Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Barnes Comes to Philadelphia - And City Hall

The Art Gallery at City Hall recently opened our newest exhibition, in partnership with Fresh Artists - "Mini-Masterpieces from the Barnes Foundation" - and it is a stunner. The show features an array of pictures created by Philadelphia School District children (from Hancock and Henry elementary schools) that are inspired by the iconic paintings of the Barnes Foundation collection. Originally developed to be reproduced and installed on panels affixed to the construction fencing that surrounded the site while the Barnes on the Parkway was being built, this installation now brings the work of these talented young people into City Hall, installed and hung in "Barnesian ensembles" that include student-made replicas of the metal hinges and objects that Barnes famously included in his ensembles. We have even painted the walls of our gallery beige to replicate the color of the wall covering in the Barnes galleries.

Fresh Artists is a unique non-profit social business that helps young artists use their art to be arts philanthropists. The students donate the digital reproduction of their art, thereby becoming partners in a philanthropic effort. Businesses that support Fresh Artists receive a "thank you" gift of the opportunity to exhibit the work in their workplaces. The funds generated are directly infused back into public school art programs to purchase art supplies and support innovative art programs. Everybody wins and it is a true virtuous circle. So please try and make it to the Art Gallery at City Hall where the exhibition runs through September 21. More info on Fresh Artists at

New Barnes building at night
And speaking of the Barnes, which I covered some time ago in my blog when the design was working its way through the approval process, here, here and here, I feel the time has come to weigh in on my thoughts about the new building. The first two posts from 2009 feature videos of architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien talking about their design. The third post, from mid-2010, is my analysis of the controversy surrounding the move of the collection from Merion.

Having now spent MANY hours in and around the new building, experiencing the extraordinary art in its new home, and experiencing the building itself, as well as the grounds and its setting, I have to say I think this facility is a stunning achievement, attained against perhaps greater odds than any other building I can imagine.

New "old" gallery - bathed in light
As has been much written about by now, the brilliant use of light in the new building allows the work to "pop" and sparkle in a way that is quite startling to those that spent a lot of time in the Merion building (as I also did). Colors are brighter, and works stand out much more than they ever did before. Yet the rooms are still exactly the same dimensions and in essentially the same configurations as in Merion. The ensembles remain meticulously reproduced - unchanged to the millimeter - with decorative implements, furniture and other objects still in exactly the same relationship to the Cezannes, Renoirs and Soutines. The two modest changes are the "insertions of two spaces into the galleries, one on each side, as if the ends of the galleries were sliced and pulled apart a bit. This is intended by the architects to both add a little "breathing space" to make the transition from small gallery room to small gallery room a bit less cramped, and to add some practical classroom space. On one side a large glassed-in garden rises through the building, open to the sky, that creates a place to pause surrounded by light and green. On the other side, each floor gets a classroom space, directly with the galleries. I must add that in keeping with the attention to detail in the building even the tables and chairs in the classrooms are gorgeous works of artisanal furniture.

The central court - Merion galleries through gates on the right.
Other examples of the remarkable attention to detail throughout include the carefully carved and textured Jerusalem stone that covers the exterior and a good part of the interior, the sound absorbing tapestry murals in the central court, the recycled Coney Island boardwalk wood in the flooring, and the shallow reflecting pool outside filled with polished black stones. Also of note is the new temporary exhibition area that is now devoted to a show on Dr. Barnes himself. Even though going through the entire Barnes collection itself can be a exhausting experience, when you visit do NOT miss the exhibit on Barnes, in the gallery to the left as you enter the central court. It fills a critical gap that was missing in the old site - context. It really helps you understand the man, his passions, his eccentricities, his sly sense of humor, his unerring eye for talent. I especially encourage you to read the witty rejection letters he sent to prospective visitors, usually in the guise of his dog, or a fictional assistant. My one quibble with the building would be that this gallery space is so discrete that I think many visitors inadvertently miss it.

Here are some links to the local and national coverage of the Barnes to date, not mostly  (but not all) positive, including many raves:

Barbara Smith, New York Times "A museum, reborn, remains true to its old self, only better."
Paul Goldberger, Vanity Fair "Soulful, self-assured, and filled with light."
Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker "Spectacular contemporary architecture...cradles the modest graces of the Merion structure with an air of religious veneration."
Ada Louise Huxtable, Wall Street Journal "The new Barnes shouldn't work...but does."
Christopher Hawthorne, Architectural Record and LA Times "Sober, handsome and exquisitely detailed...suffers from a distinct lack of soul..."
Karrie Jacobs, Metropolis "..a supremely confident, modern building..."
Linda Yablonsky, Artnet "Fabulosity in a box."
Inga Saffron, Philadelphia Inquirer "A ravishing building, cut off from the city..."
Ed Sozanski, Philadelphia Inquirer "Galleries shine at the new Barnes..."
Diana Lind, Architectural Record "...promises to further Philadelphia's identity as an artistic magnet."

And here is a link to information on WHYY's new documentary, The Barnes Collection that provides an alternative/complementary view to that provided by Art of the Steal. I also encourage those interested to explore the With Art website - a campaign to help visitors put the Barnes in the context of Philadelphia's other related rich cultural assets: visual arts, art education, horticulture, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and the diversity of the City and its neighborhoods, shopping and food.

Now to respond directly to some of the criticism of the building:

"As long as they were moving the collection they should have done away entirely with Barnes's ensembles and exhibited the art in a fresh new way" - This was simply not possible, even if anybody had wanted to do so. The building and exhibition program was constrained by the legal (and ethical) need to make good on the promise to move the collection while being true to Barnes's vision and intent.

"The building is cold and austere" - Of course this is a matter of taste, but I find the building to have a Zen-like simplicity that is restful and perfectly attuned to the focus needed to experience the art, from the landscape outside to the materials and workmanship reflected in every nook and cranny of the building.

"The building turns its back on the Parkway" - I totally get the intent of Williams and Tsien (and Olin) and think it works: to create a bucolic setting for the building that sets it back from the Parkway in a garden. The pedestrian route to the entrance on Pennsylvania Avenue takes you through the landscaping around the building and across the reflecting pool. In that passageway you make a mental shift. You enter the building having metaphorically and literally left the cares of the urban setting behind you. I don't think the Parkway needs another grand Free Library or Franklin Institute-like colonnaded entrance. I think the building still makes a dramatic statement on the Parkway without having it's entrance on the Parkway.

"It is ugly to have the concrete wall of the parking lot visible from the entrance site." I think the poured concrete wall that masks the small parking lot from the building is actually a beautiful texture that marries well with other materials, and the wall is also covered with trellises and climbing plants that over time will soften the surface with green.

Finally, the building has wonderful ancillary spaces - meeting rooms, classrooms, library, auditorium, gift shop, cafe - that enhance the visitor experience, enhance learning, and allow the building to also serve as an important community resource. (I recently wrote about museum gift shops - including the Barnes, which had yet to open - here.)

Beyond kudos to the architects Williams and Tsien, we must also acknowledge landscape architects Olin: with their work on the Barnes now joining their work on the Rodin Museum site (which also just recently re-opened), the Art Museum sculpture garden and LeWitt garden installation, they have made an indelible, transformational imprint on the Parkway. Because light is so much a part of the success of the galleries at the Barnes, I must also congratulate lighting designers Fisher Marantz Stone. And you have to give credit to board and staff too - there are so many ways this project could have failed, and it took great dedication by board and staff to bring this to successful completion. Finally, I want to also give a nod to Pentagram design, for crafting the new look for the Museum - signage, logo, print materials, web site. I think it strikes the perfect balance between classic/classy and sleek/modern

If you have not yet been to the new building, I highly recommend you pay a visit. (More info on reserving tickets here.) If you opposed the move, I respect your position, but urge you to still go, and try to keep an open mind. The art is all still there, Barnes's aura still hangs over the place, the art and his views on art are now being experienced by so many more people. While we will never know, I, for one, like to think that Dr. Barnes is dancing with delight in his grave rather than turning over in disgust.

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