A gem of architecture incasing priceless works of art sits at the northwest corner of the increasingly impressive Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
History and who the hell was Albert C. Barnes?
The Barnes Foundation and the controversy surrounding it has been in the news for quite some time, and was even documented in the 2009 IFC film, The Art of the Steal. The Barnes Foundation was originally stationed in the town of Lower Merion, PA. Lower Merion is a prosperous residential community about a half hour from Philadelphia Proper. Albert C. Barnes, the eccentric art collector built and filled the mansion with the works of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist masters, jewelry and other cultural artifacts. The manse sat adjacent to an Arboretum, which was developed by Barnes’ wife, Laura Leggett.
Albert Coombs Barnes, born in 1872 to working class parents, was an American physician, chemist, businessman, writer, teacher, art collector and founder of the Barnes museum. Albert Barnes made a fortune with the development and promotion of an antiseptic drug called Argyrol, which was used to treat gonorrhea. In his 30s Barnes began studying and buying art. In 1922 he established the Barnes Foundation. He hung the paintings, jewelry and other artifacts to his own aesthetic specifications and without formal curatorial education. His mission at the Barnes was to educate the underprivileged on art. Admission was free but very limited and intended to attract students.
Barnes had a fantastic eye for art and during the Great Depression he was able to purchase pieces at bargain prices. Barnes collected works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Vincent Van Gough, Theodore Rousseau, and lowe. Barnes taste however was perhaps to avant-garde for his contemporaries. His collection was ridiculed by critics, which helped to nurture Barnes’ disdain for “the art establishment.” He considered himself an outsider. When his lawyer passed away Albert Barnes saw how the Philadelphia Museum of Art swallowed up his collection. Barnes went to great lengths to make sure the same would not happen to his. His will stated that his collection would never be bought or sold and that the works of art would stay in Lower Merion just were he meticulously placed them.
Though he was not the wealthiest man at his time, the collection is now estimated to be worth up to 30 billion dollars. But there was a problem. Limited accessibility and the remote location of the Barnes made it difficult to sustain financially. In addition many argued that the collection should be moved to the forefront of the city, where it would be more accessible and be a point of pride for Philadelphia.
You already know how the story ends. After much debate and litigation, Albert C. Barnes’ will was broken and the collection was moved to the parkway. In May 2012 the new Barnes Foundation opened. Though the minimal, modern exterior of the Barnes, with it’s boxy lines and black stone reflecting pool don’t look much like the original Barnes mansion, the interior certainly does. From the size and shape of the rooms, the mustard burlap wall finishing’s, the window placement and the placement of the art is an exact replica. The new museum is easier to get to, easier to book, more comfortable, and better lit. The once obscure and quirky institution is now poised to become the national treasure it deserves to be. One can only hope that Albert understands and is not turning over in his grave.
Address: 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19130
Phone Number (215) 278-7000
Hours: Monday 9:30am – 6pm, Tuesday closed, Wednesday 9:30am – 6pm, Thursday 9:30am – 6pm, Friday 9:30 am – 10pm, Saturday & Sunday 9:30am – 6pm.
Admission: The museum is free to all on Sundays. Members of the Barnes museum enjoy unlimited free admission and many other benefits, like discounted parking and expedited lines to exhibits. A non-student general membership starts around $90 but you can donate as much as you’d like. $25,000 gets you into the “Chairman’s Circle,” which affords you private dinner with the director and chairman of the museum, and additional VIP dinners with visiting artist, scholars and collectors. General Admission for and Adult non-member is $18.00 Visits must be booked in advance because space is limited.