With work, life, errands, household routines and so on, it’s not often that we make time to visit the local area outside of predetermined, pre-scheduled vacations. So it was a lovely little break on Saturday when we journeyed into Philadelphia, despite some cold and wet weather, to visit the Barnes Foundation and then enjoyed a late lunch/early dinner at the Stephen Starr German biergarten-themed restaurant Frankford Hall (more on that in another post). Unfortunately, I think this is when I’m going to start sounding like some half-baked conspiracy theorist. Let me assure you that I am not. But, then again, isn’t that what you’d expect a half-baked conspiracy theorist to say?
For those not familiar, the Barnes Foundation is the collection of artwork, chiefly impressionist, of Albert C. Barnes. Renoir, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso: the collection has all the big names you’d expect plus many, many others. The list simply goes on and on and on. Barnes acquired the works of art at a time when they weren’t in vogue and US art critics and elite sneered at them and him. In the meantime, Barnes, irritated by the rejection, allowed his collection to be used strictly for educational purposes. He was a man ahead of his time. He curated the art in his home in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb. He mixed works of art in an unconventional way — Japanese, Chinese and French art would hang on the same wall surrounded by metal hinges and beautiful wooden furniture.
Eventually, when Barnes died in 1951, he left the collection strictly for educational purposes, stating that the works shouldn’t be moved or split up. That’s when the conspiracy starts to creep in. The City of Philadelphia and the local art community got involved. A long legal battle ensued, which is documented in the must-see documentary The Art of the Steal, that ended with the art doing a world tour and then being relocated, in 2012, into a specially built museum in Philadelphia’s museum district. For all those reasons, I’ve always been hesitant and reluctant to visit the Barnes. I didn’t approve of what was done. But one visit wouldn’t hurt anything, right? That way I could make an informed decision.
The Barnes Foundation is remarkable. The collection is absolutely astounding. As you tour the museum, you’re led from one room to another simply full of priceless works of art. The work is assembled identically to how it was at Barnes’ home. What this means is relatively small rooms full of art that are without any labeling aside from the artist’s name on the frame. The museum does offer booklets in each room with further information (the artist, the title, the year, medium, etc.) but visitors seem to monopolize on them, walking around the whole room using them as a reference when they’re intended to be shared. The rooms are also small. You will walk in to someone and be walked into.
Just as astounding as the Barnes collection of art is the building housing it. The architecture is simply beautiful. There’s no doubt about it, the museum was done and done well.
But it’s not inviting. The tickets are timed and sell out if you don’t buy in advance. There’s also no photography (a rule that seems to be little known or blatantly ignored if you do a search on Instagram) as well as no sketching in the galleries. An art museum that doesn’t allow sketching but was intended for educational purposes is mind boggling.
In many ways, the Barnes Foundation is a must see. The art is incomparable to anything else out there. But, do you really want to support the foundation? That’s the question you have to decide.
2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Philadelphia, PA 19130