The Barnes Foundation, one of the best art collections in the world, reopened in Philadelphia today. Dr. Alfred Barnes was a passionate collector of Impressionists such as Renoir, Modigliani, Soutine, and Picasso. His collection also including early American furniture and decorative art, ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman paintings, and African sculpture.
The eccentric Barnes bought a 12 acre arboretum in Merion, down the road from his estate Lauraston, to house the collection. Instead of grouping the paintings by artist or even time period as was the custom at the time, the iconoclast placed the 4323 items in the collection according to his own tastes. It was not surprising to tour his galleries and find a Renoir next to a piece of African sculpture. The juxtaposition was part of the appeal. As a kid, I remember thinking that I was helping a rebel get his revenge on Philadelphia society.
The collection was moved from Merion to Philadelphia, near the Philadelphia Art Museum, so that more people would be able to see it. The controversial move was chronicled in the wonderful documentary, “Art of the Steal”.
The new galleries faithfully replicate the way the pictures were originally hung by Barnes in Merion. My breath was literally taken away by the beauty of the paintings. I lost track of time wandering through the galleries, something I never do. All the paintings looked like they had been cleaned and restored but they hadn’t. The new lighting system made the paintings look fresh.
My main complaint was that the portrait of Dr. Barnes was not given a place of honour at the entrance of the building. I was somewhat disappointed that the architects were not faithful to Barnes vision. Barnes bought an arboretum to house the collection. Yet the outside of the building is dominated not by trees, but a reflecting pool. Ellsworth Kelly’s “Barnes Totem” seemed out of place in the home of the man that loved Renoirs.
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts told me that “he was blown away” when seeing the collection in the new building. The building, which cost $200 million dollars, is a wonderful example of a public-private partnership. Only 25% of the funds came from the government. $150 million was raised privately. It was wonderful to see the whole business community support the move to Philadelphia with their checkbooks.
Roberts’ wife, Aileen was the Barnes trustee that coordinated the construction of the building. She said,”Everyone, including the construction crew, had a sense that they were building something bigger than themselves.”
In the parlance of Wall Street, I recommend going long the Barnes. During a tour of the galleries, you will feel like you have flown on a magic carpet to Paris. The beauty of the art can’t help but transform you.
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