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The “New” Barnes Foundation Museum – Philadelphia Beyond the Liberty Bell

by Suzanne Fluhr on May 14, 2018 · 10 comments

The new Barnes Foundation museum housing the Barnes collection in Philadelphia

When you live somewhere, sometimes it takes awhile for you to visit a local landmark. I wonder how many Philadelphians have never visited the Liberty Bell. It took me 4 years to get to the “new’ Barnes Foundation Museum in Center City Philadelphia, within walking distance of our Rittenhouse Square apartment.

In 2010, we moved our empty nest from a Philadelphia suburb in Lower Merion Township to Rittenhouse Square in Center City Philadelphia. Before we left, our neighborhood sprouted lawn signs reading, “The Barnes Belongs in Merion”.

The History of the “New” Barnes Foundation Museum

Those lawn signs referred to the eclectic art collection of Philadelphia area native, Alfred C. Barnes (1872-1951). In the days before antibiotics, Barnes was a physician/chemist who earned a fortune by developing and marketing an antiseptic silver nitrate solution he called Argyrol.

In 1912, Dr. Barnes used some of his earnings to buy his first Impressionist and Modernist art in Paris at the urging of a Central High School classmate, artist William Glackens. He formed the Barnes Foundation in 1922 to support his burgeoning art collection, an art history school and an arboretum in the town of Merion, a tony “Main Line” suburb immediately to the west of Philadelphia.

The Barnes Foundation Building in Merion, Pennsylvania outside Philadelphia

This is the building Dr. Barnes constructed in Merion, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb, to house his art collection and school. (Photo credit: Dmadeo,  Creative Commons Lic. 3.0)

The Barnes Foundation had a strict trust with very specific rules about the art collection, including limited visiting hours and an instruction that after Barnes’ death, the collection was to remain in the Merion building arranged exactly as Dr. Barnes left it.

I first visited the original Barnes Foundation Museum art collection in Merion when we moved to an adjacent suburb within walking distance. My father, an artist, was thrilled to visit with me. He had attended Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in the 1940’s. My father explained that when he was a Tyler student, his Dean was feuding with Dr. Barnes and no one associated with Tyler was permitted to visit the Barnes collection.

Apparently, feelings were still a little raw. My father mumbled something about the Barnes’ collection having more Renoirs than Renoir painted. Timed tickets had to be ordered by telephone well in advance. To my untrained eye, there were poorly lit rooms with jumbled paintings often mounted above each other. Those on top, way up on the wall, were very difficult to see at all.

The Barnes Foundation Museum often had an uneasy relationship with its well heeled Merion neighbors who complained about tour buses spewing noxious exhaust and the people traipsing through their neighborhood, drawn by the Barnes Foundation collection.

Nevertheless, when the Barnes Foundation trust announced that financial issues were forcing it to move the museum to Center City Philadelphia, the neighbors were willing to litigate to try to keep it in Merion. The neighbors lost. Consequently, since 2012, in order to see the Barnes’ Foundation Museum art collection, you do so at 20th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Center City Philadelphia, close to Philadelphia’s other major art museums.

The new Barnes Foundation museum housing the Barnes collection in Philadelphia

The “new” Center City Philadelphia Barnes Foundation building houses the art collection moved from its original home in Merion in 2012. (Photo credit: Smallbones-Public domain)

Visiting the “new” Barnes Foundation Museum

It took a visit from a Midwestern niece to finally get me to the “new” Barnes Foundation Museum. She purchased timed tickets for us online. On a rainy Friday morning, the museum did not feel crowded.

The new Barnes Foundation Museum open space

This is the cavernous space visitors walk through to get to the art collection.

Visitors go downstairs after entering the museum building. Dr. Barnes must be spinning in his grave. The museum space feels cavernous, a stark departure from the cramped feel of the building that housed the Barnes Foundation Museum in Merion. This is a nod to financial viability as the space is rented out for all manner of events, from weddings to banquets. It can accommodate 800 guests for a standing reception, and 350-400 for a seated banquet.

However, Dr. Barnes’ might slow his grave spinning after entering the space reserved for his collection. There, the artworks in his collection are exhibited in rooms where they are exhibited arranged exactly as they were in the original museum. However, in my opinion, the lighting is considerably better, so the viewing experience is much enhanced.

The arrangements seem random. However, Dr. Barnes’ vision is exemplified by the displays of impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern paintings; objects such as African masks and sculpture; metalwork, such as old keys and hinges; and furniture.  Dr. Barnes grouped the works of art with attention to the aesthetics of color, line, light and space rather than by chronology or artist. As the museum website explains,

Albert Barnes taught people to look at works of art primarily in terms of their visual relationships.

After we had visited several rooms, we came upon a conference room where a video was playing. The video explained how and why Dr. Barnes acquired various parts of his collection. It also provided guidance as to Dr. Barnes’ philosophy of “visual relationships”. I think it would have been preferable to have the video available for viewing before entering the collection.

The “new” Barnes’ Foundation Museum has an excellent website, setting forth its changing schedule of special exhibitions; courses; special lectures and tours; and, musical and other performances. The Museum is also endeavoring to be part of the Parkway arts community by hosting a schedule of neighborhood events. Admission to special exhibitions is included in the price of general admission.

The Barnes Foundation Museum building also houses the Honickman Art Library, containing over 9,000 items. There is an online catalogue of the library’s contents. Admission to the library is by appointment only.

At present, the “new” Barnes Foundation Museum is closed on Tuesdays, and is open on other days from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The  regular adult admission fee is a hefty $30.00, but there is a significant reduction to $5.00 for those ages 13 through 18 or who have a valid college I.D. Children under age 12 are free. Philadelphia teachers have free admission on Sundays. There is a membership program that includes free admission.

Located at 20th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Center City Philadelphia, the “new” Barnes Foundation Museum is within walking distance of the Rodin Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (of Rocky steps fame). You can conveniently schedule a Philadelphia art day with multiple museum stops. Both the “new” Barnes Foundation Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art have very good on site options for lunch.

After spending a day visiting the art museums on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, I think you’ll agree that Philly is so much more than just the Liberty Bell, cheesesteaks and oddly behaved sports fans.

Is there a tourist attraction in or near your home town that you have not yet gotten around to visiting?

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Robin May 14, 2018 at 9:36 pm

So well written. The comparison between buildings and the history really give the reader a sequence of what to expect. A family friend was involved in the legal process that lasted quite a while and was heartbroken when the suit was lost. I took a friend who is taking art classes to The Barnes. She wanted to get ideas about how to proceed with her work. I thought the displays were well lit. I don’t recall being told about the video, however, which would have been a good introduction to our tour. There was an event scheduled at the end of the day. I found parking to be difficult, though an attendant allowed me to park in the employee lot. A visit is well worth the time.

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr May 14, 2018 at 10:27 pm

Thanks for sharing your experience during your visit to the Barnes.

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Carole Terwilliger Meyers May 15, 2018 at 8:40 pm

It’s been quite a while since I’ve been to Philly. I’ll definitely add the new Barnes Foundation Museum to my to-do list for next time. Good for you that you finally got there yourself!

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Anita Breland May 16, 2018 at 8:59 am

I long wanted to visit the eccentric ‘old’ Barnes Museum and was dismayed when it was decided to shift the collection to new quarters before I managed to get to Merion. However, the ‘new’ Barnes sounds pretty fine, esp combined with Philly’s other artsy attractions!

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Karen Warren May 18, 2018 at 8:45 am

I always think that museums are much more than just the individual paintings or other exhibits. Your story of the Barnes Museum is a great example of how a museum’s history, building and the presentation of artworks are all part of the experience.

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Kristin Henning May 18, 2018 at 10:18 am

Hey, this is a fun read. Very interesting to hear the history of the museum, and the old grumbling about it. It seems they’ve come upon a decent solution, exhibiting the art with Barnes’ curatorial sensibility.

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Marilyn Jones May 19, 2018 at 8:47 pm

You are so right; so many people don’t see what’s in their own “backyard.” Good for you to keep making discoveries in Philadelphia. It sure sounds like the Barnes Foundation Museum is a treasure!

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Doreen Pendgracs May 20, 2018 at 12:31 pm

Thx so much for this post about the Barnes Foundation Museum in Center City Philadelphia, Suzanne. I’ve not yet been to Philadelphia, but it definitely looks like this museum is worth a visit.

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Sue Reddel May 20, 2018 at 8:07 pm

There are so many things I’ve yet to see in Chicago. Better get going. Your post makes me want to visit Philly and check out all these museums. Didn’t know it was such an artful town.

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Irene S Levine June 1, 2018 at 9:42 am

I’ve always wanted to visit the Barnes. Neat that I waited for its new building!
Yes, sometimes, we forget to visit the places that are just next door, even when they are world-class institutions.

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