A vast private art collection amassed over decades in the US is now open to the public, writes David Whitley.
Four protesters are outside Philadelphia's new $150 million Barnes Foundation building. They have turned up for the enemy's victory parade. One hands out cartoons he believes to be cuttingly satirical; another pair stand in dignified silence, unfurling a banner that says: "So sorry, Dr Barnes."
The doctor in question is AlbertC.Barnes, a chemist who made his fortune after developing Argyrol, a drug used to treat the symptoms of gonorrhoea. Barnes was also a voracious art collector, often bulk-buying Cezannes, Renoirs, Picassos and Matisses. The collection, even at conservative estimates, is worth tens of billions of dollars. It was housed in Merion, a leafy suburb about eight kilometres from central Philadelphia, with limited public access, partly due to neighbours restricting opening hours and partly because the foundation is an educational institution. The idea being students could learn the principles of art surrounded by masterpieces; the public's need was a distant second.
Crucially, foundation documents had one key stipulation. The Indenture of Trust, drawn up in 1922, states: "All paintings shall remain in exactly the places they are at the time of death of donor and his said wife."
Albert Barnes died in 1959. His wife died in 1966. In 2002, the foundation trustees decided to move the collection to a purpose-built site on Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Housed there, it would complete a world-class cultural triptych along with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Museum.
The legal wrangling began almost instantly. Opponents, uniting under a "Friends of the Barnes" umbrella, saw it as a hijack by the same Philadelphia elite for which AlbertC.Barnes had made no secret of his contempt.
The case went to court after court, but the Friends of the Barnes lost. According to former Barnes student Sandra Bressler, more than the lawyers' fees was sacrificed. "Short-term gains have long-term consequences. We've lost something unique," she says as crowds pass her to enter the new Barnes building. "The whole site was perfection. What has been created is a copy — a reproduction, something artificial. Why would you give up something so precious? In Merion, you could sense the hand of Dr Barnes. You could sense the love. Here, it's just another museum."
Bressler believes refurbishing Merion to allow for better lighting and running shuttle buses from central Philadelphia could have worked, but no one put the money forward for those ideas. Instead, donors queued to build the new facility.
The foundation's president and executive director, Derek Gillman, says the collection could not have continued in Merion. "It was a case of when, not if," says Gillman, formerly the deputy director of the National Gallery of Victoria. "It was like watching a plane come down; it would have been the largest bankruptcy in American charitable history."
How does moving the collection comply with Barnes's Indenture of Trust? The party line among the trustees is that "exactly the same places" refers to the arrangement of the works, not location. In order to stay true to this interpretation, curators and architects have gone to extraordinary lengths. Each room in the new gallery has the same dimensions of that at Merion and artworks are in the same "spots" . It makes for an arrestingly unconventional viewing experience. Barnes didn't put works in a line surrounded by white space, he arranged them with an obsessive-compulsive eye for symmetry and complementary colour, using furniture and decorative wrought iron as part of the ensemble. At points it looks more old lady's cluttered house than world-class art museum; the meal seems far more important than the individual ingredients.
The arrangement is not by artist, theme or era - it's all about balance or demonstrating a certain artistic principle. A majestic Goya, for example, is surrounded by impressionist works - Barnes wanted students to realise the similarities between old master and new guard.
At times, Barnes's approach seems wasteful. Van Gogh's The Postman is buried in a corner, seemingly because it was the right size to balance a pyramid-shaped display across the wall. Cezanne's The Card Players - a larger version than the one that broke the world record when it sold for a reported $250 million last year - is squashed under Georges Seurat's Models.
But more often than not, it really works. The room with Gauguin's Haere Pape, a Tahitian beach scene, bookended by two Renoir nudes sets the eye flitting across to appreciate the consistencies of light and colour.
Sensors and UV-filtering glass ensure the galleries have optimum levels of natural and artificial light. Detail that was dulled and suffocated by the drawn blinds at Merion is allowed to sing as the artist intended.
Despite that improvement, one of the Merion site issues is apparent at the new site: rooms crammed with artistic treasures are surprisingly small. Catering for more than 1000 visitors a day, even with timed tickets, may not be desirable.
Qantas has a fare to Philadelphia from Sydney for about $2498 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dallas (15hr), then to Philadelphia (3hr 10min). See qantas.com. Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
The Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, is open daily except Tuesday. Tickets are $US18 ($18.26). See barnesfoundation.org.
Hotel Palomar Philadelphia is within walking distance of The Barnes Foundation. Rooms from $US269 a night; see hotelpalomar-philadelphia.com.