’t work, but it does.”
Since the Barnes touched down on the Parkway, it has attracted nothing but good for the city. Philly popped up on a number of 2012 best-of and must-visit lists—always with a mention of the Barnes. Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects have been festooned with honors. The museum and foundation are central to successful new tourism initiatives. Environmentalists, too, can be proud: Under the guidance of landscape architecture firm OLIN, the building received Platinum LEED certification—a national first among major art institutions.
In the last year, I saw more mentions of Philadelphia in national and international press—on TV news, on the radio, online—than I ever have before. The architects were able to preserve the integrity of Barnes’ vision while expanding the notion of what can be done in the city. I can’t imagine how it would be better to have the desolate Youth Study Center there and the newly illuminated paintings back in their claustrophobic suburban home. So let’s be inspired by the words of Paul Goldberger: “Whatever you thought of the battle that divided Philadelphia, it’s water under the bridge. It’s over.”
Don’t worry, though. We’ll find another one.