The Barnes Collection of impressionist and post impressionist art opened in a new venue in Philadelphia this month after spending the last eight decades sequestered in Dr. Barnes residence/museum in suburban Philadelphia. After enough drama of mismanaged trusts, frivolous law suits, flashy documentaries and feisty neighbors the art collection of over 255 of the best Renoir, Cezanne and Matisse pieces valued at over $15 billion has a new home in center city. Born in an era of controversy, the opening of the gallery has been met with almost giddy praise in Philadelphia and beyond.
A Tripartite building with two solid stone clad wings, one housing replicas of the original the galleries, one holding the typical museum functions, the wings are linked by a common clerestory court. On the exterior, limestone panels are woven like an African tapestry on the façade of the building. Residential scaled divided light windows, colored in a burnt orange hue, hint at the residential scaled replicas of original galleries inside the inventively patterned façade. .
This is a quintessentially Philadelphia building, built on a tradition of craft and detail. It is an ideas based building one that requires serious study just as Barnes carefully composed galleries challenges students to consider the relationship between disparate pieces of art arranged in whimsical compositions. The architecture firm of Todd William’s and Billie Tsien have created an oasis of art and architecture in a landscaped setting subtly reminiscent of its suburban heritage.
Philadelphia didn’t need, nor would the city have approved of another starchitect tour deforce such as Rafael Vinoly’s Regional Performing Art’s Center on Board Street. What we have in this Parkway gem is a thoughtful building built on the traditions of other Philadelphia luminaries such as Frank Furness and Louis Kahn. It is a serious piece of architecture that melds the demands of a judicial decree, formal urban context and neo-classical neighbors into a piece of architecture that lets the art speak for itself, while being a well crafted background building. We need more well crafted buildings and fewer white elephants.
Bottom Line: This is the best new museum in Philadelphia since the Academy of Fine Art. It is a win / win for the city. It exposes more students to this wonderful impressionist collection – an important intent of Barne’s Trust. It’s a win for art lovers in that the temporary exhibit hall will allow a much larger part of the collection to be viewed by the public. It’s a win for Philadelphia in that it will generate more overnight stays and more tourism dollars for the city. And it solidifies the Parkway as an art and cultural and Mecca.