The new campus of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia represents, simply put, a game changer for what a museum can be, the experience of art, and role architecture plays in both. It is also a game changer for Philadelphia, at a moment of splendid cultural renaissance.
When it opens to the public on Saturday, May 19th, visitors will find the celebrated collection displayed in a series of galleries that preserve the scale, proportion, and configuration of the original institution in Lower Merion (located in suburban Philadelphia), but now placed in a larger setting that invites contemplation and offers many pleasures.
Numbers may mean little but there is an astounding embarrassment of riches: 181 works by Renoir (the largest group of the artist’s paintings anywhere), 69 by Cézanne, 59 by Matisse, 46 by Picasso (including paintings, works on paper, and a tapestry), 7 by van Gogh; early twentieth-century American paintings (William Glackens and Maurice Prendergast); Old Masters, including El Greco, Paolo Veronese, Frans Hal; 125 African sculptures and masks, Native American ceramics, and more, a lot more—all amassed between 1912 and 1951 by Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a physician and chemist who made a fortune as co-inventor of Argyrol, a silver-based antiseptic.
Barnes possessed a brilliant, analytical mind that is reflected in the idiosyncratic assembly and display of the paintings in 24 galleries on two floors. Visitors encounter a lighting design—a wondrous mix of natural and artificial light—that provides a singular experience. Canvases obtain luminosity that seems to grow the more one looks at them. The colors in Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works veritably pulsate. There are no wall labels or wall texts (visitors can consult printed guides that identify the contents in each gallery and are stored discreetly in the backs of benches). In our information age, experiencing the art in this way, without distractions, is liberating and, at the once, refreshing and grown up. The set up encourages you to think about the paintings for yourself and, moreover, to consider matters of line, color, form, and composition in each painting and from canvas to canvas.
The firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects recreated the galleries, opening up the overall plan by inserting some study areas, and set the whole within a building that has a temporary exhibition gallery, an auditorium, a restaurant, and an expansive interior courtyard that extends to an outdoor terrace. It says something about the Barnes that the modestly-sized but handsome shop, is located on a lower level, where other amenities, include a coffee bar, an interior garden, and a gracious lounge where one can relax and take a break from the magnificence found in the galleries.
Now, visitors can appreciate a legendary collection, and because of the superb lighting, see the works of art as never before. What’s more, they can enjoy the experience fully, whether with a break for a meal or an espresso or by sitting amidst gardens in a landscape designed by the firm Olin.
The Barnes Foundation is located at 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, between 20th and 21st Streets. It is open Wednesday through Sunday (Fridays until 10 p.m.). Admission is by timed entry, book online at barnesfoundation.org or by calling 866/849-7056.
Ten days of free admission begin on May 19 and continue through May 28; including a Memorial Day festival weekend, extending from 10 a.m., May 26 through 6 p.m., May 28, with entertainment, special programs, and round-the-clock free admission; tickets are required and can be booked online.
Mario Mercado is the arts editor at Travel + Leisure